Four members of Dorchester District Two just returned from a trip that involved sight-seeing, teaching and deep-fried cicadas.
The group of four recently embarked on a month-long trip to China to teach English to Chinese students and teachers. They left the United States July 2.
Henry Darby, assistant principal at Fort Dorchester High; Gayna McNeish, sixth-grade guidance counselor at Alston Middle; Karen Garcia, fourth-grade teacher at Spann Elementary and her husband Norbert, who works for the U.S. government, all spent time in China as part of a teaching abroad program offered through the Chinese Culture and Education Center in Spartanburg.
Karen Garcia said the district sent out an e-mail from the Center in October, promoting the trip. “I went to a meeting and it sounded like fun, so I decided to go,” she said.
All four members expressed an interest in checking out China.
“It’s always been on my bucket list,” Norbert Garcia said. “I’m a history major, and China is full of history. I think I came away with more than I gave.”
Plus, they would not be seeing the country as normal “tourists.”
“We weren’t there for just a week or a few days,” he said. “We were there for a month. That allowed you to see things that the normal tourists don’t – to experience things that the normal tourists don’t; to have more in-depth conversation with the people and develop relationships; to really get to know some of those people.”
A total of 43 people went to China through Spartanburg’s center, and were divided into three groups once they all flew into Beijing. Darby and the Garcias were sent to Shijiazhaung, a city in the province of Hebei, to teach English to Chinese teachers. After two weeks they moved on to teach in Handan. The trio returned to the United States July 30.
McNeish, meanwhile, went to China for a shorter term, and taught English to seventh grade students in Baoding. She returned July 21.
The group stayed in dorms, and said many middle and high school students lived in dormitories as well at the schools.
“They don’t populate the schools like they do here,” Norbert Garcia said. “All their schools are competitive – you have to compete to get in the schools.”
The group focused on teaching oral English to Chinese teachers and students in order to help them better speak and understand the language. As they taught they would talk about different cultural aspects of the United States like money, shopping, holidays, shopping, national parks, art, dancing and more. Outside the classroom the American teachers also taught their students sports like kickball, dodgeball, Frisbee, four square, the Hokey Pokey, whiffle ball and more.
Darby said in China teachers can instruct a class of up to 100 students.
“What I liked most about it was we were able to give different types of strategies and methodologies for teachers, which gave them ideas of what to do in the classroom,” he said, “because in a class of up to 100 what else can one do but lecture? This idea of helping teachers to help students, that’s what I got out of it the most.”
While the group spoke only English in the classrooms, they still faced a language barrier outside of schools. Darby knew how to speak a little Chinese and Norbert Garcia said he tried to learn a new word every day – and write it.
McNeish said people were very willing to help the Americans navigate and overcome that language barrier. “You think of the Chinese being so serious, but they were so loving, so generous,” she said. “They just wanted to help us navigate our little school and little city. They were just so thrilled we were there. The perception I had of them is totally different from how they are. They were such a loving and generous people.”
Darby said one thing he learned about China is its unemployment rate is very low compared to that of the United States.
“Basically everyone has a job,” he said. “Just to say that most people are employed really says something.”
Censorship is a reality in China, Norbert Garcia said, and residents cannot access many social media sites used in America, such as Facebook. They do, however, have a version of Facebook called QQ International.
“A lot of us left China with the QQ address for each of our students so we can stay in touch with them,” he said.
Karen Garcia said she left China with an appreciation for the Chinese teacher; one woman she encountered teaches fourth grade English, has four classes a day – and each class has 75 students. “I learned that we are spoiled here in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s an experience we’ll never forget. We want to go back.”
In China, the group said, Caucasians and African Americans are considered a novelty.
“We couldn’t go anywhere without someone whipping out their cell phone to take our picture,” Norbert Garcia said. “In towns Shijiazhaung and Handan, they hardly ever see any Caucasians or African Americans, so you really stand out there. They would just stop and talk to us. They were very proud of their city and wanted to take us around.”
One of Karen Garcia’s students invited her to her house for dinner, and the student’s father made dumplings.
“It’s traditional that when you are getting ready to go on a long journey the meal you eat before you go is dumplings, and it’s to have a safe journey,” Garcia said. “When you arrive at your next destination you have noodles for your safe arrival.”
The group said the food was good, though they encountered very different dishes. “Bouding is famous for donkey,” McNeish said. “It’s very delicious.”
The Garcias said some of their colleagues were daring enough to try deep-fried cicadas, and also said different types of mushrooms and sea cucumbers are also popular dishes. “There are some unique foods – some different foods,” Karen Garcia said.
The group spent evenings touring China, and took time to check out the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and more. Some teachers participated in the opportunity to do calligraphy and tai chi.
“The parks in China are fantastic – they’re huge,” Karen Garcia said. “They do exercises in the park at night and line dancing.”
While everyone agrees they had a great experience and would love to do it again, they recommend to anyone who is interested in teaching abroad to go with an open mind and be flexible. “You have to be flexible in that your schedule is going to be different than what you anticipated,” Norbert Garcia said. “In the middle of the week they might change plans. It’s not the fault of the people that brought us.”
Saying good-bye to the Chinese students and teachers was the hardest part of the trip.
“It was emotional,” Karen Garcia said. “It didn’t matter if it were the men or the women, they were all emotional. They did not want to part and asked that we come back and that when we come back, make sure we call.”