Stepping Stones volunteer Connie Yuan made history last month, becoming our longest-serving ever individual rural volunteer, having spent six full weeks living and teaching in the town of Taohuajiang, Hunan province. We asked Connie, who is from California, about her experience.
Q: Where did you first find out about our rural volunteering project?
A: I found out about Stepping Stones through a combination of a friend and a lot of internet searching. My friend had done volunteering in Asia before, and gave me a list of organizations she had found, which included Stepping Stones. I chose to do my volunteering with Stepping Stones because the way the organization presented itself was much less flashy and business-oriented than other groups I had looked into. Stepping Stones truly cares about the welfare of the population they serve.
Q: What was it that interested you about volunteering in a rural part of China?
A: As a child, I would come to China every summer to visit family. But most of my family live in cities (Shanghai and Fuzhou), and when we would travel around China, it’d still be to cities, like Beijing. I had looked into Stepping Stones’ Shanghai volunteering program and considered it, but ultimately I decided it was time to see a part of China I wouldn’t have normally visited while on a regular family vacation.Q: What did you imagine it would be like, and how has this compared to your actual experience?
A: To be honest, I was not really sure what to expect. I think when people hear rural, the first thing that can pop into mind are dirt roads and little village huts. Where I went for my volunteering, Taohuajiang, was more like a small city than what we would traditionally think of as rural (which Morgan did tell me during our briefing!). So, in that sense, Taohuajiang was a pleasant surprise.
However, despite its bustling appearance, Taohuajiang is rural in the sense that everyone knows everyone. People are more relaxed, and less used to foreign influences than in the big cities. I would say I got the best of both worlds in Taohuajiang, just city-like enough in appearance, but still rural in atmosphere.
Q: What have been your biggest challenges?
A: I’d say, at school, the biggest challenge was classroom management. I found in most classes, even if 99% of the class was listening attentively, there would always be one or two kids goofing off. So, as a teacher, learning to manage those kids was the biggest challenge.
Outside of school, I’d say the biggest challenge was navigating a rural Chinese town as a Chinese-American. Since appearance-wise I fit in, it was not immediately obvious to people that Chinese is not my native language, and that I know very little of it, or that I couldn’t read most of the signs around town. However, while this was a challenge, it was also a good learning opportunity, as I had a lot of time to improve my speaking and reading in Chinese.
Q: What have been your happiest moments?
A: I’d say my happiest moments have been seeing progress in my students, and seeing them eager for English class. Things like getting creative during sentence-making activities, then seeing eager faces and hands fill the classroom during class made up my happiest moments in the classroom. Outside of school, I loved wandering around the town and the surrounding area, just soaking in a different way of life than I’m used to.
Q: Would you recommend rural volunteering to a friend? If so, what advice would you give them before they go?
A: I’d definitely recommend rural volunteering to a friend, especially those who have lived in urban areas all their lives. It’s a challenge having to navigate a new environment and maybe not being fluent in the native language, definitely, but it’s a deeply rewarding experience! I have met some amazing kids, and the kindest people during my volunteering experience. It forced me out of my comfort zone, and I definitely grew more confident in myself because of it.
As for advice, I’d say keep an open mind! Yes, it can be intimidating at first, but the staff at Stepping Stones provide great training before you leave, and are a great support system. At my site, I truly felt welcomed by the teachers and principal at the school. They were there to help me from the time I arrived to when I left. Definitely don’t be afraid to ask questions, try new things and be open to new experiences. And, of course, be prepared to be mobbed by children during your first couple of days! They are naturally curious and will have a lot of questions … some might even want your autograph!
If you are interested in such experience, please take a look at the program on our website.