At the end of September a group of seven students from Princeton University’s China Bridge Year Program arrived in the remote village of Bangdong, perched on the slopes of the Upper Mekong River (澜沧江) valley in Lincang Prefecture in China’s southwestern Yunnan province.
Participants in the China Bridge Year Program are Princeton undergraduates who have deferred their first year of courses at the Princeton campus in order to experience China firsthand and get intensive Mandarin exposure by living with local families in Yunnan’s capital city, Kunming. The students also take part in additional shorter home-stays and service projects in rural areas of Yunnan.
Dali Bar Co-Founder Colin Flahive and Village Progress organized the students’ homestay and service project in Bangdong through contacts made from earlier work with village schools and health officials in the area.
Their service project consisted of teaching in the local elementary school for five days. Despite nationwide compulsory English education from the third grade, students in rural China lag behind their urban counterparts due to factors including insufficient financial resources and a lack of qualified teachers. Many rural villagers in Yunnan have never even seen a foreigner in person, much less had the opportunity to converse with a native English speaker. The service project gave elementary students in Bangdong a perspective-changing experience that many will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
Princeton students Henry Stolz and Luis Legro took part in the service project. Stolz shared his photos with us and Legro shared his account of teaching in Bangdong and its effect upon his own worldview:
Now the true test of our endurance began. Would they listen to us knowing we couldn’t say much in Mandarin? How would we even be able to teach given this language gap? Though I can’t speak for others in my group, I was pleasantly surprised by my own experience.
When my partner and I walked into the class the first time, it was as if a spell of silence had immediately been cast. Even a small irregularity in breathing would have been heard around the room. Apprehensively, we set our bags down and made a whispered review to each other of the lesson plan we had devised earlier that morning.
As we positioned ourselves in front of the class, we broke the silence with a nervous but energetic “hello”. Almost on command, the class reciprocated in faultless unison. We then wrote our names on the board and asked them to repeat after us, which they also did automatically. “So far, so good,” I thought to myself. We told them that today we would be learning the ABCs and as we wrote the first three letters on the board, they instinctively yelled out the letters’ names—again in unison. As we got further down the alphabet, though, the unison gradually broke and the yelling dwindled to silence.
The game quickly got their attention and every day we were there, the children waited in anticipation of a different version, first with the ABCs, then body parts, then numbers, then colors, then a hodge-podge of the different lessons. My partner and I were awestricken by how fast the children were able to really learn all the lessons and not simply use rote memorization (a premise that my partner and I confirmed by throwing them occasional curve balls).
To spice up the body parts lesson and get some blood flowing, we decided to use “Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes” as our class anthem (and I guess as a supplement to the lesson). Every day, as we would speed it up then slow it down and along the way, the class learned supplementary vocabulary like “fast”, “slow” or “whoops”.
During the break between the classes, we quickly got to work on preparing new lessons and decided to teach common English phrases. When we had finalized the lesson, the kids began to swarm us with requests for English names. Having never named anyone before in our lives, we were slow and pensive, but soon we had named each of the forty kids with the help of our instructor. After a while, we noticed that we had assigned at least two names per student. We eventually found out that for the past couple of minutes, we had actually been naming their family members too! The swarming continued through the breaks, but again as soon as the bell had rung, the children retreated to their seats to await the next lesson.
Thinking about it now, I still ask myself the same questions I asked myself at the outset of the service project. My apprehension, however, has been replaced with feelings of amazement. Really, how did it work? It was truly an eye-opening experience that showed me both how valuable oral communication is and how limited. How is it that I can go across the world and express myself the same way through a set of gestures? A smile is a welcoming wherever you go; it’s an external sign of an inward sense of satisfaction. It’s experiences such as this one that really reminds us of our most important commonality: being human—or rather experiencing humanity ,whether through laughter, fear, or a need to treasure a memory, an experience such as this one.