Softening language barriers one country at a time

Bobby O’Brien stands in front of a large, black rectangle painted on the wall. The paint is chipping off, but he’ll use what is left of it as a chalkboard. Weaving through the drawer-less wooden desks that fill the classroom, he stops beside an 11-year-old Chinese girl sitting on a mounted two-by-four.

“Jenny!” he exclaims, tapping her head with a squeaky toy hammer.

He makes his way around the classroom, and with a bop of the hammer “anoints” each of his 20 new students with an American name. Smiles and laughter fill the stone walls. For these 11- to 14-year-olds in the eastern Chinese village of Wangtun, this is their first lesson in English. For O’Brien, it’s a lesson in the universality of childhood.

“In terms of this image we have of Communist China – that kids are going to be really well disciplined – nah, kids are kids,” O’Brien, a GW junior, said. “There was a lot of excitement to have this big, goofy white guy teaching them English.”

This is how the international politics major from New Hampshire described last summer, when he traded an extra $4,000 at his corporate internship in Rhode Island for five weeks of volunteering with kids in rural China. It was part of Learning Enterprises, an entirely student-run organization that arranges summer teaching programs in more than 12 countries, from Poland to Indonesia.

Now, O’Brien is directing LE’s first year of active recruitment and outreach at GW. He was one of two volunteers from GW last summer, but estimates that around 20 GW students will make it into this summer’s programs. In the past few months he interviewed 82 GW applicants – second only to Stanford, where LE launched in 1992.

“I think what we’re seeing are these young, culturally aware, intelligent, accomplished men and women who are pissed off at the fact that abroad, America is disliked,” he said about the GW applicants. “They’ve decided to change that at the grassroots level, and want (other countries) to see that, hey, this is what America is made of.”

But even so, it’s hard to believe GW students are so eager to give up a paying summer gig, put themselves more than $1,000 in debt, since they are responsible for paying for traveling expenses, and fly 7,000 miles away to a secluded village with no running water. But O’Brien’s story offers some insight.

Instant gratification

After three days of orientation in Shanghai, O’Brien and four other volunteers boarded a rickety, old bus headed for Wangtun, beginning their eight-hour journey through the mountainous Anhui Province – one vehicle coming from the other direction meant a traffic jam on the single-lane dirt road.

The bus left them in Caicun, a small town 45 minutes from Wangtun. In the humid, sweltering heat, street dogs roamed wide streets lined with used plumbing parts shops and other offbeat merchants. There they transferred to a bamboo truck that took them to Wangtun.

The 300-person village was on the other side of a river, accessible only by a small rope bridge. The volunteers’ luggage was minimal, but together with the five of them it was enough to make the bridge sway violently from side to side.

As they descended into Wangtun, the entire village greeted them with firecrackers and a band of bamboo instruments.

“It’s overwhelming because you’re the center of attention,” O’Brien said. “There’s really no reason – you haven’t done anything to deserve it – other than they know you’ve paid to help teach English.”

Their host families were among those observing their parade through the village, but at this point the volunteers had no idea who anybody was.

“We’re hot, we’re sweaty, we’re absolutely ecstatic, and we’re wondering, like, where the hell are we?”O’Brien recalled.

Squashing stereotypes and improving exponentially

Soon enough O’Brien met his host family and became well acquainted with where he was. He got used to bathing in the river, using an outhouse next to the pigpen and appreciating the interior design of Wangtun’s concrete homes.

“The living rooms were all ornately decorated, like they were trying to make themselves look rich,” O’Brien said. “My family had a clock – didn’t work – but it looked like gold, so hey!”

A lot of the furnishings were fine crafts – products of the neighboring bamboo forest. Wangtun’s economy revolved around harvesting bamboo and bringing it down the mountain to craftsmen in the city. Harvesters like O’Brien’s host father made their own schedules, working just enough to make a living, and his host mother acted as a typical housewife.

“I was used to hearing how patriarchical other societies were, but my host father would go down to the river to wash his clothes while my host mother sat there and cleaned the dishes,” O’Brien said. “They showed a lot more affection for one another than I expected.”

They also had a 14-year-old son – a typical Chinese family, O’Brien said, because of the country’s one-child policy. Like many of LE’s host families, they agreed to provide room and board at no cost so their own child’s English would improve. He was the best English speaker in the village, but even at that, he spoke very little. At home, O’Brien almost always spoke Chinese. He only studied one year of the language at GW, but when he returned this past fall, he was able to skip a whole year.

Learning the riches of poverty

Since the kids were on their summer break, attendance at O’Brien’s school was voluntary, and the teaching style was laid back. The classroom became a sort of playroom with English learning toys – like the squeaky hammer.

After lessons, the classroom excitement filtered out into the school’s cement courtyard. The kids would scurry to buy cheap, dried meat snacks from the lady on the corner, or play with the village dogs that roamed around. O’Brien said he spent most of his free time with his students, too. It was a cultural education that went beyond learning new words.

“So much of it was just connecting with games and hand motions and smiles,”O’Brien said.

One of those unforgettable smiles came from Jenny. The class was having a show-and-tell, and Jenny brought in a photograph of herself dressed as a dancer. Aside from one other picture they had of her grandparents, it was the only photograph that her family owned.

“The way she put it was that it was the only possession she had . that was hers, and hers alone,” O’Brien recalled.

The Anhui Province is one of the poorest in China. There is no medical care, no running water and scarce electricity. But he says that the joy the children exuded throughout his five weeks in Wangtun made him forget that he was living in poverty.

“You know in the back of your head that objectively it’s very poor, but it’s a very, very rich atmosphere in terms of love, in terms of just being taken care of . everybody has everything they need,” he said. “I come back and think, wow, there are so many people at GW who would enjoy an experience like that.”

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