Giving Back: Middlebury School in China-Kunming

Written by Brendan Nuse, (Oberlin College) Student Correspondent Middlebury School in China: Kunming, Fall 2015

When studying abroad, it’s easy to become isolated from the community you’re living in. Language, culture, and other barriers, not to mention the large amount of time spent in class or studying, make it easier to spend time with the other Americans in your class rather than to get out into the community in the same way you might at your college in the U.S.

Engaging with the local cat community.

Engaging with the local cat community.

However, I think that getting out into the community is imperative while studying abroad. In my anthropology class here, we read an essay about how understanding other cultures is important, as it changes the way that we view our own culture. While there is a lot that you can learn about other cultures in the classroom, speaking with people who are actually a part of this culture and gaining experiences are important activities for synthesizing the information that you gain through coursework. On top of that, I feel that if the people of Kunming are putting up with us living here for 3.5 months, we should try to give back to them and the community that is ours temporarily.

Luckily, my program here has offered some opportunities to really get engaged with the community here in Kunming. Some of these opportunities are a little superficial, while others have had more depth. For example, for many of our classes we are required to do “采访” (interviews like ones that an anthropologist would do). While I admittedly often 采访 my roommate or other Chinese friends I have made here, some of my more meaningful experiences here have come from times that I have interviewed strangers. For example, for one of my classes I ended up interviewing a stranger sitting at a nearby table in a bookstore I was in. While I was personally fairly nervous going into this, as I don’t like talking to strangers to begin with, and especially not when I’m having to ask them about details about their ethnic group, this ended up being a very rewarding experience. It turned out that the person I interviewed was a anthropologist herself, so she was very understanding and helpful during the whole process. She was also very encouraging about my language study, and provided many useful tips on that process. Above all, though, it was interesting to see what the life of a Chinese anthropologist is like. While I’m not entirely sure what career I want to pursue in the future, I am very interested in academia, and I am certainly interested in China, so getting to talk to someone who was involved in academia and focused on China was not only interesting, but also potentially useful.

Another interesting interview was one that I did together with my professor for my 1 on 1 class. We went to a vegetarian restaurant to interview the manager of the restaurant about a variety of topics related to vegetarian restaurants and their target demographic. On one hand, I found this experience horrifying, as, from my perspective, I was wasting the time of someone who ran a restaurant operating out of a hotel penthouse, but on the other hand it gave me insight into a culture that I would not have known about otherwise. He told me a lot about the competition between various vegetarian restaurants in Kunming, and about the perception of vegetarian restaurants that the general population has. These are topics that I never would have heard about, let alone understood deeply, if I had stayed within my little Yunnan University international students bubble.

However, although these experiences were interesting and gave me an insight into local culture, I felt as though I was gaining something from them, but not giving anything in return. Recently, though, there have been more and more opportunities for us to get involved in activities that probably qualify as community service.

2015 fall- The wetland site of our environmental education activities_Brendan Nuse_resized

The wetland site of our environmental education activities.

First, over fall break, we participated in an environmental protection-themed program in tandem with The Nature Conservancy’s Yunnan branch. One part of this program involved doing environmental education activities with middle school children at a school of mostly low-income students in Heqing. While I had many problems with the way that this program was run (basically, I don’t think that people with little understanding of Chinese language and culture should be ignoring traditional knowledge by trying to teach students about a wetland that these students are around every day but these “teachers” have never seen in their life), this activity was, in some ways, very rewarding. This activity provided a lot of opportunities to have very organic conversations with students about all kinds of topics, ranging from who was the best student in the class to the differences in culture between their various ethnic groups. They were also very interested in our perspectives on things, given our different backgrounds, and it was interesting to see how our differences in culture shaped our understanding of certain issues. Almost all of the students I talked to told me that their English teacher (who is Chinese) was their favorite teacher, but they also told me that this experience made them more inspired to learn English. On my side, this experience not only made me want to work harder on learning Chinese, but also made me appreciate Chinese students. I’ve substitute taught in a middle school, and there is no way that the students at that school would have been anywhere near as well-behaved or willing to participate in the (relatively childish) activities that we had prepared for them. Although I had had units about the Chinese educational system not only here, but also in my Chinese class back in the United States, I never really realized how accurate my Chinese textbooks’ assessments of the Chinese educational system were until I got to see it first-hand. While I personally highly respect the fairly rigid order and the intense nature of these schools, one of my professors here, who came with us on the trip, said that this experience made her sad because “nothing has changed since she was in school”. I guess all systems have their benefits and their drawbacks.

Perhaps my favorite activity of any of the ones I have participated in while here in China was the one that I participated in this past week. The class here on migrant workers had a field trip that was open even to people not taking that class, so I decided to participate. While I initially thought that it was a trip to an elementary school, it was actually a trip to a center that provided after-school help for the children of migrant workers. Not only were the children there super cute, but they were also very willing to talk and play with us. While I was initially kind of worried that this activity would not actually be any use to the children involved, the actual experience changed my mind. While I do not have a deep understanding of all the problems involving migrant workers in Kunming, I do know that a lot of these children rarely have opportunities to spend time with their parents. They seemed extremely excited to get to play with us, and drew many pictures of us. I’m generally not a very “hug-y” person, but I certainly got a lot of hugs that day. More relevant to my interests, I also had the opportunity to see what kinds of homework these kids were doing, and I even got to help them a little! Although the experience made me feel like my knowledge of Chinese social problems is woefully inaccurate, it also made me feel like I had a slightly deeper understanding, and was even doing something (a super small something, but at least it was something) to combat them- and I was using Chinese to do it. That’s the kind of experience I want to get from a study abroad program.

I’m extremely grateful for the opportunities that I have gotten on this program. I definitely feel that the education I am getting in the classroom here is amazing, and my Chinese has improved tremendously during my time here so far. However, you can take classes anywhere (though, if your school is like mine, you can’t take 4 Chinese classes at once, unfortunately). There is nowhere else in the world that I could be getting some of the experiences that I am getting here. I’m glad that I’ve had some opportunities to thank Yunnan for the experiences that it has given me.