Before Bob departed for a three-week service program teaching English to Chinese students in Xi’an, he did a self-check. He wasn’t a teacher, didn’t speak Chinese, but he had coached individuals and small groups on using English as a second language. Global Volunteers staff assured him he was positioned to make a difference. With only a little bit of trepidation, he embarked on his adventure in service.
“Wah du ming tsu shir Bob. My name is Bob.”
“This was the outer limit of my capacity to learn Chinese,” Bob chuckled. He knew the larger burden of communication in his classroom would be on the students. He was assigned to serve in middle schools, high schools, and universities, and although he was in Xi’an to teach, he knew it would be a significant learning experience for him as well.
“So, as I entered English language classrooms and was met with friendly applause, I would focus my attention, introduce myself with the above carefully practiced phrase, and be met, consistently, with looks of complete bafflement. Then, in English – ‘Hi, my name is Bob.’ This they understood. A clear demonstration of how difficult it is to learn a new language, at least for me, Bob declared.”
He said that over three weeks he taught about 1,700 students in about 30 different classrooms, in eight educational settings. “It was a ton of fun and very interesting. I think the benefit was that all these students were exposed to and given a chance to interact with a native English speaker, a rare benefit for them.”
“On a service trip, I was looking for a deeper engagement and connection with the people.”
“I’ve done a moderate amount of travel, both around the U.S. and international,” said Bob, “and I enjoy it immensely. But, in deciding to go on a service trip, I was looking for a deeper engagement and connection with the people living in the community I was visiting, rather than what I’ve experienced in previous travels. In my experience, when traveling, I tend to interact with other travelers and the workers who offer their services, be they restaurant servers, hotel staff, drivers, guides, or porters. Nothing wrong with that. But they are there and they are paid to serve their clients. I wanted something different, maybe deeper. And going on a volunteer service program, as a means to that goal, was superb.”
The discussions and insights were personal.
“The English teachers at Northwest University organized three special learning opportunities for their English majors. About 75-80 students attended each of these meetings, each with a separate theme. For the first meeting, the students wrote stories and the volunteers read them. I was struck to see that at least half of the stories in my group were about leaving home, going to university and being painfully lonely. The emotions expressed were so honest and raw.”
“The emotions expressed were so honest and raw.”
“For the second assignment, the students read a story and wrote short essays in response to it. The story the teachers selected touched on being gay, aging, death, and the afterlife. Our team was amazed that the teachers would select such topics that touched on so many controversial issues. But they did, and we went along with it. Again, the students read, then wrote and the volunteers looked them over. Then it was time for the discussion. Never before in my travels have I had the opportunity to sit with a group of 20 university students and discuss sexuality, aging, death, and the afterlife.”
Bob continues: “The third meeting was devoted to open conversation, in which they asked me questions, and I did all the talking. ‘How do you like Xi’an? Do you like the food here? What has surprised you about China?’ I couldn’t seem to engage the students in more than asking questions. As the clock ran down, the only boy in the group asked the surprise question: ‘I don’t know how to have a conversation with a stranger. How do you do that?’ This is the question that led to the most meaningful, and I hope, helpful (though brief), conversations of the whole three weeks. I can’t help but wonder how he’s doing.”
All in all, it was a wonderful opportunity to engage with people from the other side of the world in a meaningful way. – Bob
“Northwest University asked us to teach about American culture, but I’m not a sports fan, I watch little TV, and I know next to nothing about Hollywood,” Bob confessed. “But, I realize those are the topics many people think of when asked about American culture.”
Bob continued: “I had a one-hour class with 24 students, and it was spectacular! Eventually, I settled on a something I knew – a class on aging, using a couple exercises from the Aging with Gusto Program sponsored by the Vital Aging Network, a St. Paul, MN non-profit.” In talking with the students about aging in China, Bob learned that in China, elders stay home, take care of grandchildren, and watch TV. “I hope I do more when I’m older,” Bob chuckled. “It’s inspiring to be asked what we think about being old. We’re usually talked to about these things, but never asked what we think.”
“Every consideration to ensure our comfort.”
Bob said the logistics and accommodations were more than what he’d expected. “We were treated as if we were important dignitaries. We were provided opulent meals, there were speeches and gifts, and we were consistently offered every consideration to ensure our comfort. Weekends were spent with teachers or students who volunteered to go sightseeing with us – providing opportunities to see and do things that would otherwise not have been possible,” Bob said. “I’m not sure if a service program like this is right for everyone,” Bob admitted. “You have to be ready to go with the flow, enjoy what’s happening, and take advantage of openings and opportunities when they present themselves. But, it was an exceptional chance to learn about life in Xi’an, something we would’ve never experienced traveling alone.”
Other volunteer insights about serving in China: