Updated: Aug 27
This Post Card relates to my time spent in China with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). Voluntary VSO first began in 1958, when with just 16 British volunteers, in response to the need for people to teach English in Borneo. Since then, VSO has worked in more than 90 countries, with over 80,000 volunteers in support of 50,000,000 people. My role with VSO was based in what is now Yuncheng University in Yuncheng City in the North West of China. I had recently qualified as a language teacher and had already worked in Germany as part of my degree when I found out about opportunities with VSO.
Before moving to my project in Yuncheng City, I studied intensive Mandarin on a course at North West University (NWU, 西北大学, Xīběi Dàxué) in the city of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province. NWU is one of the oldest of the country’s leading comprehensive public universities in Northwestern China. Mandarin, one of the Chinese dialects, has approximately 900 million first language speakers which is more than any other language in the world. Chinese is part of to the Sino-Tibetan family of languages. Mandarin also has 400 million second-language speakers in countries such as China, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia.
In the News
This newspaper clipping from 1995 shows what I was about to embark upon:
The People I met and worked with
My activity involved working with trainee language teachers who were developing their language skills in English and learning how to plan lessons in preparation for teaching in schools across the province. I learnt a great deal from the students and colleagues with whom I was working at the University and also gained a close understanding of the contexts in which my students would be working in their future schools. In my role, I was able to use the skills that I had acquired at home on my PGCE and combine them with the context and my understanding of the needs of my students in China. Next steps involved seeking solutions which took into account the teaching resources which my students had available and the different challenges which they faced in their own future classrooms.
What I learned
For many of the students who I taught, my colleague and I were the only two foreigners that they had access to and the only native speakers they had ever met. This was both a complex task and a privilege allowing me to share my skills for the benefit of my students' future teaching practice and the enhancement of the quality of teaching in the region. It was also a huge pleasure to see the world through the eyes of my students and responsibility in terms of presenting an objective and diverse perspective of the UK and the wider world from my limited experience.
I have memories from my time in China which I genuinely feel have made me a much more resilient and open-minded person. Being one of only three so-called foreign experts in the city allowed us to meet and network with many people who I would not have had the chance to encounter at that stage of my career in the UK. I remember so many hilarious situations where different cultural norms led to unexpected outcomes. I remember feeling lucky to have such a rich cultural experience as well as periods of feeling isolated and missing home. But most of all remember the great friendships which I formed with Chinese colleagues and students and the other volunteers through VSO, many of who are still my good friends today.
Impact on life afterwards
Working in China convinced me to continue to pursue a career in international education. After returning from China, I went on to teach in universities and schools in Japan and France. Later I went on to study Education and Applied Linguistics to Doctoral level. Since returning to the UK I have continued to work in Higher Education in language teaching and learning. My current role is as Dean for Internationalisation at the University of Kent. I still think about my time in China on a nearly daily basis and that important reflection on getting to the essence of my students' needs is a powerful driving force which continues to inspire me and my work with international students and academics to this day.