By Melissa Zhang, Contributing Writer
Westborough – Westborough High School student Melissa Zhang spent last summer at a rural school in China, teaching English to the local children. They ended up teaching her some important lessons as well. Here is her firsthand account:
People say that the world is getting smaller. Technology is constantly changing and reshaping our society. I do agree with these statements, but I spent my summer in a very different place on the opposite side of the world, where technology is almost a foreign language. Here, I learned to be strong in times of adversity and enthusiastically explore new cultures. Haojiping Ethnic School is a rural school in Hunan Province, deep in the mountains of China. United Planet, the volunteer organization that brought me there, has helped thousands of volunteers go to more than 40 different countries. I heard about the program from Michelle Cheng, a fellow Westborough resident. We decided to go together and ended up being the only volunteers from Massachusetts. I spent my summer in rural China teaching English to Chinese children and it was one of the best choices I'se ever made.
On July 27th, 2012, a group of twenty brave souls met in a small Beijing hostel. We stayed in the country's capital for two days before we began our journey to the countryside. After spending so much time on the road, everyone was dying to reach the rural school. A smog-free environment with enough space to respect each other's personal bubbles sounded superb. The living conditions were much different in the countryside; there was no indoor plumbing, no hot water, no air conditioning, and no reliable Wi-Fi or electricity. We had a rough time adjusting to this living style on the first day. Even the mosquitoes gave us a warm welcome that night, and continued to do so for the entire time that we were there. Thankfully, our school had a source of clean, drinking water that came from a mountain spring.
I taught sixth grade with three other volunteers. I mainly taught English, but we also taught physical education, friendship bracelet making, singing, etc. Every night, we would plan our lessons for the next day and spend time with the community. We fell into a comfortable routine living at the school but also had dozens of adventures. We went on morning runs, which quickly turned to walks after jogging for ten minutes on the steep mountain path. We explored a bat cave near the school, swam underneath a waterfall, and rode motorcycles through the mountain's twisting roads. We visited a local market, stocked up on Oreos, soy sauce, and snacks like true Americans, and bought adorable ducklings for the students. Stargazing was a huge tradition of the American volunteers; every clear night, a bunch of us would head down to the school's basketball court with an iPod, bug spray, and snacks. The living conditions and meals took a lot of getting used to, but the shooting stars were unlike anything I had ever seen.
Regardless of language and cultural differences, all of the volunteers became great friends as the weeks passed. Our close relationships came from fighting daily battles together, since we were all miles outside our comfort zones. Whether it was adjusting to the cultural shocks, crawling through a dark bat cave with nothing but a flashlight, or learning how to take a shower without hot water, we were facing these obstacles together. Everyone was forced to be flexible, especially with that language barrier. We had ten American volunteers who didn's speak any Mandarin, so translations were constantly being thrown around and patience was crucial.
After graduation day, it was time for us to leave. The peaceful environment of the school had made the past few weeks seem like I was living far away from the real world. It was heartbreaking to say goodbye to all of our kids, and we exchanged countless goodbyes before boarding the bus. In Beijing, all of the volunteers parted ways. I reluctantly flew home with Michelle, knowing that once I got back, I would have to settle back into my old life.
This program taught me so much about the rest of the world and how we lead such different lives. It's infuriating to hear American kids complain about first world problems, like getting the latest smart phone or having a lavish birthday party. Just a month ago, I was teaching children who walked hours on end to get to school every day and owned only one or two outfits to wear throughout the year. A month ago, I would'se killed for something as simple as a mattress, a hot-water shower, or an apple. We have so many opportunities compared to the Haojiping children, who need to work so hard just to get out of those mountains and receive a good education.
I know that being back in the States means that I will be starting my junior year of high school. I'sl definitely be stressed and tired beyond words, but the Haojiping kids are my motivator and fuel to push forward and work hard. Although the children I taught knew little about the rest of the world, I was able to learn countless things from them and I feel so blessed to have met them. To me, there is nothing more rewarding than volunteering and seeing firsthand how different other people's lives are. There is no doubt in my mind that I will be embarking on another volunteer trip in no time. Like John A. Shedd once said, “A ship in a harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.”