Sunday, October 12, 2014

A Fun Day Out?

My fun day out with Brianna started with the disclosure that one of her classmates - one of my favorite students is contemplating partaking of a new, school-sponsored program to work in America for 2 months, at a cost of 30,000Yuan.

30,000Yuan? Unbelievable!!! 30,000Yuan???

That is about 2/3rds of my annual salary. That is about twice as much as one year's tuition at this school. That is more than some of this country's villages see in a year, let alone any one villager. I simply could not get my mind around this program charging that much for the opportunity to work abroad for 2 months.

Most Chinese believe their child will have an edge in the competitive professional arena if they have overseas experience and America is Mecca to hopeful parents. However, as told by one of my blogging colleagues at China Daily online newspaper, education abroad does not necessarily increase one's chances of suitable employment:   

When Bri told me about this venture our school partners, I was struck at this program's resemblance to volunteer tourism. This relatively new wave of adventure abroad involves participants paying a fee upwards of several thousand dollars for the privilege of serving in a less developed country for a period. Length of time and the type of experience is commensurate with how much you are willing to pay and what you bring to the game. To me,  the idea of spending thousands of dollars to go into impoverished areas of the world is both outrageous and ludicrous. Why fork over money when, with a bit of qualified training or just a sincere desire to help, one can join organizations such as: Doctors Without Borders/MSF (Medecins Sans Frontieres), the Peace Corps or the Red Cross? And those are just the big names.

What about volunteering in America? We all know there are a multitude of organizations that could use helping hands, willing hearts, and charitable minds: Big Brothers/Big Sisters, childrens and veterans' homes, and foster care agencies. ESP: Extended School Programs, those after-class activities designed to keep kids safe and engaged while parents work, always need help. Meals on Wheels and other social/assistance programs for seniors and shut ins – those who, for whatever reason, cannot leave their home. Habitat for Humanity builds houses for underprivileged. A simple web search reveals tons of agencies recruiting volunteers, domestically and abroad. Why pay an agency to secure an overseas volunteer opportunity?

The problem seems to be altruism... or the lack of it. Do people engage in 'voluntourism' – volunteer tourism out of the goodness of their hearts and a desire to expand their world knowledge, or is it just for an entry on a resume and bragging rights? That controversy is at the heart of the voluntourism industry. The exhorbitant fees charged by that industry seem to suggest the latter.

But we're not talking about voluntourism. I still can't get my mind around 30,000Yuan for 2 months' work experience in the states. And that Stark, whose family is not economically advantaged, is actively considering the offer.

I reflect on my introductory trip to China. In 2008, presumably based on my academic achievements, ISLP – the International Scholar Laureate Program invited me to join their delegation on Anthropology and Archeology. I was thrilled at being selected and excited at the chance of visiting Tibet. I was not necessarily thrilled at touring Mainland China. However, I saw this as an unbeatable value at $7000: I would have the chance to discourse with professionals in those fields that so fascinated me, participate in a dig near the Terra Cotta Warrior museum and visit a country shrouded in mystery and, as I found out later, dogged by bad press. Those 3 weeks here opened my eyes and ultimately led to my life-changing decision to live here permanently.

Wait a minute: $7000? That's way more than 30,000Yuan ($4,889.00). However, that fee included everything from visa and transportation to accommodations and meals. The offer came at a time in my life when I had the funds and was not encumbered by social obligations such as caring for family. True: it was a lot of money, but I could afford it and it was well worth the expenditure, considering where it led me.

But there was a time in my life where $7000 would have been a king's ransom. Living on welfare and struggling to raise kids, for example. How soon I got used to pitching tons of money out for the privilege of taking a trip that could have been so much cheaper, had I planned it on my own!

Of course, had I planned it on my own, I probably would not have come to China and if I had, most likely I would have stuck to touristy things in big cities and probably would have come away unsatisfied.

Back to Stark and his sincere desire to experience culture abroad.

I know this boy. He is physically frail, gentle, soft spoken and often apologetic, even over the simplest mistakes. He is wildly intelligent and hard working, but unforgiving towards his perceived ineptitude. He bears the  stigma of coming from a single parent household, something akin to what children of divorced parents endured through in the 60's in America. His body language screams that he unconsciously knuckles under the scorn he feels sure to receive, and most likely suffered through during his entire academic career. 

America will eat him alive.

Not because it is a bad place but because he is so kind and gentle, and terrified of making mistakes. As I know him, I project it will take at least 2 months for him to even get comfortable with being there, let alone to fall into work mode,especially seeing as he's never had a job.

What type of work will he do? Not indicated. What city? Who knows?  What type of accommodation? Your guess is as good as mine. How will he get to work and back to his digs? Will there be a sponsor, a liaison, a chaperone, a guide... anyone to offer help, comfort or advice? Will there be other Chinese? What about money: what will he do for money while he is there? Will Stark and his family get a good return for their investment? That is up for debate.

Brianna could only tell me that teachers are encouraging all English majors to seriously contemplate the offer. Our school has recently partnered with an organization that arranges such opportunities. Naturally, the school will make money from the deal. I say that with no scorn whatsoever. Our school is in business to make money as well as to educate even if I personally don't approve of this specific means to do so.

As always: Sam to the rescue! He is my go-to guy whenever I have such questions as those that involve this pricey program. He couldn't tell me much more than what Bri already had, but added that, these days, China's nouveau riche look for exactly such opportunities. They are running out of ways to spend their money, so sending a child abroad, something that the average family would not be able to do, has a certain cachet. Besides parents' income, grandparents have been economizing and saving for the eventuality of successfully launching their one grandchild into adulthood. So, this work tourism program might not be as financially strenuous as I had thought.

I don't get it. Parents and grandparents spend everything they have for their one child to find his/her place in society, even into marriage and possibly beyond. And then that one child has the responsibility of caring for both his/her parents and grandparents. If said child is married, that means there are 2 sets of 2 generations to care for. Wouldn't it make more sense for today's families to hold something back for their own future, rather than regaling that one child at the outset of life's journey, only to burden him/her during his/her most productive years? Possibly while s/he is trying to raise his own child? 

As it is, so it goes, and who am I to say what is right or wrong?

I can say this is wrong: Bri and I did not start our fun day out by talking about Stark. We started with a generous hug and huge smiles. It had been too long since we'd hung out together. I was pleased to see how far she'd come along this summer. Her girlish hairstyle has been cut into a stylish bob that makes her look more sophisticated, but her shining eyes still convey youthful delight. Our conversation covered a wide variety of topics and, only in talking of herself was there any sign of self-doubt. That is to be expected: she is still a young girl. A powerhouse in the making, but delightful nonetheless.

In all, it was a fun day out. 




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