it’s hard to make a case for global volunteerism

but I’m going to try anyway

As an aspiring educator, travel enthusiast, and English grammar obsessee, I thought a summer volunteering as an English teacher at a school in a rural village in China would be an experience custom-made for me. But I still embarked on the journey warily. The end of the spring semester had brought the annual deluge of anti-“voluntourism” Internet articles, bedecked with pictures of white women posing with a clump of malnourished African children, dropping the phrase “white savior” whenever possible. The overarching messages were clear: don’t exploit less fortunate people for your summer experience.

When I told people, friends and family, their responses were universally excited, and universally Monica-centric. “That’s going to be such a great experience for you! I bet it’s going to change your life!” became a common refrain in the month before I left. It always made me cringe. If I wanted a good experience, couldn’t I just walk on the Great Wall for an hour, take a selfie with a panda at the zoo, and head home?

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When I first got off the plane, I could feel the eyes already. I felt stares follow me down the street and saw cameras flashing as I passed.

On my first night in China, I went to the mall for a massage. The massage therapist was so excited when she saw me that she excused herself ten minutes into our session to phone her colleagues. “American!” I heard echoing from across the hall. “An American is here!” For the rest of the hour, a stream of off-duty massage therapists rotated through the room, snapping photos on their iPhones and giggling wildly. American. An American is here.

Within ten minutes of meeting me, my Chinese co-teacher asked to take a picture of me. After that he seemed fidgety, tapping his knees, shuffling his feet, focusing on anything but me. I kept my distance from him until the first Friday night we spent in our village, when I heard him trying to play a song by Yiruma on his keyboard from his room two doors down from mine, but not quite getting it. It was a song I knew well. Nervously I went over and sat down next to him, wordlessly tapping out the correct chords. As he smiled at me for the first time ever, I realized that the language I was here to teach was incredibly trivial compared to the language of humanity that my co-teacher and I had just discovered.

The classroom full of  Chinese fifth-graders looked archetypally identical to those I remembered from my middle school.  I soon identified the characters: the beauty queens with pink bows in their hair sat on one side of the room and doodled on the backs of old papers during breaks, the jocks in Nike shorts and baseball caps threw footballs across the classroom and harassed the girls. Two troublemakers sat in the back corner, whispering and giggling to each other all class, every class. One girl, Marian, was wearing a pink tutu over her skinny jeans. One boy, Parker, was wearing a Harry Potter T-shirt and Harry Potter sweatpants, and sported a lightning bolt on his forehead that he’d clearly drawn with a Sharpie. “Good morning class,” I began, surprised at how loud my voice had made itself. “My name is Teacher Monica.” And so it began.

We started with classroom objects, then moved through weather, seasons, and colors. My co-teacher and I developed a quick, fluid system, instituting standards for rewards and discipline, and even a set of hand signals to indicate when one of us needed the other to slow down the pace, increase the volume, declare an impromptu break, etc. Every Friday we showed a segment of the High School Musical saga with Chinese subtitles, in which even the troublemakers displayed vague interest.

I quickly found my archetypal teacher’s pet: Julia. She flounced into class each morning in a frilly pink dress or lacy shorts that reeked of matriarchal influence and sat in the first row, right in front of the teacher’s desk, with her legs crossed in decidedly businesslike fashion. She was also the only student, in a class of 27, who received an A+ on every test. Her sidekick Jan, always at the desk to her right, was less precocious, but equally well-dressed.

The program was four weeks long. By the third week, kids were begging for my phone number and texting me incessantly. Their conversational vocabulary was clearly limited to the questions I’d been teaching them, and so a typical conversation consisted exclusively of basic interview questions (“When is your birthday?” “What is your favorite food?” “Where are you from?”). But apart from the words, something felt much more real, more genuine, and every short word I typed was twinged with a desire to write so much more, if only they could understand.

The night before my last English class, I wrote long letters to all of my students. I know they can’t understand them now, but I hope that one day, whether in two years, or five, or ten, they’ll be able to read them.

Don’t worry about practicing football too much, I wrote to David. I can tell you don’t really like it, and anyways, what those big guys think isn’t going to matter in the long run.

Keep smiling, I told Jan. It’s going to get harder to do, but I hope you keep going.

I remember writing to Julia for over an hour. You have a brilliant mind, and an addictive curiosity. Never stop questioning. Never stop learning. Cliché, I know. But hey, it felt real in the moment.

As I was walking out the door of the classroom for the last time, I felt Jan’s fingers, sticky with sweat, clench around my arm. “Teacher, I promise I am going to see you again,” she said, in the most clear, most passionate English I’d ever heard from a student. “I am going to study very hard so I can come to America and find you, I promise.”

“I’ll be waiting,” I remember whispering as I hugged her tightly, choking back tears. I hope that if I get a text from her in fifteen years, my future self will remember, just like I hope that the next time she sees someone walking in the street who doesn’t look like her, maybe she’ll introduce herself and ask them for their name. I know I’ll still be missing her more than I ever predicted I would.