Thursday, June 20, 2013

What I Will Fill My Summer With

Many remote villages would love to have a foreigner come to visit their schools. For some, that is the only chance for the students to meet and speak with a native English speaker because their family is too poor to send them to college, even if the students do get the marks to qualify for university education.

Recently, I was talking with Sam about my troubles buying travel passage online, as mentioned a few posts back (See From the Internet). He helped me find a good deal on plane tickets to the states last year and, thinking I would head back again, had started scouting around for deals for me this summer. I told him I don’t plan on traveling Stateside during the summer because it is peak travel season, when everything is so expensive. And then I disclosed the idea of volunteering for a part of my summer, maybe with some organization like or Red Cross. Sam is the one who came up with the idea of teaching for 2 weeks at a time in remote locations. He knows of organizations that could place me in just such situations.

My friends, I lit up like a Christmas tree at the idea!

Unfortunately Sam was not able to arrange such a situation for me. What with the usual end of scholastic year activity and his additional duties to us foreign teachers – updating visas, renewing contracts and maintaining/updating records, poor Sam has his hands full. Add to that the fact that our English Department as evolved from a simple, one language entity to an all-encompassing bureaucracy named Language Arts, complete with a new, energetic, driving Dean, my fellow teachers, Sam included are now busier than ever.

Have I told you I have been tapped to help our department publish? Via Sam, our new ball-of-fire Dean has asked if I would review the manuscript she had tasked our teachers to write. One chapter per teacher, our school will assemble a book, due out early next year. I don’t know if the entries will be subject driven and written thesis-style or about personal classroom experiences. I do know that I’ve not been offered a chance to contribute any written material. I have been asked to edit it. I’m looking forward to it.

Another iron Sam has in the fire: he and Helen (of our 4 Helens, she is the more pleasant) are to compete in the National English Teacher competition. The first phase involves an impartial team, traveling from campus to campus all across China and recording participating English teachers in their conducting a lesson. Topic is left to the competitor. Focus will be on presentation as well as proper usage of English. These recordings are submitted to a review panel in Beijing, who will then cull out the top teachers and invite them for the contest’s in-person phase. Needless to say, competition is keen, not just for the individual teachers but for top scoring schools to gain national recognition. I’ve had the pleasure of working with Sam and Helen these past few weeks.

All of this activity and brouhaha is nearly over with, and summer looms. For my Chinese colleagues it means sleeping late, reconnecting with their families and, in some cases seeking out part time work. To make ends meet or to occupy idle hands is not known, but I hedge toward the latter. I have not met many indolent Chinese, and very few of my colleagues are of that ilk.

So: with my volunteering opportunities limited, my colleagues headed to whatever they will fill their summer with and the students headed home, what is this vagabond to do?

TRAVEL!! Hit the rails, take to the blue skies, walk kilometer after kilometer, buy passage on buses and cruise ships.

In one aspect, I am daunted. I have not been anywhere since my excursion to Qingdao last February. I’m finding myself nearly at a loss at how to engineer a vagabond adventure. Like getting off the couch after a long period of idleness that leads to atrophy, I’m finding myself having to exercise at vagabonding. Where to go? What to do? How to get there?

Two and a half months is a long time to vagabond, whether here in China or in the states. Add to that something I recently discovered: foreigners are not allowed just anywhere. As I confided in the Wenzhou series (see ….. entry, posted ………), when a policeman came knocking on my door to check my passport. Not every hotel or establishment is permitted to accommodate foreigners. So, first order of business is to choose a destination, and then see if said destination has an international hostel. That is a sure fire way to tell if vagabonds such as I would be welcome in that town.

I would prefer to stay at a Chinese hotel, but lately the idea of staying at hostels has a newfound advantage. I’ll spell it out in our next entry.

Such opportunity for adventure leaves me warm, but only warm. I’ll talk more about that in the next entry as well, but I will describe one facet here and now.

Spending this bounty of time and good fortune exclusively on myself seems rather selfish to me. Although… I’m not just doing it for myself. Within such doings lies a wealth of blog fodder. Sharing with you, my friends and readers is part of the fun of adventuring. Even from that perspective I feel selfish. Surely there is something else I can do with at least some of this time.

Enter Operation Smile.

This volunteer Operation concerns itself with repairing cleft palates. People in poorer regions worldwide often cannot afford surgery. In China especially, where the handicapped are still stigmatized, this organization makes great inroads at correcting this deformity, thus allowing those afflicted not only the ability to eat properly but also to be socially accepted. By necessity, the missions target rural regions. There are both local teams of surgeons, who operate within their province as well as international teams, which settle in a provinces’ metropolis and then travel to nearby rural areas. On an average 1-week mission, approximately two hundred children will discover the joy of smiling and eating properly.  

I first learned of this volunteer organization via a movie titled Smile, which I watched while still stateside. It described one American young woman’s journey to self actualization by participating in a mission in China. While loosely forming my goals for life in China all those years ago, I thought taking part in such an activity would be a great learning experience.

For the past 2 years my physical and emotional struggles kept me away from the idea of being charitable toward anyone but myself. I’m much better now, both emotionally and physically. This is the summer I can, and will reach out. I dedicate the entire month of July to volunteering.  

My friends, I am proud to announce that I have been accepted to volunteer on a mission with Operation Smile. Already I have a place on the international team that will base itself in Guangdong province. It is a heady/scary proposition.

Have you seen the list of duties volunteers are expected to perform? Medical transcription, translating/interpreting, keeping parents informed, playing with the kids, helping set up operating theaters and recovery tents. Lessening tensions and putting people at ease. As with anything else one meets head on, the challenges seem insurmountable. I almost scared myself into not participating. And then immediately chastised myself. 

Volunteering will provide me a means to approach remote areas that might otherwise be inaccessible to me when traveling alone. Also, I will have the privilege of observing traditional life, away from the Big City. I will mingle with people from all over the world who donate their time and energy. Best of all: I will be doing something worthwhile, something helpful, something to improve the life and the lot of those too impoverished and/or too ashamed to alter life as they know it and their potential future on their own.

Sure, there is selfishness involved, and not just a small measure of it, either. Can you blame me? With roughly two and a half months to fill and already worrying about all that egotistical traveling I have planned, I feel almost fully cloaked in self-centeredness. I’d rather focus on this volunteering time as something outside of myself, time I’m giving away.

Yes, I am still wondering how I will engineer all of my vagabonding. Where to go, what to do, what to see and the like. One thing I’m not wondering about is my enthusiasm in participating on this mission. That will be the most worthwhile thing I will do this summer. Perhaps, if I make a good recounting, you might become a volunteer too!

To learn more about Operation Smile, their history, mission and needs, please visit                        

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