Richeldis Brosnan returns from volunteering in China

Richeldis Brosnan was awarded of our Footprinter Grants to travel to Jiayuguan, China as a volunteer in a school. Here she reflects on here time there – she certainly kept very busy!

On the evening of the 29th of January all the Project Trust volunteers based in China were sent an email informing us that we were to evacuate China immediately. What ensued was a stressful 48 hours of travelling halfway across the globe, arriving back in the UK on the 31st of January. Although the end to my time in China came far earlier than expected the last 5 months was the most rewarding and challenging time of my life.

I still remember when Claire came to my school to speak to us about Project Trust. Before the assembly began I told my friends about how I wasn’t interested in doing a gap year and I was going to go straight to University. Less than a month later I had swallowed my words and was heading to the Isle of Coll for the Project Trust selection course. I was thrilled when I found out I had passed the selection process and that I would be going to China. Ten months later I was on a plane to Beijing. A lot of people said to me how brave they thought I was for going but going is the easy part, staying is the difficult one.

Beginnings

We spent two days in Beijing before heading out to our respective projects. Visiting the Great Wall of China provided us with some amazing views, which were well deserved after the trek it took to get there. To reach the Great Wall you must climb a long set of steep steps taking roughly an hour and a half. It is safe to say that some of us were more worse for wear than others, especially considering it was 38 degrees at the time. Once off the wall we went for lunch. Sadly I have to admit that myself along with all the rest of the group made a beeline for the subway as it was the only food we knew and our Mandarin skills were not up to ordering food, yet.

Our next challenge was the thirty eight hour slow train to Jiayuguan. Contrary of how it sounds the train journey was one of my most enjoyable experiences so far. We got to see lots of the Chinese countryside and sleep on comfortable beds. Although I did learn not to leave my bed alone during the day as on return to my bed someone would be sleeping in it and trying to get them off was a very difficult task indeed. Members of a Mongolian band kept us company although we had to be creative when it came to communicating.

My first impression of Jiayuguan was that it was so clean. In China there is a culture about not losing face. Having face means that you have high social prestige and a good reputation. Hence, appearance is everything. Therefore, people are always smartly dressed; drive shiny new cars and the cities are always clean and well presented.

Teaching

When we first arrived at the school lots of students began clapping and cheering. The same thing happened anytime we entered a classroom. Sadly our novelty wore off very quickly. I taught senior 2 while my partner taught senior 1. Initially teaching was quite challenging, aside from being told not to discuss religion or politics with the students I wasn’t given any guidance on what topics to teach or what level of English the students had. Eventually after a lot of trial and error I managed to come up with a set of comprehensive lessons which enforced the English the students were already learning.

school china Richeldis Brosnan

Overall I found teaching incredibly rewarding but it didn’t come without some negatives. Contrary to belief students in China are not well behaved and it can become difficult to set boundaries with them when a language barrier is present. The teachers at the school beat the pupils. This made me less inclined to ask higher up teachers to get involved when student behaviour was out of order. However, I finally managed to keep bad behaviour to a minimum by introducing a sticker rewarding system. I was worried this may come across as patronising as the students were the same age as me, however, they seemed to love it.

I also taught primary school students too. On Thursday evenings I taught fifteen 3 to 7 year olds and on Fridays I taught five 9 to 10 year olds. The Thursday group was incredibly challenging; they arrived at my two hour lesson after a nine hour day at school. Considering how young the children were you couldn’t expect them to be able to sit still and concentrate, especially after already having had a full day at school. When I began teaching them the children were able to say hello and goodbye. I also wasn’t allowed to teach them the alphabet as they were still learning Chinese Pinyin (the phonetic Romanised version of the Chinese characters) as the children were too young to begin learning the Chinese characters. Keeping control of the class was difficult as they lost focus quickly and couldn’t understand me when I tried to take back control. Things began improving once I taught them, “sit down”, and, “stand up”. Even though I wasn’t able to teach them, “be quiet” as successfully as the former it reduced classroom accidents and bad behaviour significantly. By the end of my time teaching them I looked forward to my Thursday class immensely. My Friday class were the highlight of my week. Due to the class being smaller and the children having better English Friday lessons were always easy and fun to teach. I got to give some of the student’s English names as well as get to have proper conversations with them.

Ultimately my main priority for my lessons was to help consolidate the English my students already knew and to get them to have fun. In China high school students are at school six days a week from 7.30am until 11.30pm, on top of that they’re expected to complete ten different homework assignments for the next day. The students are under a great deal of pressure and stress so I wanted to provide them with a time to relax, have fun as well as teaching them useful English. My greatest achievement throughout my time in China was becoming a source of support for a lot of students. On many occasions I’ve had to comfort students who have become so overwhelmed with their workload and constant examinations that they’ve broken down crying. I ended up becoming pen pals with some of my students and I even met up with some of them on the weekends too, if they had free time.

