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On the second morning of camp, everyone woke up excited. The morning of the first day of camp was a bit more nerve-wracking and full of the unknown, but after a relatively successful first day, everyone was excited. My fellow ACE participants and I chatted over breakfast, wondering how many kids would come today and discussing any last-minute changes to the lesson plan. I was so wrapped up in our conversation that it took me until 8:40 to realize that no kids had shown up yet. This was a bit weird, since yesterday many of the kids had shown up over half an hour early, but I brushed it off as there were still 20 minutes until the start of camp.

At 8:50, I went upstairs to see all the desks empty and all the kids’ name tags laying on the table.

By 9:00, it was obvious that no kids were going to come to our camp that day. I stood on the balcony of the CERS center, trying to see if I could catch a glimpse of any kids, even a single one, attempting to trek up to CERS. The road was empty.

At 9:10, our program director Sam White and assistant program director Kalli McCoy came upstairs with sad faces that only confirmed what I had been fearing. They were soon followed by CERS’ education coordinator Tsering Drolma. They informed us that the village chief had told the people not to send their kids to our camp. This was hard to process, because everyone standing in that room believed in the value of the camp. All I could do was go back out to the balcony and stare at the empty road to CERS. It was hard for me to be mad at the village chief or the people of the village if this camp isn’t what their community wanted. But it was frustrating because I had seen the looks of excitement on the kids’ faces yesterday as we played games with them and taught them how to count to ten in English.

Eventually, two kids from the village showed up, as well as two of the children of the CERS center’s staff. Since not everyone was needed to teach these four kids, some of us were told to go back to our rooms and read an article that we were going to have a discussion about later that day and to periodically swap out with the people who were teaching.

Once I finished the article and came back to teach, I found a completely different teaching environment than I had the previous day. The first day of camp had been very organized and focused on teaching the kids English numbers and greetings. Though we had a lesson plan for the second day, we weren’t exactly following it, just picking and choosing the activities that felt appropriate for the mood the kids were in. Once they started to get a little restless, we took the group outside and wandered around the facility.

One of the little ones, who we had named Jack (we gave all the children English names), wandered over to a gazebo that overlooked a pond. I sat down on the bench and stared into the pond full of fish with him. “Dà yú, dà yú!” Jack said, pointing into the pond. Kalli told me that meant “big fish”. I followed his finger to a large orange blob in the lake wriggling towards us.

I laughed and said, “Yes Jack, that’s a big fish!”

“Dà yú!!!”

Erika Looking at Fish with Jack
Jack and I sitting in the gazebo by the pond, staring at all the fish.

We sat there for a while, pointing at some of the big fish and the small fish in the pond. I could sense a bit of frustration from him, as I did not know his language and he did not know mine, but it was fun nonetheless. And before we knew it, it was time for the kids to go home.

In my free time that day, it was hard not to feel guilty about coming all the way to China to teach these kids English. Even though we had good intentions, that didn’t necessarily mean that we were doing them any good. As we discussed later that day, the local Tibetan community was already going through so much to preserve their fast-fading culture in a country full of Han Chinese. The last thing this community needed was foreigners to impose American culture on their kids.

And to the community, that’s exactly what it looked like we were doing. Once I had time to reflect on the circumstances of the situation, it became clear why the village chief told the people not to send their kids to our camp. I couldn’t blame him. But I knew, along with everyone else in the program and at the CERS center, that we didn’t come to China to “impose” our language on these kids; we came to help them learn our language while we learned their culture.

“What the camp offered was more important than any amount of English we could teach them — a chance to interact with foreigners and people with different backgrounds and perspectives than them.”

Looking back on my experience in China, this one day affected my mindset for the rest of the camp and the rest of my time in Shangri-La. The camp wasn’t really about teaching the kids English, though that is what we had come there to do. The camp was important because we were making connections with kids who we would have never otherwise met, despite the language barrier, and despite coming from different backgrounds. I decided that from that day on, my number one priority for the camp would be to just have fun and make connections with the kids. The English was important, but whatever they failed to learn from us they would eventually learn in their English classes in school. What the camp offered was more important than any amount of English we could teach them — a chance to interact with foreigners and people with different backgrounds and perspectives than them.

This change of mindset made a big difference in the way I interacted with the kids and taught the camp. If the kids weren’t really in the mood to learn that day, instead forcing them to keep learning, we would go outside and play basketball with them until they were tired enough to focus. And if the kids seemed really interested in a particular lesson, we would scrap the planned outdoor activities and continue teaching. The camp became about what the kids wanted or were in the mood for as opposed to what we had decided the previous night.

“As I sit here, back in my home in Santa Cruz, California, I realize that even I have trouble remembering all the things that we taught those kids in the village. But I vividly remember their faces, their personalities, and their smiles.”

This go-with-the-flow attitude really worked well considering the unpredictable nature of the camp. Every morning we would wake up unsure of how many kids would come that day and what kind of mood they would be in. As the camp progressed, more and more kids started showing up to the camp. One day, over thirty kids showed up! Each morning, we would quickly decide how many groups we wanted to split up into (two or three, depending on how many kids there were) and which kids would go in what group. Additionally, we would take a look out the window and decide whether or not we would be able to do our planned outdoor activities that day. There were too many factors that were out of our control to predetermine exactly what we were going to do with the kids on any particular day. You can do as much lesson-planning as you like, but when you get a rare sunny day on a day you planned to stay inside, it would be a shame if you didn’t scratch your original plans to go outside and kick around a soccer ball with the kids. This is exactly what we ended up doing when we woke up one day and saw a bright sun instead of the usual gray dull of the morning. Although the field was still a little muddy, we had a blast running around with the kids and breaking from our usual routine of teaching English.

Erika and Kaitlyn Exploring with Children
Kaitlyn and I exploring with some of the kids before playing soccer.

As I sit here, back in my home in Santa Cruz, California, I realize that even I have trouble remembering all the things that we taught those kids in the village. But I vividly remember their faces, their personalities, and their smiles. I remember every morning during introductions Chris standing up and proudly saying, “My name is I’m a Chrith!” because he didn’t quite understand the grammar nor could he properly pronounce his English name. Eventually, it was corrected, but it became a phrase that every single member of the ACE in China team would quickly recognize and smile about.

Kira Picking Up Trash at Wetlands
Kira picking up trash during the litter cleanup at the Napahai wetlands.

I remember during our organized litter clean-up with the kids, Kira kept following me around and trying to tickle me with the hugest grin on her face. I remember mischievous Cam getting up from his desk during lessons to try search for more stickers while I had to block him and return him to his seat. I remember holding hands with Jack and running along the side of the street with him, and seeing the look of joy that flashed across his face. It was moments like those that reminded me why I came to China in the first place.

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