Every time I visit China, I’m reminded of what a country of contrasts it is.
As America is different from state to state, Chinese cities are each unique and can feel like different countries except for a few common threads like massive amounts of people and air pollution.
On a recent visit in March, I returned to Shanghai to visit an old friend. We only had three days to spend together, which, of course, in a city like Shanghai is not enough, but we made the most of it.
Over the course of my three days, I returned to my favorite soup dumpling restaurant, Ding Tai Fung in the Xin Tian Di neighborhood, a completely renovated and gentrified area of old Shikumen with traditional Chinese dwellings that could pass for SoHo in New York City.
We had custom clothes made for pennies at the South Bund Soft Spinning Material Market, walked and shopped the alleys of Tianzifang off the Taikang Road, twisting and turning with the day’s laundry strung up over our heads, and ate one of the best meals I’ve had in years at Mr. and Mrs. Bund, a completely modern restaurant with the most global diners.
We walked around the former international settlements in Shanghai, called concessions, and learned about the Shanghai of the 1920s and 30’s, when it was one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. I was surprised to learn about the history of the Jewish people in Shanghai and their migration from Nazi Germany during the 30’s to escape persecution.
I purchased a Haggadah in time for Passover, which was written both in English and Chinese. We stopped at the Peace Hotel, an art deco landmark establishment so steeped in history it’s like staying in a museum. It has one of the most eclectic and wonderful gift shops I’ve ever visited.
We listened to jazz at the Jazz Bar in the hotel, where the cocktail menu is inspired by the 20’s and 30’s and the Old Jazz Band is made up of six veteran musicians whose average age is 80.
But one of the most interesting experiences I had during my time in Shanghai was teaching English to fifth graders in a migrant school outside of the city.
Stepping Stones is a not-for-profit organization that brings expats and local Chinese volunteers together to teach English in Shanghai’s migrant schools. Currently, more than 200 volunteers teach 4,000 students in 20 migrant schools. My friend Stephanie, whom I was visiting, teaches the class on Wednesday afternoons and asked if I wanted to join.
As a writer, how could I pass up the opportunity?
Migrant workers who have come to the city looking for work now total more than nine million in the Shanghai area. When the workers move from the rural areas, they often bring their children, who, because of their parents’ low income and social status, cannot attend normal Chinese schools. These students are sent to migrant schools, which began in illegally overcrowded buildings with poor facilities; however, the situation is gradually improving.
There is still a lot lacking though, one of which is quality English instruction.
I was told we would teach three different classes for approximately 45 minutes and to make sure to dress warmly because the classrooms were cold. When we arrived, it was recess and the children were playing outside, all dressed in the most amazing array of colors as there are no required uniforms. We were greeted with both curiosity and happy smiles shouting “hello” in English.
I had been brought up to speed earlier on the lesson of the day that corresponded with the current chapter in their textbook. The subject was “Going To See A Film.” The textbooks come from England and many of the words the children learn are quite British, like the word film for movie, chips for French fries and biscuits for cookies, etc.
The lead volunteer brought the 1933 Disney cartoon “The Three Little Pigs” and after the lecture and practice we would show the film.
To begin class, Beethoven’s “Fur Elise” played over the scratchy loudspeakers and the fifth grade students, all 50 of them, filed quietly into the classroom and sat down. They took out their name tent and placed it in front of them. Each child had an English name they had chosen for themselves. Some were pretty traditional like Mark, James, and Susan. Some were more interpretive, like Ran. Their classroom teacher introduced us and the class began with a song. The students knew the words and sang along clearly and with confidence. After, there were eye exercises; the students rubbed their eyes and temples as a voice on the loud speaker counted to eight to prepare them for the work ahead.
The class proceeded with vocabulary lists and a Q & A about going to see films. One of the exercises was quite amazing. A sentence had been chopped up into words with each word written on a piece of construction paper. A group of students came to the front of the room and was given the stack of jumbled words. They had to quickly arrange them in the proper order using magnets on the board. I was struck by how well they worked in a group, how quickly they figured out the proper order and how there was no judgment or unkind words spoken.
The quality of the children’s English was interesting. They were excellent readers and their pronunciation was actually quite good. It was the comprehension that gave them the most trouble, which makes sense, as I’m sure they have very few opportunities to communicate with actual English speakers. Having the volunteers in the classroom, if only for a few hours a week, was a huge benefit for these kids and it seemed like they enjoyed having us there. The class ended with the cartoon, which we had to show on a laptop. It didn’t matter; all 50 students gathered around and were mesmerized by it. They laughed out loud and were completely focused and entertained. Even if it was only “The Three Little Pigs,” I think they got a lot out of the lesson and it certainly fostered a desire to speak English just a little bit better.
Stepping Stones welcomes volunteers throughout the year, even during the summer, when they run special summer programs. It’s a wonderful organization that is spreading the English word that much further around the globe.
This marks the final entry for our Westchester Wanderer, Lisa Jardine. The entire staff at the Review would like to thank Lisa for her efforts over the past year in helping to build our Westchester brand and exposure for our newspapers.