It has now been almost a year since I finished my service as a United States Peace Corps volunteer English teacher at a university in Xindu, China, and I look back on the experience with mixed feelings of fondness, longing, and intense relief. Fondness for the way I helped my students and spread a positive impression of American culture. Longing for a return to such a rich, full, active, challenging life. Yet, I am simultaneously filled with relief that such a busy, stressful period of my life came to a successful conclusion. Serving as a Peace Corps China volunteer was indeed the toughest job I ever loved.
Photo taken by my former student, Mia, at Xinshan Middle School in Sichuan
Arriving in China – a fiery baptism
As a hypersensitive person who suffers from constant insomnia and one who had never lived overseas, my first week in Peace Corps China during orientation might adequately be described as a raw, fiery baptism. We 100 or so volunteers arrived in Chengdu in the dead of night. I’ve never been able to sleep on planes and consequently, by the time I finally (finally!) got settled into my hotel room in Chengdu the very first night, I hadn’t slept in roughly 36 hours, and I was too jacked with anticipation to get more than three or so hours that night. The next day Sichuan food had its way with me. I bit down on a huajiao and freaked out as the numbness spread across my gums. I lived on saltine crackers for three days until I became more comfortable with the food. One day at lunch, due to sleep deprivation and nerves, my hand was too shaky to grip the food with my chopsticks.
When you arrive, Peace Corps keeps you so busy that you really just don’t have the time to worry over anything. The focus is on cultural integration, and for me this is what made Peace Corps such an attractive option after graduation. Peace Corps language training is intense but very rewarding. On our first day in China we began learning basic, survival Chinese. We learn just a few characters. Immediately we started learning practical phrases like “duoshaoqian”, the numbers and words for fruit, so we could go out and buy necessities.
My first series of Chinese language classes were held in a hotel room. Throughout training, on an average week, we attended about four hours of language class Monday through Saturday. This was a humbling experience to say the least, as I came to terms with just how difficult learning Chinese really is. I grew to despise the fourth tone—well, tones in general, but particularly the fourth. I’ve never felt comfortable being so emphatic in my speaking. Actually when I first arrived in China, listening to the conversations, I always wondered why there were so many arguments and people were always yelling at each other. The tones make the conversations sound like arguments to our foreign ears.
In addition to the language and TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training, Peace Corps volunteers are required to live with a host family in Chengdu for roughly two months. Although this wasn’t really helpful for my Chinese, as my host sister insisted on practicing her English all the time, this was a wonderful experience that smoothed out my transition to living in China and gave me a deeper understanding of Chinese culture. I lived with a mother, her son, and her son’s girlfriend. On weekends we often went to the Ito Yokado mall to play arcade games and pool.
The mother was very insistent that I sample some of the local specialties including hot pot, chicken feet, cow brain, and rabbit head. She was quite a good cook. Americans do tend to be more conservative with their diet, straying away from eating most organs. I tried my best to be polite one evening, nibbling the jaw of the rabbit head as best I could, but I’m sure my discomfort was obvious. Nevertheless, life with my host family was a pleasure. It is important to keep an open mind and a sense of humor. Looking foolish is unavoidable when you’re learning a new language and living in a foreign country. We could barely understand one another, but we managed harmoniously all the same.
Overview of Peace Corps service
Peace Corps service is really what you make of it. Even if you find yourself getting discouraged on the job, I think it’s important to keep in mind that just your presence as a representative of America at your school is significant. Many students have never met an American before, and you can give them their first favorable impression. You can also dispel any misconceptions they have about the US. Many of my students were unaware of the issues facing the impoverished in America today and the fact that roughly 50 million people (16.7% of the population) are without any health insurance. This statistic always came as quite a surprise to my students.
To some extent, you also determine just how busy you want to be. Although we were not allowed to take on any outside employment during our service, volunteers were required to teach English 14-16 hours per week and conduct secondary projects that might take the form of extra-curricular clubs, campus publications, or other projects. One of my secondary projects included a weekly book club hosted in my apartment. This was an excellent opportunity for cultural exchange in an informal setting and an excellent opportunity for my students to practice their speaking, listening, and reading.
