The summer of 2011, I went on a DT (Development Traineeship) exchange program to the city of Changsha in Hunan, China. The DT lasted for six weeks, and the main part of the project was about me and six other volunteers going with local AIESEC volunteers to two rural schools, arranging summer camps for kids between the ages of 11-14. The first week was spent on planning the project in addition to welcome ceremonies and sightseeing, and for the next three weeks, we lived at the rural schools. After we came back, we joined two other AIESEC teams that were doing projects called Green Map and Animal Protection, and spent the last two weeks on this.
I hardly knew anything about Changsha before I found the project in the AIESEC database, but I wanted to try something else than the international coastal cities. I had heard that the food was supposed to be the spiciest in China, and from earlier trips to Asia, I figured that the city would be as hot as a furnace. Those two impressions were spot-on, and although my mind was kind of prepared for these two types of heat, my body was not. It was all good fun. As mentioned, I’ve been to Asia before, so I never really had a culture shock, except from the traffic culture. Drivers don’t stop for pedestrians in China, so you just cross the road whenever you feel like it, between the driving cars. This is an art that takes years to master, so I advise you to stick to the locals when you need to cross the street.
Before we started the DT, I was really curious about how it would be to teach English to Chinese kids, but I expected them to be polite and just as curious about us. I was right. It was a real pleasure having them as our students, and they participated actively in the courses we had prepared for them. Obviously, their English level was limited to simple words and sentences, and we conducted class along with a Chinese volunteer in order for them to understand us, but the kids always did their best to speak with us, both in and outside of class. The cooperation with the Chinese volunteers also went really smooth. There were held plenty of meetings, and maybe a little too long and too many for us foreign volunteers, but this worked out more effectively after a while. The English skill of the Chinese volunteers was excellent all over, so we had few communication problems.
If I have to point out a problem, it would be that some of the information in English came way too late, and was sometimes quite vague, especially for the last projects. As a result, the foreign volunteers didn’t really know much about the Green Map and Animal Protection or what we were supposed to do, before these projects actually started. This led to a lot of rumors and questions which could’ve been avoided. Most of this worked out fine in the end, though.
The job was really integrated in our daily life, because we lived at the summer camp schools. The living conditions weren’t always comfortable, but we adapted quickly, and the worst parts (toilets and beds) just became funny stories after we left. The best part was actually living so close to the students and the people working in the school, and seeing “the real China” so far away from any tourist attraction. We enjoyed great hospitality, and always felt really welcome. Being invited home to the rural home of some of the teachers to meet their families one day, and the next day going to the meet relatives of our host families, which turned out to be some of the richest families in Changsha. Those are visits and moments I’ll never forget. We also enjoyed some fantastic mountain climbing, valley climbing and visits to ancient cities when we had days off. I made so many new friends during the stay, and I wouldn’t hesitate one second to be able to experience it all once more. It goes without saying that this is something I want to recommend.
When I now write this about three weeks after coming home, I feel I gained plenty, also except from friends and experiences. Working in teams to get a project done and cooperating with people from completely different culture backgrounds are the obvious skills, but I also feel that I discovered a talent for presenting in front of a crowd. I wasn’t so aware of this before, but this is something I want to develop even further.
Both of the involved LC, AIESEC NHH and AIESEC Changhsha, were very helpful before and during the stay, so both the application and the adaptation process went smooth. I can particularly thank my two lovely AIESEC Changsha buddies and my given host family for that last part.