In the summer of 2016, I volunteered abroad with AIESEC in the city of Chengdu, China. The volunteering project involved teaching English to primary and middle school students for five weeks. While there were a lot (and I mean a lot) of challenges faced during the trip, I can proudly say it is the most rewarding, life-changing experience I’ve ever had.
I won’t sugar coat it, the trip began with a fair amount of confusion. AIESEC is a youth led organisation, and I didn’t know all the details of the trip until I got there (which of course, alarmed my parents and prompted them to beg me not to go travelling alone). But the people who organise the entire thing are students just like us, some even still in high school and only 17 years old, so it’s pretty hard to manage 16 foreigners who don’t speak any Mandarin. Regardless, I went anyway, claiming I needed a fresh new start – kind of like eat pray love except I wasn’t getting divorced – and wanted to change some lives.
The initial week of the experience I spent with a host family, a lively, adorable 17 year old girl named Tina and her parents and grandma. From the moment I stepped out of the airport, I was greeted with gifts and a generous pouring of love which, considering I was a complete stranger coming to their house, moved me in ways I didn’t expect. From the very first night, I felt completely at home with their family, with Tina’s parents asking me questions non-stop about India and where I was from and writing down phrases of English they’d learnt from me. The first night I spent making Chinese dumplings with Tina and her grandmother – something I can honestly say I was rubbish at – and listening to Tina play the pipa (a Chinese string instrument).
Throughout the week I got to know not only my host family more but the other 15 volunteers who had come from various countries abroad to participate in the project. They, and their respective host brothers/sisters would take us around the city and show us things like the Jinsha museum, Dufu cottage and gardens, and the old street area called Jinli.
The best part of that first week, without a doubt, was visiting the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base. You know those kung fu panda movies? Yeah, they’re all based around Sichuan province – where all the remaining pandas are bred and saved from extinction. Brace yourselves, you may need tissues on hand for how adorable this next picture is.
From weeks 2-5, we were together with the volunteers as one group. Leaving my host family was hard, but I still kept in touch with them. Our group of 16 was split into 2 camps, and each camp would be teaching in a different part of the city (with our buddies – local Chinese university students who would assist with translation and were also AIESEC volunteers). My camp, spent the second week mentoring young children (14-16) in a mountainous region of Chengdu known as Dujiangyan. This area was one of the most beautiful places I saw during the trip. We went hiking, planted vegetables, shovelled mountain trails – basically taught the kids all about the environment. At first the prospect of manual labour was daunting – I thought, when are we gonna teach the children in classrooms? But by the end I felt so proud of myself and the group that it didn’t matter.
From weeks 3 to 5, my camp and I returned to the city of Chengdu and taught middle school students, and then primary school students. Regardless of age, the children were incredibly cute. Seeing a foreigner was very rare, let alone 8 who were from completely different parts of the world. They would constantly ask for selfies and autographs and even bring us gifts to thank us for teaching them. This kind of education culture was so starkly different to what I’d experienced in the West. Don’t get me wrong, there were still the usual troublemakers who would skip class or talk a little too loud during lessons, but even they showed a certain level of respect and fascination for us teachers.
Here’s my middle school class – these kids were around 15 years old:
And here’s my primary school class – they were 10 years old:
There’s a lot that happened during those few weeks that I could tell you, but then this post would be far longer than it already is.
Instead, I’ll just say this; while at first there was confusion about the structure of the whole programme, by the end it didn’t even matter if we had a set schedule. We made our own plans, our own adventures, and this made the trip so much more rewarding and exciting than a trip that may have been planned down to the T. I would honestly recommend an AIESEC experience, or any trip abroad alone, to anyone reading this, because it really changes your life. When you feel like you’ve really made an impact on someone’s life, made a child smile, taught them something new, it really puts your own views on life into perspective, and the stupid problems like ‘how will I use a hole in the ground for a toilet’ don’t seem so big anymore. I met some of the best people on this trip, and saw breathtaking scenery, and I honestly can’t wait to return to China to explore more of the beautiful country (and the food – the food was amazing).