Lessons from China

Volunteering to teach English for a year offers one visitor the chance to explore the country, from big cities to tiny villages

Students Abroad

June 24, 2007|By Lauren Keister | Lauren Keister,Special to the Sun


I had thought of myself as a daring, resilient traveler, but this would be a test. As one of 27 volunteers with the WorldTeach China program, I was to spend a year teaching English to middle school students in China's Hunan Province, 800 miles southwest of Beijing.

I was 24 years old, two years removed from college, and itching to experience daily life in a foreign land. WorldTeach directs programs around the globe and China was not necessarily my first pick, but as a Korean adoptee, I have long been drawn to the idea of going to Asia. So there I was, a Korean-born, Baltimore-raised girl plopped down in the midst of China.

Immediately, I wondered: What have I gotten myself into? The cacophony of car horns, the whiffs of stinky tofu, the choking dust of the rubble-strewn sidewalks, the shrill sounds of the music played by the tai chi devotees in Martyrs Park, the pungent chaos of the outdoor markets ... everyday China mounted a head-spinning assault on my senses.

I was about to be fully immersed in the culture of a country leaping from developing nation to economic superpower overnight. I would be part of the transition. And I would see more of this eagerly aspiring land than any tourist. There would be many challenges -- and many rewards.

Getting my bearings

It was August 2004 when I arrived in Changsha, a gray, gritty metropolis of more than 6 million people. As exotic as my new world seemed, something pretty mundane -- walking across one of the chaotic streets -- stopped me cold. I didn't make it for a week. Then I sidled up to residents, hoping to join them in the perilous traverse. I was sliding into the culture in spite of myself.

One day during orientation, I visited the nearby Massage Hospital, which was entirely staffed by blind masseuses. This is a common occurrence in China, where the sightless are believed to have the most sensitive hands. For about $4, I received an hourlong full-body massage from a woman whose delicate physique belied her bone-crushingly powerful touch. I thought back to the previous month, when my friend, Robyn, gave me a Chinese phrase book as a going-away present. I remember laughing at phrases such as "please massage my head only." Little did I know that these phrases would actually be put to good use.

Another important phrase that I quickly learned was bu yao la jiao (I don't want peppers). This statement was usually met with an incredulous look. My normally iron stomach protested the spicy Hunan food, and I spent a ridiculous amount of time at every meal picking out the millions of little red chili peppers that are a mainstay in every dish here. Pork ... with chili peppers. Cow stomach ... with chili peppers. Cucumber ... with chili peppers.

To make things worse, I managed to break a tooth, biting into white rice, of all things. I had never had so much as a cavity before in my life, and my first major dental disaster would, of course, occur in central China.

My tooth was temporarily patched up at the Changsha Stomatological Hospital. I caused quite a disturbance because I spoke no Chinese (much to the disbelief of everyone I encountered), and was accompanied by my 17-year-old Chinese translator, Hao. The examination took place in a large open room with about 20 other patients. Several curious bystanders stood over my shoulder to inspect my mouth. Thus began my introduction to the lack of personal space, and the realization that I was facing a long year of misunderstandings. Another useful phrase: Wo bu hui shuo zhongwen (I don't speak Chinese).

Time to teach

After a week of orientation, my fellow WorldTeachers and I were scattered throughout Hunan at our respective schools. I was an hour away in Liuyang, a much smaller and more provincial city than Changsha. Liuyang's claim to fame is that 60 percent of the fireworks manufactured in China are produced there. The upside of this was that I saw fireworks displays every day. The downside was that they liked testing those fireworks at all hours of the day and night. The first time I heard the fireworks go off, I thought my building was being bombed.

I lived on the grounds of the school in a small apartment by myself, while the students lived in dormitories -- eight to a room. Slightly incongruous with my ancient living quarters was the brand-new 40-inch flat-screen TV, DVD player, washing machine and bathtub that the school gave me. As a foreign teacher, these amenities, including my "Western-style" toilet, were guaranteed in my contract. Unfortunately, my bathtub was in the kitchen. The sight of my open-air tub and the large purple mushrooms growing out of the doorframe of the apartment were enough to give me pause. However, with the excitement of school starting, I had little time to brood about my living space.

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