A few reflections on my China days



A few reflections on my China days

I spent nearly six of the happiest years of my life in China. From 2001 to 2007 I was a volunteer in China’s northwest, in Ningxia, Guyuan. My original remit was to be an oral English teacher, but gradually, with the collaboration with Guyuan Teachers College (Ningxia Teachers University) we set up China’s Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching.


I have been a teacher all my life. It is a vocation for me. I believe that it is only through education that we can improve the lot of the human race. I believe passionately that all peoples are equal, and that it is the responsibility for those who have a lot to know it and to take responsibility for it.


Before going to China I was a Middle School teacher of English, German and Psychology. I love teaching. I am passionate about it. Then, I realised that I wanted something more from my life than the very comfortable and sometimes stale processes of education here. I had spent 23 years as a teacher when I knew I wanted something more. I wanted to go to China because it was somewhere I had never dreamed of going to. I knew next to nothing about the country and its peoples. I knew that in the northwest and far west the country wanted to work with foreign teachers in order to update their methodologies. I joined VSO (Voluntary Services Overseas) because their motto: Sharing Skills, Changing Lives really moved me.


Gradually, over the five years in Guyuan (and then 6 months in Beijing in VSO’s central office) the foreign languages department and I worked on our action research projects until we were able to publish our work on the internet: www.actionresearch.net/~edsajw/moira.shtml or www.bath.ac.uk/~edsajw/moira.shtml


When people here ask me what was special about China, I say immediately, every time, it was the people. The generous people, who adopted me into their hearts. The people who treated me with nothing but kindness and consideration. The times I was invited into people’s homes and given their best food and drink, their most treasured photographs brought out to entertain me. Indeed, as far as food and drink were concerned, it didn’t matter if I’d eaten, I was overwhelmed with encouragements to eat still more and still more! Nothing was too much trouble for people. As I explored the countryside I would meet with people who perhaps had rarely if ever seen a foreigner, and yet I was ushered into homes as if I were a long-lost friend. There aren’t really words to describe how good it felt to be there.


And then there were the children. I maintain that Chinese children are the most beautiful in the world:


Chinese children…and I don’t see how anyone could refute that! I gradually became accustomed to many cultural differences, as well as sometimes the sense of being a fish out of water. When I went to a village, the whole village came out to watch! If I went shopping, children would follow me, laughing, pointing out my strange clothes, and if I stopped and looked back, they’d be there in little troops of mischief, but it was all so delightful, so friendly. It was strange for me, though, to be such a centre of attention and sometimes, I found it hard. However, what I learnt was that the people weren’t being nosy – as I had at first felt – but simply curious. It was a fascinated and completely open curiosity. It was, what I believe to be, a huge desire to learn.


In Guyuan I learnt a lot about my Western assumptions – my sense of individualism coming always before the community. I saw how many people in China consider themselves in relationship to others, rather than the Western way of seeing oneself as an individual first and foremost. That was the most difficult and also most rewarding aspect of the experience for me. It has changed my outlook on life a lot. Instead of thinking so much as an individual, I find myself seeing things in terms of communities. I saw the loving care with which whole families contributed to the education of a single member of their family. I saw what people sacrificed so that their children could have it better than them.


On the day of writing this, the 29th Olympic Games in Beijing finished. You can bet your life! I was glued to the television for those sixteen years. I felt so proud of China and what she had accomplished. And yesterday, when the Chinese national anthem played, I stood up. All the feelings of being in China, my friends there, my experiences and learning – all rushed back to me. I sang heartily along with the music, so glad that the Games had been so very successful both from a national and an international point of view.


I love the written language. I never came to learn to speak: I blame this entirely on my own laziness and lack of determination. However, I am working on it now back in England, where I have been since the beginning of last year. I read Agatha Christie novels with relish in Chinese, and when I can hold of them, Tang Dynasty poetry. The first one I found is the one I always come back to:






I think it is because China helped me to see the world in different ways. It’s in my blood now.


One day I will return to China. I cannot at the moment due to personal reasons, but China has planted seeds of belonging in my heart. I must return.


Moira Laidlaw, August 2008.