In Ashley Zhou’s words:
It feels good to be back.
It’s such a presumptive, loaded statement, one that assumes some form of ownership over this vast, sprawling, beautiful, nonsensical country. But it’s true. It does feel good to be back. Though I did not grow up in China, I cannot help but help feel a yearning for my heritage, my mother country.
China can’t be homogenously characterized, though. Beijing is an entirely different creature than the ones I’ve known, Daxing more so, Dandelion Middle even more so yet. I’ve gotten to know this country through brief whirlwinds of flings in Shanghai, Hangzhou, Hunan. Outside of the year and a half I spent with my grandparents as a baby, this will be the longest time I’ve spent in China—hence making it the longest trip I have the ability to remember.
It’s not my first time in China, and it’s not my first time teaching English either. Two summers ago, I worked at Jinxi Elementary School in the mountains of the Hunan province. It was such an all-encompassing experience, I cannot seem to distill its essence into a brief synopsis, so I’ll just condense further: my time at Jinxi changed my life.
This experience, of course, necessarily yields comparison to my time here at Dandelion. It has its advantages, of course, and also its disadvantages. In some ways, it’s important to have context and experience; in others yet, it’s important to come in humble and knowing nothing.
The conditions here at Dandelion are remarkable in comparison to Jinxi. I find myself marveling at the quality of the education, the effort the teachers put in, and the potential prospects of the children. It’s a far cry from conditions in the United States, however, and I felt myself irrationally worrying about the other volunteers feeling pity. These anxieties have since been assuaged—it’s practically impossible to feel pity for children with so much personality and fierce energy.
Many of the students here at Dandelion are migrant children who accompanied their parents from their laojia, or old home, to Beijing for a variety of reasons, many of them economic. Their poor socioeconomic status is problematic, their lack of hukou, or household registration, even more so in accessing the educational system. My students at Jinxi, however, were children left behind when their parents left for factory jobs. They saw their parents only once a year during the Spring Festival, and I cannot forget the tears of one of my best students when she told me her parents couldn’t afford to send her to middle school.
There are more superficial differences as well. The students wear the same thing every day here at Dandelion because they have uniforms, but at Jinxi they rotated through their only three nice school-appropriate outfits. At one point, I tried to organize a Pajama Day for my class, but half the students expressed confusion since they did not have the luxury of separate clothing designated for sleeping. They have access to resources at Dandelion, limited as they are, but at Jinxi, all we had was what the volunteers brought.
There are countless many more differences, extensive and subtle alike. Needless to say, I was duly impressed by Dandelion. I have loved getting to know the school, its teachers, and above all, of course, its students. Jinxi helped shape who I am, and I know Dandelion will as well.