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Discovering China through volunteering
29 November 2006
by Julie Thompson

Australian volunteer Lyn Whitell with Chinese students in the Shandong Province, March 2005.Australian volunteer Lyn Whitell with Chinese students in the Shandong Province, March 2005.
Gingin, Australia: The ancient building is renovating. Excuse me for bringing trouble to you" read the apologetic sign on a building in the centre of Beijing. For Faith Whitell, aged 66, of GinGin, Western Australia, it was just yet another example of the gentle manner of the Chinese way.

Faith and her sister Lyn, also in her 60s, from Baulkham Hills, New South Wales, spent two months as volunteer teachers in China with the Global Volunteer Network at Fushan No. 1 Senior Middle School, near Yantai in the Shandong Province. The school has about 4000 students, aged between 16 and 20, almost half of this number being boarders. Lyn and Faith worked with 14 classes of Grade 1 students, aged around 16 - 18 years old, teaching conversational English. And what a time they had.

"As my sister and I were both nearing retirement at the end of busy working years, we talked about finding a different and interesting challenge whilst we were both physically able, and which would be like nothing we had done previously. Overseas volunteering appealed to us both," said Faith.

"Although we had previously travelled overseas, to UK, Europe and Asia, we could not have foreseen the adventure we were to experience when we enquired about the Global Volunteer Network opportunity to spend time on their project in China," said Faith.

Volunteering is a travel experience like no other, because by spending time with the Chinese students, Faith and Lyn were able to develop strong bonds with people they would never have usually come into contact with, and found out what it is really like to live the 'Chinese way'.

“I consider tourism to be all about seeing places and taking photos," says Faith. "It is a short term, though most enjoyable, journey. [But] volunteering is a real life experience, understanding the culture, history and religion of others, explaining our differences, cementing goals and giving encouragement and praise for [the student's] hard work and the discipline which is their way of life.”

And the way of life in a Chinese boarding school is quite different from schools in Western countries. Students are required to attend school six to seven days a week, and students begin their day with a 6am exercise program every morning. After breakfast, lessons commence - and continue until 8.40 at night, with a two hour lunch break in the middle. Students are also responsible for chores within the school. These include cleaning blackboards and replacing drinking water supplies in the classrooms, sweeping walkways, cleaning toilet areas, and sometimes the windows in the accommodation blocks. Also, as well as normal school hours, there are monthly exams, which the students need to study hard for.

"There is much pressure put on students in China, and education is seen as very important. The problem with this, however, is that there aren’t enough teachers to go around," says Faith.

With up to 85 students in each class in a school of 4000, students benefit hugely from the help of overseas volunteers. In China education is seen as the way to become successful in life, and in a country with a population of over one billion people, good grades are very important.   

Faith and Lyn were each teaching classes of 85 students, with only a copy of the current English textbook as a guide. They had to prepare their own lessons, which was a little overwhelming at first, but was less difficult than they first thought.

"We found the students to be so friendly. They showed extreme interest in what was discussed, and were most willing to participate in lessons, and had a wonderful sense of humour," said Faith. "I feel that our students enjoyed our classes, our company and our friendship."

The students were fascinated to learn that Lyn and Faith had come all the way from Australia.

“Most of our students were amazed and excited that Lyn and I had come so far," she said. "We had taken to China some coloured wildlife pictures, family photos etc. - but the items in which the students were most intrigued were the Australian stamps, coins and notes we had with us.   Some of these were eventually left with our students at the school and I’m sure they are looked on as treasures by our young friends."

Both Lyn and Faith had weekends for exploring, and on unrostered afternoons, they would explore the streets of Fushan, and were amazed at the friendliness of the Chinese people they met.

"We made a particular effort to be very approachable, at the school, in the street and whilst travelling.  Many complete strangers would ask to practice their (very minimal) English with us, and were absolutely delighted with our responses," said Faith.

"We became quite familiar to the stall holders in the marketplace, the girls in the cake shop and supermarket, and people in the street who were keen to identify with the two ‘Adalian’ ladies from the school."

Faith jokes that their departure will undoubtedly affect the local Fushan community economy. "Both the strawberry seller in the market lane and the cake shop proprietor will not go ahead with the planned extensions to their homes," she joked.

And when it came time to leave after the two months, both Lyn and Faith found it very difficult.

"The biggest challenge for me as a volunteer was overcoming the emotion of becoming so attached to the students. Some of these young people are so genuinely friendly, and with our maternal instincts, when the time came it was extremely difficult for us to leave."

But halfway through packing, Faith and Lyn received an unexpected summons to a meeting in the school boardroom.

"We thought perhaps we were to be thanked and wished a safe and enjoyable trip home," says Faith. "Unbeknown to us a team from the Yantai TV network had been assembled to make a documentary and we were the ‘stars’." Yantai TV is the local television station, and broadcasts to millions of Chinese viewers!

Faith and Lyn were introduced to a young TV  producer, 2 journalists, 2 cameramen, 2 soundmen - and were asked all sorts of questions - how old they were, where they came from, how they had enjoyed being at the school etc etc. Then with the whole crew in tow, they walked around the school, joined by their favourite students Wang Kai (Tim) and Ziang Xiao (Shyna) and many others. There was also the re-enactment of a classroom lesson.   

"Needless to say with cameras rolling, the involvement and conduct of my class 5 was nothing short of perfect," said Faith. "Then it was signing of autographs, writing some words of encouragement to students about their future, then a farewell speech – all for the camera and all without preparation."

The crew then filmed them getting ready to leave. Both sisters found the experience very exciting, not to mention the humour of two fifty-year-old women walking up four flights of stairs with a full TV crew and six excited students trailing behind to inspect their apartment, with the sisters only halfway through washing, cleaning and packing.

Volunteering in China was an experience like no other for Faith and Lyn, and it has cemented a special bond between sisters, who in their retirement, are using their time to make a real difference to the lives of others.

"The biggest rewards for us both were the enjoyment we had together as sisters and the ongoing friendships we made with complete strangers in such a faraway place that no-one at home can completely understand," said Faith.

Lyn and Faith Whitell are two very adventurous women, and they are part of a growing trend for older travellers seeking to step outside their comfort zone by visiting a foreign country. They enjoyed their time so much that they decided to volunteer again in October this year.

Both are looking forward to meeting again with the Chinese friends they have made, and no doubt, the local strawberry stall will be pleased with the return of the extra business!