Contact Cards

June 6, 2013
Contact Cards

She stepped off the bus awkwardly, gazing at the smooth whitewashed walls of the school and dorms. They were so uniform and neat, and quite different from the buildings back in Maryland, or even in Shanghai. “The buildings here are pretty in their own way. I could live here,” Sharon thought.

“Here” referred to Jingxian county of Anhui province, a rural place filled with flat green fields. Standing by the balcony of the top floor of the dorms, Sharon could see the misty emerald mountains, which protected a beauty was as mystical as the puffs of gray chimney smoke slowly wafting into the air from the school kitchen.

She thought about how she had come from to such a faraway place, with these Americanized teens from Maryland, Texas, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts. Certainly none of them were poor; in fact, they were probably considered at least upper-middle class. In addition to the $2000 plane ticket for the trip from the United States to China, each of them paid $2000 to participate in this program and develop their own curriculum with the other teens in a small assigned classroom teacher group, live in hot and humid conditions without air conditioning, eat awful food in ceramic glazed tin bowls, and wait for showers that needed the be heated two hours in advance. Their most difficult task would be to communicate with their students; poor kids whose parents had left them to seek work in the cities, while they lived in the dorms at this school or in the care of their extended family.

According to Mrs. Wang, the coordinator of this program, some of these kids would be seriously hard to deal with. Some of them had parental complexes, while others experienced harsh lifestyles, or simply wanted some attention. Sharon thought about it. She had worked with autistic kids, kids with ADHD, kids challenged with school, athletic kids, and almost all other kinds of kids. It could not be so hard to teach a classroom of kids, especially with the help of three other American highs school students, and four other Chinese university students.

So the next day, she woke up from under her mosquito net protected bunk bed, slipping on her flip flops, shorts, and sprayed on some mosquito spray. She and the other teachers introduced themselves to the students, and soon discovered that most of them could not even recall the alphabet. English became the hardest subject to teach, and they proceeded to force the children to memorize vocabulary words.

Although Sharon tried to make lessons fun by planning games like “Name the Body Part on the Scarecrow”, she could see that the students were having a hard time without basic knowledge. But what could she do? There was a group of young thugs in the back of the classroom; twig legged boys who mockingly smiled and were determined on not paying attention to the teachers. Other students spoke a local dialect and could not even understand the fluent Mandarin that the college students spoke. Of course, there were also some very bright students, especially that one tall lanky girl dressed in pink. Without any basic knowledge, however, it was so difficult to teach them.

And Sharon could not even remember their names. She felt so disconnected from her students, who rode a bus to school after the dorm students ate breakfast, sat through lessons, and left the school before the dorm students ate lunch. Unlike the other classrooms, there was no time to interact with them outside of the classroom at all.

So the week passed, and everyday was the same. They forced down English and droned on endlessly about Chinese history. There were somewhat more enjoyable classes like Science, Computers, Music/Art, and Physical Education, but Sharon still felt the huge cultural barrier. Although she desperately wanted to connect with her students, she could not even make a joke without receiving a sea of blank stares.

One day, students started bringing in colorful contact cards for the teachers to fill out, so that they could communicate with the the teachers in the future. Each was one was unique and had its own little cartoons. They were filled with such personal questions, like “What is your blood type?” or “What is your favorite animal?”. As Sharon attempted to fill out each one with Chinese writing, she sighed, tired of the never ending heat around her and the never ending questions on the contact cards.

When the students earnestly asked her if she had finished them, she would say, “I'll finish them and give it to you later.” Sharon muddled on with her lessons, until one day Mrs. Wang suddenly announced that the weather forecast called for a typhoon, and that she was not sure if the out-of-school students would be able to come. Soon, the rain started to pour down.

Quietly, the sky turned a saturated orange glow that filled each room with warm color. The rain accompanied one of the college students as he bellowed out a sad song to the wail of a two-string fiddle. A bittersweet tang lingered in the air as Sharon reflected that she would never experience something like this ever again. In the background, people were laughing at the college student’s slightly off-pitch, loud howling.

And at that moment, Sharon wondered if she would even have the opportunity to tell the students about this awkward and humorous scene. They would definitely laugh, just like everyone else in the room. She promised herself she would see them laugh when they came back.

But they never came. Truthfully, the rain had just seemed like a small rain storm back in Marlyand. Then, Sharon thought about the buses that her students came to school in. She realized at that moment that the broken down buses would hardly be able to drive in the rain, let alone a “typhoon”. She finally also realized the reality that her students lived in; a small, dirt poor, farming village. Finally, as time passed, their last full day at Jingxian had arrived. There was a performance which each of the classrooms had prepared for in the last two weeks. Sharon and the other teachers in her classrooms were the only ones to dance alone on stage.

After pulling an all-nighter with the other teachers, they left the school the next morning. The physical conditions of the past two weeks had left their mark on her; the heat had been so bad that Sharon consumed at least 10 bottles of water everyday and once threw off her shirt because she couldn't sleep otherwise. Because she sweat so much, drank so much water, and barely ate, she lost more than 10 pounds in the 14 days. Then, there was the streams of mosquitoes that never ended; Sharon had probably 100 or more bug bites on her. Her electric mosquito paddle was so full of roasted mosquitoes that it no longer functioned.

But Sharon could handle those things; in fact, it was almost fun to experience living outside of her normally comfortable lifestyle. What was hardest for her was when she started to pack her things. In her computer bag, she discovered the stack of half-filled out contact cards. They reminded Sharon of her students, the students who bought her popsicles although it must have eaten into their meager allowances, saw their parents once a year, lived through these conditions everyday and would probably live like this for the rest of their lives, and somehow hoped that these teachers from the powerful and foreign United States would be be able to help them.

And while they put so much hope and expectation in their teachers, Sharon still could not recall their names. Sure, she had written the glorified article in the back of the program's newsletter, which exalted her experience and recalled all the hardships that everyone had gone through, the relationships that would last forever, blah blah blah. Back then, she had even promised herself that she would learn them by the end of the two weeks, buy each students a yummy bag of convenience store of snacks, leave them with just a bit more of knowledge that they could use to experience something outside of this raw yet beautiful village, and most of all, fill in the contact cards so that she could still keep in touch with them. When they had not showed up, Sharon felt cheated by the weather and the unfairness of it all. Deep down, however, she believed that, just like those half filled contact cards, she had only put in half of the effort she could have used to help these students.

So as they left Jingxian for the tall skyscrapers and fancy malls of Shanghai, Sharon was sad that she would be leaving behind the memories of swinging in the rain, white water rafting and hang gliding on their weekend trip, dancing with her innocent and sweet college friends, and the close relationships she developed with people in these unforgettable memories. But in the back of her mind, the bright contact cards flashed angrily at how comfortable she seemed, their unfilled blanks melting into the huge gap that she had left between herself and her students, a huge gap so immense in size that it swallowed up the emerald mountains behind her.

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