By WorldTeach China volunteer Anahita Kumar, 2016
Moving abroad for a year is a solid commitment, and grand changes to your life will surely follow. Not to overwhelm the reader, but it’s probably going to be a real large-scale, cross-cultural, border-hopping and unpredictable adventure, probably moving at a breakneck speed but always leaving you feeling great.
Before my great big journey to China I was still wrapping up work commitments until the last day, and so, as I found myself the only waigouren on the China Southern flight from Bangkok to Changsha I felt utterly unprepared to dive into this adventure. Nobody spoke English and everybody stared. I stumbled about trying to get myself a coffee and felt like the live in-flight entertainment. All that the seedy websites had warned me about was unraveling before me, and I was yet to land! I would like to consider myself a pretty seasoned traveler, having lived abroad many times and having done some fair share of traveling, but this was all so new and I was surprised to find myself feeling nervous. I was cursing myself: see, this is what happens when you’re cocky and under-prepared: you feel lost and clueless. Now just go with the flow and try not to mess up.
All my fears were put to rest upon arrival: WorldTeach instantly casts a safety net around you, taking you in as a new entrant to the family. So all fears conquered, the fresh arrivals are ready to take on whatever challenge thrown at them, like squatting toilets and a foreign language, with renewed gusto. We dredge on, hoping to discover more and fit in more, all on our own unique journey as teachers and travelers. WorldTeach offers volunteers such a great community and helps calm those who are struggling and stumbling and will hold your hand as you step into your role as a teacher as well as a member of a new community. This is no easy feat, considering we are in a foreign country.
My placement site in downtown Changsha is pretty much a Hunan melting pot. The Senior 1 student population is an assortment of local urban kids making a small portion and the rest are from surrounding towns and villages of Hunan: mostly Shaoshan (Chairman Mao’s birthplace), Hengyang, Huarong, Liuyang, Changde and Zhangjiajie (a top tourism destination). Students’ lives are cramped with excessive homework and high expectations. However, they never fail to surprise me with their quick wit, their great sense of humor and a responsible and gentle nature not often found in most teenagers.
As a volunteer teacher there are definitely a mix of good days and bad days, but then there are also great days. How high school works in China is students graduate from a junior high school and take tests to get placed in high schools around the state. Majority of the students at my site never met each other before the year began and also have comically varying lifestyles and cultures. It’s an amusing clash of urban and rural in almost every classroom. It is such a delight to interact with these motivated and very colorful teens with such shining personalities. The 1350 students I interact with weekly are from all over the state of Hunan: they speak different variations of Mandarin, some with peculiar Hunan accents and their English accents also vary according to their previous education. While I am yet to make a round of most of the towns in the state of Hunan, having only arrived here 4 months ago, I definitely plan on seeing most of the state.
On a bullet train to Shenzhen as I sped past the states of Hunan and Guangdong I was forced to stay awake and stare out the window: the landscape is nothing short of a beautiful and captivating picturesque fairytale small town or village. During a long weekend I made a quick trip to Hong Kong and it was very liberating to know how little I missed Western food and coffee and English speakers. Had I already assimilated into my new Changsha community? Returning to Changsha felt almost like a homecoming and I now held my chopsticks with confidence as I broke into Hunan-style spicy food and employed my 50-word Mandarin vocabulary to full capacity with way too much certainty.
Students’ lives are stressful and challenging. By seeing them once a week we also give them an opportunity to relax and not have to think about their upcoming competitive tests, their giant piles of homework and their grades. It is very rewarding to see students both learn and enjoy themselves in class. Watching otherwise wound up students laugh out loud and relax feels rewarding and reminds you why you’re there: to make some impact, big or small, in their life. Nothing makes me feel more accomplished as a volunteer than when students participate and utilize what they have learned so far and when their infectious laugh forces me out of teacher mode. I will forever remember this time and be thankful for the ability to share so much with the students.
I can’t help but feel that I completely missed out on the whole “culture shock” of the moving abroad experience. Maybe being Indian had further prepped me on similar standing Asian values, but even though I do get stares for being an outsider, a laowai, I still always feel safe and welcome. I was fully prepared and convinced for the entire crisis situation: extreme culture shock, homesickness, complete inability to function in daily life, and on the plane to Changsha I was even more convinced of its inevitable arrival. However, it never came. The pundits were wrong.
Moving abroad is a bold move and major changes to your life are assured. It will definitely alter you in great ways, widen your horizons and change your outlook on so many things you assumed differently. Maybe it is not for everyone, but it is a very rewarding experience to find a home so far away from everything that you find familiar. For my next 5 to 6 months in Hunan I hope to absorb more and give my best, now that I feel like I’m finally getting the swing of things. It thrills me to wonder about what lies ahead: the future seems promising and exciting, and I’m so glad to be here.
Bonus videos from Anahita!