Reflections on my life in Guyuan: a life of Contrasts



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Reflections on my life in Guyuan: A Life of Contrasts.
A talk by Moira Laidlaw about her experience in China as a VSO volunteer and about her vision for the role of education in developing China.
9.30- 10.30 Tuesday 14th January, 2003, Room 1W 4.40, in the Department of European Studies and Modern Languages.
Nimen hao! I am very pleased to be here and to meet you. I hope that you find the following talk interesting and stimulating. I was delighted when I was asked to come here this morning to talk to you, because I have just spent the last eighteen months teaching in Guyuan, a little city in Ningxia Province, the Peoples Republic of China. I hope my experiences might be of interest to you. Perhaps after you have finished translating this speech, you might like to ask some me questions. I would be delighted to answer them.
So, I have come to see you today to talk about my life in Guyuan. As I wrote this talk, my students from the Grade Two Writing Course were sitting their examinations, and I said I would write something too. Would they choose me a subject? They were happy to. Their suggestions ranged from ‘What are the differences between China and England?’ (which is hardly a topic I can tackle in a short essay) to writing about my hobbies. Eventually, though, one of my students, Wang Guoyi, chose the one you are translating today: ‘My Life in Guyuan’. It is my pleasure to tell you about my experiences in China.
I first decided to come to China in May, 2000. I had been teaching English and Psychology in a girls comprehensive, or state, school in Bath for eight years. Prior to that, I had been teaching at this university for four years and was involved in a process of educational research called Action Research as I helped students preparing to become teachers on their teaching practices. In my early career, I taught English and German for ten years at a rural secondary school. They were happy years because the school was run by a very clever man, who believed that children needed to be happy before they could learn, and that learning wasn’t just about books and ideas, but about morality, kindness, teamwork and fairness. He influenced me very heavily from the beginning, and I still trace some of my educational values to his powerful expertise. Before I started teaching, I studied German and English at a northern university for four years, spending one year in Hamburg in Germany when I was twenty years old. I think this began my lifelong love of education, travel and exploration.
Why did I choose to leave Bath, and under what conditions? Well, I realised that although the job I was doing at the local school was valuable, and I enjoyed it, I wanted something more. A challenge, I suppose. I started thinking about doing some voluntary work abroad with VSO – Voluntary Services Overseas. This organization has a forty-year history and much experience of working in developing countries. VSO provides healthcare programmes, doctors and nurses, forestry experts, and teachers. The educational programme is by far the biggest part of its efforts in the world, and VSO China has the largest educational programme of all the developing countries. VSO concentrates its efforts in the poorer northwest, and the Province I have been teaching in, is a Hui Autonomous Region, 48% of the people being Hui. VSO’s policy is to promote the teaching of English amongst the Moslem population in this area, particularly amongst girls, who, as you probably know, are not always accorded the same rights as Hui boys in terms of full-time education. As you all know, Beijing is holding the Olympic Games in 2008 and is already a member of the World Trade Organisation (the WTO), and the Chinese government and VSO both feel that the learning of English is key in the development of all China, and particularly, therefore, in its poorer areas.
Why did I decide to come to China, rather than to another developing country? I have always been interested in China because of how different I thought it would be from England. I also felt that China is now at a very interesting stage in its development, and changing so rapidly, that I wanted to be a part of it all. Another reason was my knowledge of China as I was growing up. All the books I had read, for example, Chinese translations of Lao-zi and Kong-zi convinced me of what a fascinating place it would be to live. I also admired the paintings, particularly of the Sung Dynasty. My mother used to have a Chinese ebony writing desk, engraved in gold, with pictures of the monkey spirit cavorting on it, and I remember as a child being intrigued by all things Chinese. There were programmes on television about heroes of China, involved in daring deeds and magic, and I vividly recall how much I always looked forward to the days when I could watch their exploits.
