Chai Yuan-chang: Giving children more space for imagination
Chai Yuan-chang, 39, a Malaysian born in Singapore, is a journalist for the Brunei Times. He studied for a master degree at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature in Fudan University in 2005. Chai served as a volunteer teacher at Ningxia Hui autonomous region in 2007, becoming the first foreign graduate student participating in the volunteer teaching program in China.
"I heard of Fudan University in 1993 for the first time when the university won the first International Varsity Debate held in Singapore. The university has a good reputation among Chinese people in Southeast Asia.
As for me, learning Chinese is to learn the culture of my own nation. I majored in accounting and finance during my undergraduate study. Since I was interested in Chinese language, I took a graduate course at the Department of Chinese Language and Literature in Fudan University in 2005.
It was the 100th anniversary of Fudan University when I was enrolled. I can still remember how I watched the anniversary celebration on television with my roommates. Time flies by and the 110th anniversary is now upon us, but this time I cannot return to my alma mater.
I have good memories of my time there. The fellow students were very friendly. At the beginning, my Chinese was not so good, but despite that, the other students were patient and helped all the time. Thanks to their help, my Chinese language proficiency substantially improved.
In 2006, I got the idea of being a rural teacher came when I was watching a TV program, which said that rural areas in China were short on teachers, classrooms and teaching facilities. Yang Zengguo, the director of international students office, introduced me to the Youth League Committee of the university, and I became a member of Fudan’s ninth volunteer teaching team.
As the first foreign student working as a volunteer teacher in China, I tried my best to do the job well. I served as a teacher at a primary school in Sanhe village, Xiji county of Ningxia from July 2007 to July 2008.
Soon after my arrival I fell ill, laying half dead on my bed for one week, since I was not accustomed to the local conditions. Life in west China was not easy. The climate was much drier than in Shanghai. Without availability of running water, we had to carry water by ourselves and drank hard water. The living conditions in the school were acceptable, but there was no heating. We had to keep ourselves warm by firing a wood-burning stove in winter.
After the school, the volunteer teachers used to walk miles of mountain roads to visit students’ families. I had altogether 143 students, and I visited the families of half of them in that year. I had to walk four hours at most for a single trip to visit a family far from the school and forty minutes minimum for a nearby one.
As the famous Chinese saying goes, “children in poor families can become independent early.” I found many of them are mature and help their parents in the fields or do house chores. As a result, sometimes they could not spend enough time for study. Parents were hospitable and treated us to meat, which made us embarrassed since meat was quite expensive for them.
The teaching facilities in Sanhe village were much better than what we had imagined before, but there were not enough many teachers. I taught English to the sixth grade students. Because many students never studied English before, I had to start from scratch and finish all four years’ courses in one year.
Of course, I had less pressure than the teachers teaching the senior grade students who were going to take the gaokao (the university entrance examination). My pressure was due to having to manage both students and teaching, and neither was an easy task.
I was depressed when students got bad grades, but I also got angry when they were not beahving. Children are always same in nature. Not all the students living in mountains enjoy studying. Some naturally prefer playing. As long as they were my students, I liked them all. I even got on well with those who did not excel in learning, because I was convinced that everyone had his own merits.
After graduation, I became a journalist and have enjoyed my career a lot. A journalist works under less pressure than a teacher, for readers have their own judgments of my articles while students firmly believe in more or less everything I say. If I made a mistake as a journalist, I may mislead my readers; but as a teacher, I may mislead students’ future life orientations.
Last May, I came all the way from Brunei to Ningxia to see the students who were going to take the gaokao.
The village was shabby when I left it in 2008, but over the time it had developed a lot. Students also changed a lot. The reunion was a happy occasion.
It turned out that my students did not get excellent grades in gaokao. They were enrolled in second-tier or third-tier universities. From my perspective, it is not important whether they entered prestigious universities or not. Instead, the most significant part is that they continued studying.
I still keep in touch with them. I tell them to have more connection with the world. Actually, I did the same. After graduation, I decided to go to another country to experience different cultures. I became a journalist at the Brunei Times, covering stories about the Chinese communities in Brunei and news related to Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In retrospect, I still think that what I brought to students was not only English, but also a new outlook into the world. I must have been the first foreigner they had ever seen. The volunteer experience for me was a taste of a different kind of life; but for the children, they had contact with a foreigner, learnt more about the outside world and had more space for imagination.