I had intended on writing a condensed version of the blog I wrote during the four months of my gap year that I spent in China in 2013. However after reading it I have realised that shortening my time there into one post will not do the experience any justice. So instead I am going to talk a little bit about why I decided to take a gap year, in case anyone is wondering the same thing or are unsure about travel in general and then I’m just going to insert some extracts from my other blog and tell you a little bit about what was going on at the time.
During my A Levels, I was getting quite worried over the fact that everyone around me was excited to start uni as soon as possible and coming back from open days full of enthusiasm, and I just wasn’t. One university really stood out to me and I fell in love with the campus but not the course, and at others the course sounded great but I couldn’t see myself living there. So alongside choosing my five university options, I also applied for an English teaching programme in China with Lattitude Global Volunteering, who run a number of programmes across the world. I had always been envious of people who were well travelled and travelling was always something I always said I would do ‘one day’ but the opportunity seemed to come along at the right time. My advice in relation to anything similar would be to just go for whatever is going to make you most happy and don’t force yourself to be excited about something that you aren’t, even if it’s what everyone else is doing. Also, if the programme you have chosen or trip you are planning doesn’t actually last a year, don’t let anyone question whether you are actually having a gap year – I personally needed all those extra months for saving!
As soon as I turned around and walked through the gate with my good friend Francis, I knew I was ready to go. All my questions and worries disappeared as they suddenly seemed irrelevant and I learnt all the other volunteers shared the same anxieties as I did. I think this is something that made us close from the start; from then on we only really had each other and this was a new and alien experience for everyone. After travelling and waiting in airports for hours, by the time we arrived in Kunming I felt as if I had known these new people for months. It was then time to meet the other volunteers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa.
The day that I left for China was probably the strangest experience I have ever had, it was the first time away from my family and my first long haul flight. I remember feeling as though nothing was sinking in and being unable to comprehend that when I landed I would be on another continent the other side of the world and my mum would be having a cup of tea in our living room. I made some incredible friends within the time we had travelling together and we grew even closer in the week we spent teacher training. That’s something really special you take away from a gap year or organized trip, the people you meet are the only people who have shared that experience and they will always come up in stories you tell people.
The challenge of engaging 60 students in speaking English only became apparent to me on that first day. I had hoped that by starting of with an ‘Introduction to English’ lesson they would feel confident in telling me facts about England and would perhaps want to ask me some questions. Instead, I was literally faced with 60 vacant stares. I soon realised they were not ready to speak freely in English but I could already see some of the students had massive potential; as I walked around the classroom I heard them speaking in English and writing with perfect spelling. At first I found this incredibly frustrating, but once I accepted it was me that would have to change and adapt rather than them, I began to enjoy teaching.
The particular volunteer programme that I chose involved being placed in a school in areas of China that can’t afford to qualified English teachers (most are attracted to the major cities anyway.) My students would tell me how for them, learning English would give them more opportunities to move out of their rural community and to have a future other than farming. I was placed in an averge sized school (for China) which meant each week I taught 12 classes, with each class consisting of 50 – 70 students.
One day that sticks out to me is Easter Sunday. I woke up feeling slightly homesick as Easter is one of my favourite days of the year and always spent with my family. Eve took us to the flat she shares with her mum for breakfast and we ate almond cake with jam and milk. She had bought us a knife and fork and it was so clear she was trying to make everything as familiar as possible for us. She then presented me with a bar of chocolate and apologised that is wasn’t a real Easter egg. Few students here know much about Western religion and so to be considered by her family was very touching. We were later invited to her Grandmother’s house in the Muslim community, which had a peaceful atmosphere and felt very different to the rest of the town and we were taught how to make traditional Chinese dumplings. Eve is the only person in her family who can speak English but we still felt so welcomed and we all attempted to speak to each other. It’s always interesting when you are able to see Chinese families on a typical day and we feel lucky to be able experience ‘real life’ in China.
I was lucky enough to make close friends with my students and I am so grateful for all the things they taught me. When looking at volunteer opportunities I would say its important to pick something that lasts longer than a few weeks if you really want to experience life in that country and something that will really give you a chance to immerse yourself in another culture and get to know the people around you.
That’s all for now, this blog would be far too long if I tried to write about four months all at once, so I’ll be posting a part 2 soon. If you’d like to read about my experience in detail, you can do so here: eferris.travellerspoint.com thanks for reading and happy travelling! I am happy to answer any questions about China to the best of my ability 🙂