But of course, the reality and the dream are different. These youthful dreams may have inspired me, but they could not sustain me when reality hit! And hit it did. When I first went to Guyuan, I was shocked at the poverty, shocked at the living conditions of many people, but most of all at first, I was shocked at the way I was stared at. My knowledge of the Chinese language has remained limited, but when I first went to Guyuan in September, 2001, I could hardly speak a word, despite a rigorous language course at Xi’an xibei daxue, which lasted for three weeks. When I first arrived in Guyuan railway station at 1.05 in the night, it was freezing cold. My waiban met me, Mr. Ma, a very friendly man in his early twenties. He took me to my flat on the college campus, and said goodnight.
The next morning, when I awoke, it took me some time to guess where I was. And then I remembered. Guyuan, where I was going to be living for two years. I got up and explored my flat. Quite big for a single person, I realised, and I was grateful to the college for organizing it. However, I wasn’t so grateful for the dead and mutilated rat , which I found on the kitchen floor, or the toilet which wouldn’t flush down, only up! I also wasn’t grateful for the fact that my telephone didn’t work because the last person hadn’t paid a bill of 1000 yuan. Oh dear. Anyway, I decided to go out and explore the town. And that’s when the staring started, something that’s never stopped, actually. Wherever I walked that morning, and subsequently, people stared. The little children stared first, shocked, and some ran away screaming ‘mama, baba!’ Young men and women stared. Some pointed. And old people stopped, mouths open, to wonder at this strange looking da bizi wandering around their city. And I was dumbfounded. I didn’t really know how to deal with this, and for the first term, this was the aspect of life I found the most difficult. It hasn’t remained so, because I think now I see the more significant things more easily: I see the kindness in people’s eyes, their open and unabashed curiosity about anything new. I see that Deng Xiaoping’s Open Door policy is truly making a difference to some people’s lives. I see that parents are so anxious to give their children every chance to speak English, they will push them forward to make the most of the opportunity of having a waiguoren in their midst. I also see the generosity of spirit, which pervades the people here. They always have a kind word, always smile and wave at me. Now that many Guyuan citizens at least know me by sight, they don’t look shocked anymore, just interested. So I walk around the streets, always acknowledged, always visible, and always, I feel, welcome. And of course, I see the significance of the poverty, the way in which a lack of money lessens a chance to have a life without hunger, without worries about health and old-age. I see families subsisting on and well-below the breadline; I see beggars on the streets. I see the desperation of parents to change the lives of their offspring through education. I see how no one ever complains about their lot in life, and what I see I admire beyond words.
What else have I found different in being here? When I first lived here, I found that I was surprised by some of the customs. For example, when I was out walking, people would say, ni che fan le ma? Have you eaten? I wondered why strangers were asking me that question. I didn’t realise that it is a custom in the north west of China to greet people in this way, probably stemming from the time during the Cultural Revolution and before, when some people in the countryside really didn’t always have enough to eat. Another custom, which bewildered me, was being asked ‘where are you going?’ I found this an intolerably rude question, because I didn’t realise that such enquiries are just a form of greeting, like our English, ‘It’s a nice day, isn’t it?’ or ‘How are you?’ These aren’t real questions, just as the enquiry ‘where are you going?’ doesn’t really require a truthful or full answer. It’s just a way of saying hello. Unfortunately, before I understood this, there were times when I scolded my students for asking me this question, saying that I found it inappropriate for them to be inquisitive in this way about a teacher’s habits. I had a lot to learn! I was beginning to see that being in another country was going to be very difficult, not just because of the language barrier, but because of the cultural gaps between us. What I still had to learn and what I am still learning, is the sense that it is in emphasising our similarities that we can work and live harmoniously together. That insight has only really happened this last term.
For my first term in Guyuan Teachers College, I taught Oral English (Speaking) with Grades One and Two students and Teaching Methodology with Grade Three. In the Oral classes, we concentrated on the cultural connections between language and understanding (and I think I probably learnt as much as they did at that time!). In the Teaching Methodology course, I offered them instruction on how to teach, including such aspects as classroom management, lesson-planning and how to evaluate the students’ learning.