I also helped run the schools English club which was set up for pupils who were serious about learning English and wanted to come to have proper full length conversations with us. On Halloween and Christmas we had special themed lessons which included dressing up, decorating and learning about British traditions.

School extras

The school was brilliant when it came to introducing us to Chinese culture. Once a week we had Mandarin lessons with our waiban (the teacher at the school who was responsible for looking after us), we also had calligraphy class and traditional Chinese dance class too. We also got to learn how to cook dumplings, although the teacher’s ones tasted far better than ours and we got to learn how to conduct a Chinese tea ceremony too. We also got to host and take part in some of the performances the school put on as well.

Travelling

I also got to do quite a bit of travelling across China as well. In October we got a week’s holiday as it was the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. We took a 5 hour train and stayed in Zhangye for a week. We got to see the famous rainbow mountains as well as exploring the city, eating new food at the street markets and taking a tour of the local wetland park.

In the beginning of January just before I left to travel for a month I received an email from my dad telling me about an illness that was beginning to surface in China. At the time I didn’t think too much of it but noted to keep a closer eye on my health. On January 12th we set off for Harbin. Harbin is a beautiful city in the north of China with beautiful Russian architecture. In Harbin we visited the Siberian tiger park, St Sofia’s cathedral and the renowned Ice festival.

After Harbin we headed to Beijing for two days. We visited Tiananmen Square and a nearby market street. When in Tiananmen Square Anita (another China volunteer) and I became separated from the group and spent a lot of time looking for everyone else. At 5pm a group of soldiers in black uniforms with big guns began herding people towards the Chinese Flag. Anita and I were incredibly confused and a little scared as we didn’t know what was going on. Every day in at 5pm they shut the busiest road in Beijing and lower the Chinese Flag, hence, why we were herded towards the flag and not allowed to leave for half an hour. On our return to the hostel the rest of the group turned to us and told us to check the news. Wuhan a city in the Hubei province had just been put under quarantine as a result of an incredibly contagious virus coming out of control. However, we were very far away from Wuhan and didn’t think much of it. Little did we know that a week later we would be evacuated from China as a result of the same virus.

Our next stop was Tianjin a city well known for having the best western food in China. Once accustomed to it I really loved the food in China however, I was really craving western food when planning the holiday so Tianjin was added to the schedule. I can safely say that it was worth it and the food we had was delicious. While we were in Tianjin the situation with the Coronavirus worsened significantly so we began stocking up on masks and hand gel. On the day we left Tianjin its first few cases were confirmed.

When we were in Harbin I began to feel quite ill so sadly when we were in Nanjing I had to stay in bed. Although I didn’t miss much as tourist sights and shops were being shut so none of the rest of the group got to see any more than me. When we were in Nanjing the government began issuing guidance on how to prevent contracting the virus. Therefore, the others weren’t allowed to leave or enter any buildings without wearing medical masks. Luckily I’d stocked up in Tianjin so that wasn’t an issue. We then headed to Suzhou but by this point we knew we weren’t going to be able to see any of the temples or famous streets that we wanted to. At this point restaurants began turning us away as we were foreigners and they knew we’d been traveling, hence, our chances of having caught something was far greater.

We then had plans to go on to Shanghai however, Project Trust got in touch with us and told us to stop travelling. We all booked trains to head to Jiujiang where Anita’s project was to lay low until everything blew over. Funnily enough Jiujiang was only 3 hours away from Wuhan. Within a few hours of arriving in Jiujiang Project Trust emailed us telling us that they were pulling us out of China and that our plane was in a day and a half. We spent that evening organising our travel to get to Beijing.

In the morning before we got on our train to Beijing we explored the city and did some last minute gift buying. I was shocked to walk past an open meat and fish market considering the situation the country was in at this point. Although the Hubei province was quarantined our train to Beijing still went through Wuhan. The train stopped and only one very official looking man got off. The city was like a ghost town; there were cars abandoned on the road, the city bikes were in neat rows (I’ll add a picture of what they’re usually like) and I even got to see one of the new hospitals being built.

I’m devastated that my time in China was cut short; however, I’m immensely grateful for this experience and all the support I received to get to China. I got to experience a vastly different culture, eat strange and delicious food (although I don’t recommend congealed ducks blood), meet extraordinary people and get to witness two different countries approach to dealing with what would become a global pandemic.

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