“Okay, okay,” I answered, obediently following the herd of girls, ages 7 to 11, out of the small classroom and into the sweltering summer heat of Taiwan. Although the girls did not specify what they wanted me to do, through their actions and bright smiles, I knew the students—and what I would later consider as “my children”—wanted me to go out and play with them for recess.
This summer I was in Taiwan as a volunteer teacher for the Assisting Individuals with Disadvantages (AID) Overseas Youth English Teaching Volunteer Service Program (www.aidsummer.org). Placed at Nei-Hu Elementary School in the countryside of Yunlin County with seven other American born peers, I initially thought I was at the school, which was surrounded by dirt roads and fields as far as the eye could see, to expose its children to American culture and language.
I was soon proved wrong, as the roles of teacher and student quickly reversed.
The children who did not have many resources, tangible or otherwise, humbled us with their generosity, spirit, and enthusiasm to learn. I taught the highest level at the school where the students were learning to piece simple sentences together. Many of them would stay after class asking me questions ranging from whether “Trick or Treat” was real (do people really have that much candy, Teacher?), to asking me to read something from a Taiwanese stationary set that had English phrases which usually never made sense (Love white sky me?!).
As a Chinese female born and raised in California, I realized I had taken so many things for granted. I never got accustomed to the humid, wet, typhoon prone weather that characterizes Taiwan, or to the frequency of geckos and insects, but I fell in love with the respect of the earth my Taiwanese students instilled upon me and the determination they made to work hard at school. Many of them often arrived at the school gates at 7, sweaty but not bitter, from their bike ride of typically several miles in the burning heat.
And food. Waste not, want not. Although the food was by no means great, the students gobbled up the rice and occasional meat, but not without asking me beforehand if I wanted some of theirs. And more often than not, a student would be seen packaging his or her meal into a container to bring back home for family.
And despite it seeming like we were always surrounded by green agriculture, the principal and faculty went out of their way to make us volunteers feel like home. At nights, they would schedule events such as having one of the teachers teach us Chinese calligraphy, to driving us to the nearby oyster farm to see the process.
My experience in Taiwan was amazing. Before AID, I rarely thought of myself as Taiwanese, but now, I can’t believe I buried that sense of identity and obligation to serve for so long. Taiwan is in my heritage— a lovely and inspiring background I carry not just in my veins, but also in my heart.
Although AID hosted a weeklong tour of Taiwan afterwards to tourist spots like the beautiful beaches of Kending, the majestic mountains of Alishan, and the stunning Taipei 101, the most impressive experience was working with the rural students at Nei-Hu Elementary. Knowing there are children like them in the world, it’s hard not to look forward into the future and smile.
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