In the second term I was asked to expand the Teaching Methodology class into two terms with the Grade Two students. The first term would contain the theory above, interspersed with some practice, and the second term would be entirely constituted by each student (30 in each class) standing on the platform and teaching a thirty minute-lesson about some grammatical point to a junior class, followed by 20 minutes of peer-evaluation. This has seemed to work quite well. At the end-of-term evaluation recently, the students were able to demonstrate their ability to think for themselves and form opinions about those aspects of the course which had proved useful, and those which had not.
This term, in addition to teaching Methodology to Grade Two students, I have, as I have already mentioned, taught Writing, and also Literature to Grade Three students. I have particularly enjoyed these two courses, the former because of the nature of the students in Class Four, and the latter, because I always enjoy teaching Literature. I find that my Chinese students are very willing to see things symbolically and metaphorically, which is a wonderful skill with which to explore poetry.

Next term I shall be teaching Methodology to all five Grade Two classes. This is a two-term course again, and then after completing that, I shall leave Guyuan Teachers College for good.


I am really enjoying my time at the college, because my colleagues and students have made me so very welcome. The college has a ten-year history of working with VSO, and this has meant that they are used to the strange ways of laowai! Notably, the dean has worked very hard to ensure my complete integration into college-life, so that there are times when I forget I am a laowai at all, and feel more like a citizen of China. In addition many of my colleagues and students invite me to their homes on a regular basis, and I feel accepted as a part of their community.
My linguistic ability continues to be poor, however. I really find Chinese such a difficult language. Although I can negotiate my way around a menu, or ask for directions and make myself understood in small things, I am still unable to hold a conversation of any length and depth with anyone! I put this down to two things: first, my own poor scholarship. I have not made the required effort to learn the language, as I am surrounded by people whose English is so good, that when I struggle to articulate something, they can anticipate me and say the meaning in English. Because I am lazy, I have not prevented them from doing this. Secondly, the language itself is unlike any I have studied before. My proficiency in a couple of European languages is sound, but Chinese isn’t like a Western language. In my ignorance, I thought the absence of gender and tenses, and the fact that verbs don’t conjugate, would make it an easy language to learn. How wrong I was! Sentence construction and the tones are far away from anything I have met before so that I still mistake the second tone for the third one at times, for example. Ah well, they say that practice makes perfect. In my opinion, a lot of practice might make me adequate – if I had a hundred years to do it in! And I haven’t even mentioned the writing! I recognise a few characters because I meet them so often in the street, but I can’t write at all. I doubt I will ever learn to write anything. How do you all manage it so skillfully? I wish I knew!
So, in conclusion, the best and the worst of my experiences in China? I’ll consider the worst first, because I want to end on an optimistic note. Well, I guess what I find the most difficult has to be the extent of the poverty in the area I am living in. Some of my students, for example, cannot afford sufficient food everyday and are often too tired to study in the afternoon, because of lack of nutrition. Everyday I see people living hand-to-mouth in circumstances, which shock me. I realise that China is developing fast. I just hope that the affluence of the east can be generated as quickly as possible in the west.
And the best? Well, that’s easy. It’s the people. Their kindness, their curiosity about new ideas and people, their generosity – that although they have so little themselves, they are always eager to share what they have with others. I love the children, so anxious and pleased to learn from a laowai. I think Chinese children are truly the most beautiful I have seen anywhere in the world as well, with their inquisitive and sweet faces. I love the way in which friends, colleagues, students, even strangers on the street, have made me so welcome and shown me such wonderful hospitality. VSO says that it is often the case that a volunteer will gain more than she gives in her placement. I think this is certainly true in my case as a teacher at Guyuan Teachers College.






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