Most volunteers serve in universities. Some are in more urban areas and some more rural. Volunteers serve in Sichuan, Chongqing, Guizhou, and Gansu. I taught at Southwest Petroleum University in Xindu for two years. Overall the experience was extremely positive and rewarding. However, the first semester was intensely frustrating, as I was unaccustomed to the Chinese education system and unfortunately encountered a great deal of academic dishonesty and plagiarism. I tried giving quizzes on the reading solely to insure students would actually read the material, but so many students would find answers on their cell phones, copy other people, or tell others the answers in Chinese, that policing them was a nightmare that made me feel more and more like an angry fascist dictator.
Instead, I started giving them journal assignments and those were much easier to manage. Simply, if a single sentence of a student paper sounded like it was written by a native speaker then 9 times out of 10 it was copied off the internet. All I had to do was Google those suspicious sentences. Dishonesty that usually gets overlooked in Chinese universities would get you expelled from most American ones. One of my more brazen students copied a chapter from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, changed the title to “Before the Festival,” and submitted it as her own quite brilliant short story.
Furthermore, many students just didn’t care much about their grade for the course because, actually, in China it’s just not that important. Doing well on the big standardized tests like the CET (College English Test) is much, much more important. Only the students with aspirations to study abroad seemed to really care about their grade point average, while many were just looking for that golden 60 that means they passed. When I told one student she had barely passed with a 60 she responded, “Oh thank you thank you thank you!”
After the first semester things went much smoother, once I’d adjusted my expectations and developed strategies for dealing with these constant issues. In truth, most of my students were excited to have a foreign teacher and very eager to cooperate and learn. Several had never met a foreigner before. I still keep in touch with many former students today. Many are now graduate students, interpreters, and teachers. At the very least, I tried to give a favorable impression of Americans and that is a big part of the Peace Corps mission. This is evidenced by the Chinese name for Peace Corps volunteers: meizhong youhao zhiyuanzhe (America-China Friendship Volunteers).
Serving in Peace Corps was one of the richest, most rewarding experiences of my life. My service sparked an insatiable interest in Chinese culture and literature that continues to this day. After my service, I chose to remain in Chengdu, and I am still here today studying Chinese. In the fall 2013 semester, I will begin pursuing a doctoral degree in Comparative Literature at Sichuan University.
In addition to the inward ripeness cultivated through volunteerism, I’ve found that it’s also a great way to beef up your resume. Peace Corps in particular is an excellent stepping-stone for entering into government service or graduate study. There are a number of fellowship programs available for returned Peace Corps volunteers that can help pay for graduate school.
While only American citizens with a college degree can serve in Peace Corps, there are certainly plenty of other volunteer organizations for foreigners in China that allow for philanthropy and adventure. If you’re interested in volunteer opportunities in China, I suggest visiting this China section of goabroad.com. And for more information about Peace Corps visit www.peacecorps.gov.
The contents of this article are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.
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Keywords: volunteer English teacher Peace Corps China volunteer Peace Corps China
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Haha, silly American come to Sichuan and think it's all hamburgers and french fries? You're lucky the rabbit you ate didn't bite you first.hahaha. Oh, how you made it through one year, i'll never know. I'm sure you're happy to be back home waiting in the macdonalds drive-through.
Jul 04, 2013 13:16 Report Abuse
Mr syoung108 if you read the article properly you would have discovered that the writer is still in China studying at the Sichuan university. Seems you stopped reading after he ate the rabbit's head and lived off saltine biscuits for 3 days.
Jul 04, 2013 19:29 Report Abuse
" One of my more brazen students copied a chapter from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, changed the title to “Before the Festival,” and submitted it as her own quite brilliant short story."haha,this one is really funny. your article remind me remember when I was A student in college ,my English was just like others Chinese-style English ,we even call it "Chinenglish".I even told my America teacher that my English name is "Darling ".Haha . Anyway your experience is really wonderful ,and I am a little admire for your brave and experience . I would like to do some kind of volunteer work if I catch suitable chance. Melita Ping
Jul 03, 2013 13:01 Report Abuse