China Week: Teaching children, experiencing tribal life and discovering Guangzhou

First of all I would like to apologize for not blogging in the past weeks. The days were packed with activities and with IP’s (Individual Projects – Theater Performances written and directed by our lovely second-years) and ECE, the European Cultural Evening coming up there is barely any free time. Well… and last week I did not have internet because I was in Mainland China. During their first year at LPC all students go on “China Week“, to conduct service and explore China and Chinese culture. Students were assigned to 7 different group, each of them going to a different area of China. One group, for instance went to Hainan island to teach children English, while another group went to Yangshuo and had a week packed with outdoor activities.I was in Project 1, which went to rural Guangdong. Never would I have imagined myself going to Mainland China to explore Chinese culture, paint wall murals and teach primary school students. It has been a very transformative and unforgettable experience for me.

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The week started with a long 5-hour bus-ride, passing green mountains and little towns. Our first stop was Liannan where we visited an asolutely beautiful thousand-year old Yao-village. The Yao tribe is an ethnic minority, with that  mainly live in mountain areas in the south of China. The village was located in the middle of the mountains, overlooking a stunning valley that was bathed in green, red and brown colors. It was as if we had found a place of tranquility, a serene place where you can slow down and soak in some natural beauty without distractions. Our time in the Yao village made me realize the importance of cultural preservation, especially of tribes and minorities. Many of the beautiful tribes in the remote corners of our planet are forgotten and some of them are even vanishing, together with their customs and culture.

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We were fascinated by the clothing of the Yao people: dark jackets and trousers decorated with colorful belts. The most striking detail was their long hair which was curled into a bun and wrapped with a piece of red cloth. The collars, sleeves and trouser legs of the women’s dresses were embroidered with beautiful patterns and some of them had silver medals decorating their jackets and complementing their dazzling hair adornments.

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In the village we were introduced to Yao culture, learned about the distinct characteristics of their customs, the making of bean curd, traditional medicine and dried meat.

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On the next day we visited a secondary school in Liannan, where we met students of our age who showed us the town and took us to a museum. When we got back tot he secondary school, we explored their campus and played games with them. Most of them were boarding students and seeing their dorms was a very eye opening experience. Eight people were staying in a room that was not even half the size of our rooms at LPC. Their bunkbeds did not have matresses, the students were sleeping on thin sheets and there was only one window, letting just enough light in to see the bare minimum of the room.

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Later we performed the dances that we had learned and prepared just for China Week and after that the students from the secondary school, dressed in colourful customs, showed us how to dance a traditional Yao dance, accompanied by drums.

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We spent the third, fourth and fifth day in a very rural town named Huaji, where we taught children in two different primary schools and painted wall murals in two classrooms. These three days were probably the most impacting and moving ones. The children were absolutely beautiful and if I could I would put them all in my suitcase and take them with me.  In the town we became celebreties, with hundreds of villagers standing in front of our hotel every night and following us wherever we went. We were even invited to perform dances on the towns main square at night! It was so much fun and I would have never imagined to dance the Turkish “Damat Halayi“ in China! Some people even asked us to sign their jackets and books.

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On our first day of teaching in Huaji we started the lesson with a few games. And while the boys refused to hold the girls hands and talk to us when were all standing in a circle in the beginning, this was not the case on the last days anymore. During class time we conducted different activities such as English learning songs and letter recognition. Teaching the children was challenging, yet very enjoyable. They repeated every word we taught them and some oft hem even came to us during break time, pointing at an object and wanting to know ist name in English. A little girl taught me Chinese characters. She drew them on the blackboard and then waited for me copy them. Whenever I wrote a character right, she put a little tick beside it. At first I thought the language barrier would be a problem – I did not speak Mandarin and the children did not speak English but the children’s motivation and desire to learn made all my doubts vanish.

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In the afternoon we painted the walls of two classrooms. We mixed colors and then sketched animals and words on the walls. With every stroke the classroom become more and more colorful and the kids were lining up on the windows trying to catch a glimpse of what would be their future classroom. We painted a forest scene, two underwater scene and lots of funny little cartoons. After two days of painting our work was done and we could not be happier!

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Visiting the houses of one of the children was one oft he most enlightening experiences for me. I knew that the children were living n very poor conditions, yet at school I did not realize that fact, since they always seemed so happy.Our child, a 8-year old girl took my hand and guided us through rice fields and then her town.  The houses were built from bricks and very very small. We sat down on a bench and met her father who had prepared tea for us. The entire family slowly started to come in, excited to meet the strangers. Later, they showed us the house, and the more we saw the more thoughts filled dour minds. There was no furniture except fort he bench and a table, the family was sleeping on a self-made bed and the kitchen consisted of a stove and a  pot. Outside there was a big basin, which was used for taking a bath and washing clothes. The toilet was nothing but a little stream running beside the house. Seeing rural poverty first-hand gave us a lot to think about and spending more time in the school made us become aware of the harsh conditions the children lived in.

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During break times we played games with them and they were jumping up and down, some even trying to climb on us like little monkeys. While teaching we realized how every child is special, with unique combinations of abilities and needs that affect learning. Some children were very shy and did not participate in the activities we conducted at first, so I took a little time to play with them during break until they felt more comfortable around us. As teachers we had to take notice of students who face special challenges, and find ways to help them. We used creativity to make our classes vital and filled with opportunities for all learners and even ended teaching them songs while drumming a beat on the table. The children had never met foreigner before being there was like giving the children the opportunity to experience something entirely new. We became very attached to the children and saying goodbye on our last day was very hard and everybody was crying… I will not forget how the girl whose house hugged me tight with a stream of tears running down her face. It was heartbreaking and once we got into the bus the children were following the vehicle on the rough roads until it picked up speed.

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As much as I talked about things we gave to the children, I would also like to mention what the children gave me: a better understanding of things in life. I will never forget the admiration and sparkle they had in their eyes when they looked at us and the zest, the zeal and the verve with which they approached everything, whether it was the dances we taught them, their happiness when we carried them piggyback or their curiosity when seeing a camera fort the first time. The made us realize that without enthusiasm and excitement, life does not have any charm and that sometimes it is the little things, such as a song that can change a day.

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Our trip concluded in Guangzhou, where we stayed in a hotel on the campus of a university. We visited am museum with absolutely brilliant architecture in Guangzhou and went for sightseeing in the city. One of my favorite places was Lychee Bay, named after the delicious sweet fruit. All the houses were old mansion located by a little stream, with beautiful decoration and architecture.

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The entire area looked like the Venice of China, with bridges joining parks and walkways that were peppered with pavilions and banyan trees that were decorated with red lanterns. It was absolutely beautiful. The day ended with  a museum trip, dinner in the university canteen, where we met Chinese muslims and got to watch a cook make noodles with his bare hands. At night we went on a bike tour around campus – but of course not just a normal bike tour: some of us rode tandems!

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China Week went by very quickly and between all the wonderful memories made, there  is one sentence we will always remember: “Man, China is sooo cool!“ (Esteban, our coyear from Guatemala)

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