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Peace Corps Volunteer Teaches English in China

Marissa Klein at the Chengdu Panda Center.

I have always loved to travel, teach, and help others, so when I started applying for the Peace Corps in spring 2009, I knew it would be a great fit. I also learned about a special program the Peace Corps offers in conjunction with American University: the Masters International Program, a graduate program in a field that closely relates to the type of service you might do in the Peace Corps before you go abroad. AU’s Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (MA in TESOL) was the perfect fit to prepare me for service.

After spending two semesters at AU taking practical courses on pedagogy, linguistics, culture, and more, I felt like I had a solid footing with which to begin my Peace Corps assignment and felt comfortable heading into the unknown world of teaching English as a foreign language. I departed for my two years of service in summer 2010 with an assignment to teach English in a university in China.

Peace Corps China has little in common with most people’s classic vision of the Peace Corps—volunteers living in mud huts, digging irrigation ditches by day, and integrating into small village communities by night. First, there is nothing small about China—even the volunteers who live in the most remote sites in China can expect to live in towns no smaller than a few hundred thousand. Plus, the material comforts are much more like home than like a mud hut: we live in big apartment complexes with hot running water, Internet access, and even cable TV. And then there’s the work—most of us teach English to university or vocational school students. These students need to learn English for their future jobs.

But China has its unique challenges. Living in such big communities means that it can be harder to make connections, and it can be more difficult to see our work’s direct payoff and the difference our work is making.

Though our teaching work is certainly important, equally important is the focus on the Peace Corps’ second and third goals: teaching the Chinese about America, while teaching Americans about China.

Volunteers in China are expected to be on their best behavior, to encourage an understanding of America, and to generally help strengthen the relationship between our two superpower nations. Living in China can be tough emotionally, as the cultural divide is deep, and in some ways the more you know about China the more you realize there is still so much more to learn about the country. But as the first foreigner many of my students have ever met, I’m proud to be representing America and serving this university community.

I teach at a university in the municipality of Chongqing, which is a federal government-controlled “state” of some 30-million-plus people in southwest China. Southwest University, my post, is huge—there are at least 50,000 full-time students, and as many part-time or online students, I’ve been told. My town, Beibei, is a suburb of perhaps 650,000 people, located about an hour’s drive from the main part of Chongqing city. This is nice because it means that there is a more relaxed pace of life here and better air quality, than in the city. I even have easy access to the city’s comforts, like a few Western stores and restaurants.

I teach seven sections of the same class—oral communication for sophomore English majors. I designed the course entirely from scratch, without the aid of any course textbook or any real department oversight—I was definitely grateful to have my training in curriculum design at AU in mind at that point!

Most [Peace Corps] volunteers in China agree that our students are the best part of this job. They are eager, studious, and enthusiastic to learn and are thrilled to have a foreigner as a teacher (or so they say). Most of my students will become English teachers in primary or high schools upon graduating, usually in the countryside. My students come from all walks of life—on the one hand, this is a key regional university overseen by the government, so it attracts good students, and sometimes wealthy students, from all over the country. On the other hand, it has a special scholarship program in which students can receive their education for free in exchange for pledging to spend ten years working in rural schools—meaning that many of my students come from the countryside themselves, from families of farmers. It can be fascinating to hear their stories and to try to get to know them not just as teacher-to-student but as friend-to-friend.

When I’m not busy preparing for class or spending time with my students, I study Chinese—the intensive language training the Peace Corps provided during our first two months in country was a great help, and I continue my studies on my own and with the aid of a tutor. I maintain a blog (marissaklein.wordpress.com) where I write about my experiences as a [Peace Corps] volunteer in China, which is cathartic for me, but I also hope it helps with that “third-goal” of promoting an understanding of China to Americans at home. And of course, I still manage to find plenty of time to travel, to visit with other Peace Corps friends, and to enjoy many readily available cheap DVDs.

I’ll complete my service in summer 2012 and plan to return to DC, where I will finish some final coursework at AU plus a thesis about my experiences and a teaching portfolio. I am grateful that I began my Peace Corps journey with a firm foundation in teaching at AU, and I’m glad to have a place to return when I finish where I can readjust to life in the U.S. I’m sure life in DC is going to seem very different to me once I’m on the other side of all of this.