As the invigorating early autumn climate begins emanating fresh feelings in Beijing, the students of Peking University (PKU) return to the campus to begin a new school year.
Dong Xiaotian enrolled as an undergraduate student in 2018 in the School of International Studies of PKU, which dispatched 60 students as Lancang-Mekong Youth Volunteers to spend the last summer vacation working in primary schools in Sing Buri and Hua Hin in Thailand, Samraong in Cambodia and Vientiane in Laos.
This experience was unforgettable. Dong recorded his feelings in a notebook: “When we walked into classrooms sated with enthusiasm and smiling faces, when we used interesting and practical methods to teach, when we helped children love general knowledge and Chinese culture, all those moments will make children and their parents remember us as Chinese volunteers, and have lifelong concrete and vivid impressions of China.”
Following are narrations from these students on their personal experiences of getting along and interacting with local children as well as their feelings about the mission.
Far from popular tourist destinations known to Chinese people is Sing Buri in south- central Thailand.
Sing Buri largely resembles the countryside of southern China, dotted with mango trees, coconut palms, bougainvillea and other green plants. And local children feel naturally familiar with volunteers from similar environments. Even stiff English cannot hide their enthusiasm. The arrival of volunteers opened a window for children to learn about other cultures.
Through inviting volunteer teachers, the school hoped to encourage children to express themselves more boldly in English. Wu Mengjie, a postgraduate volunteer from PKU Health Science Center, opined at a volunteer sharing session that Thai parents share the same expectations as Chinese parents: “They want their children to acquire a wide range of knowledge and develop better English pronunciation.” Thai children similarly sighed at math and became glued to smartphones running gaming or social media apps such as TikTok (a short video-sharing app known as Douyin in China) after school. Compared to the trivial differences, such unexpected similarities left a deep impression on volunteers.
One pair of brothers could never manage to communicate with their teacher through language. Yet that didn’t stop them from taking the teachers to the places they liked to go and gifting them a small bag of shiny glass marbles. They made hand gestures to ask us to take pictures for students. Language is just one channel through which we can communicate. Even when languages contrast, sincerity and the simple wishes of children were written all over their faces.
Teachers and students couldn’t hide the meaning of each other’s words if we tried—through heart-to-heart communication, sincere feelings could be seen in the other’s eyes. After just a few weeks of volunteer teaching, the children and teachers were inseparable. When the time for goodbyes arrived, the children hugged us tightly. Though speechless, hearts were united. Perhaps the most significant product of volunteer teaching is the sincerity between participants.
Our camp in Laos was surrounded by sparkling rivers, and the green crops in farmland swayed gently in the breeze. The dormitory was for six people and featured nothing more than iron-framed bunk beds and two electric fans. Thus, our life in Laos began.
After learning the basic Lao language and local etiquette, we went to the school to get acquainted with the environment. The children were very excited about our arrival and quickly became actively involved in class activities. Their interest in learning Chinese was far beyond our expectations. Many children raised hands to ask questions and were eager to practice new words they learned.
Some children even asked us to teach them more Chinese. In addition to the most basic words like “Hello” and “Goodbye,” the children also quickly learned many difficult words and proactively asked how to say simple sentences in Chinese such as “You are awesome!”, “Have you eaten?”, and “Thank you, teacher.”
We were pleasantly surprised by their rapid progress. Some children even became bursting with excitement over being given Chinese names. Upon seeing the children’s enthusiasm and strong interest in Chinese culture, we introduced Peking Opera, the quintessence of Chinese culture, and asked them to design their own facial makeup for it. The children were overjoyed and painted faces with colors emitting Southeast Asian flavor.
The children also became more and more familiar with us. Their sincerity and enthusiasm moved us particularly when they proactively started teaching us Laotian. In fact, the volunteer activity was not about we taught them, but what we learned from each other and how we grew together. They saw another world through our eyes, and we experienced another culture through them. The land where a man was born and the background in which he was brought up often constitute his sphere of knowledge. Anything beyond can be hard to imagine.
Will You Come Tomorrow?
After finding it difficult to communicate with children in English, we quickly adjusted our teaching plans and abandoned prepared text in favor of communicating through objects and body language. After a few days, the children acted like old friends. In a classroom without air-conditioning, at the end of the school day, the children would wipe sweat from our foreheads with their small hands and ask in broken English: “Teacher, will you come tomorrow?” “Yes, see you tomorrow.” There were too many heartwarming moments in the humble classroom.
To help the children discover more about China, we added Chinese cultural experience courses after talking to school officials. Objects with Chinese characteristics such as ink brushes, paper fans and Chinese knots became favorite toys. The children made rapid progress from knowing nothing about China to writing down their names in Chinese.
What is China like? What are Chinese people like? The first impression for these children was the friendly image of Chinese volunteers, which will indelibly leave a specific and concrete impression in their minds. We all felt that the children from all three different countries expressed enthusiasm for China and Chinese language beyond our expectations. They even asked volunteers to teach them more about China and Chinese culture. Their organic interest in Chinese culture made us realize that volunteer teaching was sowing seeds of friendship in their hearts.
During the two weeks of voluntary teaching in Samraong, Cambodia, we customized their Chinese names according to the pronunciation of their Cambodian names and their personalities. For example: Lin Song, a Chinese volunteer, gave his student Sopeak the Chinese name “Su Pingyang.” Whenever Lin Song called him “Pingyang,” he would blush.
As the students and teachers got to know each other, some children who were less active and shy finally began to answer questions. When the teacher asked a question, they would shout: “Teacher, me! Teacher, me!” and scramble to answer. Although we only spent two weeks together and mostly communicated through translation software, the children and teachers had become closer than ever.
Hua Hin is a seaside town in central Thailand. The two public primary schools we visited were short of teaching resources. At the school where the first teaching group went, most teaching aids and facilities had been donated. The school was self-sufficient and used the grassland behind the school for cattle and sheep to graze amid growing fruits and vegetables. Of its mere seven teachers, one was an English teacher, and 92 students were enrolled in the entire school. Local teachers didn’t shy away from explaining that “children from affluent families go to better schools in Bangkok.”
In such a short time, we hoped not only to teach Thai students a few words, but perhaps plant seeds of hope through enabling them to learn a foreign language and explore a colorful world.
In class, we tried our best to make the teaching content entertaining by introducing useful expressions that could be used in both Chinese and English. We used the catchy English alphabet song and a Chinese song Two Tigers and engaged in broken but orderly English conversation. We also practiced physical education featuring an ideal combination of Chinese language and Chinese martial arts.
During breaks, we arranged a variety of Chinese traditional playground games for children such as “Throwing the Handkerchief,” “The Eagle Catches the Chickens” and jumping rope, which were quickly embraced by Thai students.
Volunteer teaching is a process of getting to know one another and becoming closer, even a lasting memory in someone’s life. Upon seeing us walk onto the campus, the children would greet us with bows and pressed-together hands, saying “Sawatiika” (Hello). Some gently placed a cartoon sticker on us or helped tidy the hair on our foreheads.
Numerous heartwarming moments moved us: After Thai students were captivated by Chinese martial arts, they enthusiastically practiced and even challenged their teachers. After drawing a picture of their mother, they would say “I love Mom” in both Thai and Chinese. They said “I want to learn Chinese” to volunteers and hummed the Two Tigers song we taught them.
The memories of those days remain as fresh in our minds as the day we left. The children chased our departing cars, shouting in Chinese and English: “ 我爱你，I love you.”
Countless warm details are embedded in our hearts, and the children’s sincerity touched us the most.