I never really thought myself to be the type to cry when things got emotional. But the moment all the No. 9 students/teachers, host families, and Duke Students finished taking the last group picture at the school before we left for the Guangzhou airport, I was a teary mess as I hugged my host mom and host sister. My host mom had steady tears streaming down her face and my host sister, who previously had promised me she wouldn’t cry because she wanted to happily send me off, was bawling harder than I ever imagined she would. Some of my English and singing students had come to the school just to give us presents and send us off. Over the course of the 8 weeks in Zhuhai, I had developed a deep affection for Zhuhai (despite its intense heat and humidity, the bubble tea and corn dumplings made up for it) and formed priceless friendships with many students and host families.
As I sit in the comfort of my home in America writing this blog post, I still can’t believe that just a week ago, we were anxiously preparing for the final performance and hanging out with our host families. During the last week, the daunting final performance, the ultimate culmination of this Duke Engage program, constantly plagued our minds. Many logistical questions regarding our singing class performance that I had never thought about before popped into my head. Would the kids forget the lyrics and hand motions we taught them? Would they be loud enough for an outside venue? How will the sound system project us? Will some kids even show up for dress rehearsals? Will the audience enjoy our performance? Will it rain? et cetera et cetera. We hadn’t seen our extra-curricular students for a couple of weeks due to Zhong Kao and their final exams/our trip to Yunnan. Hsiao-Mei also had warned us about the unreliability of some of the technological equipment at the school and told us to be prepared for anything. And it even seemed like many kids and parents either did not know about the final performance or did not know when it was. So, I was worried about the outcome of our dress rehearsals and the final performance.
On our first day back to teach extracurriculars, only about half of my singing class kids showed up to rehearsal. Many had gone off to play and celebrate the first days of summer because final exams had just concluded. Some students, knowing that they didn’t have a singing solo, just decided that they wouldn’t practice or perform because they didn’t see a point. The number of kids in our class diminished from almost sixty to barely forty. Athina and I were slightly frustrated at the decreasing size of our class because it would mean that the remaining singing students would have to project their sound that much more to compensate for the missing ones. As we started to rehearse, Athina and I realized that many students, to our dismay, had forgotten the hand motions to “What Makes You Beautiful” and “All of Me”. They had even forgotten most of the words to the song “What Makes You Beautiful” and whenever we ran through that song, the kids would sort of blankly stare at each other and mumble something incoherent while quietly humming the melody. We had to reteach all of the hand motions and go over the lyrics slowly for a couple hours to refresh their memories. At the end of that rehearsal, Athina and I begged them to practice their hand motions and memorize the lyrics at home. The final performance was only days away and it seemed like all the progress Athina and I had made with our class had come tumbling down.
The next day was the first dress rehearsal. After the previous day’s class rehearsal, I was a little worried about how the kids would sound. But after we started to go over all the songs again, all of our worries washed away. The timid mumbles from yesterday became clear singing of the lyrics from “What Makes You Beautiful” and the hand motions to every song became consistent among all of the students in the class! When we walked onto the stage to practice, it spontaneously started to rain and the poor kids had to continue singing the songs mic-less and soaked in rainwater.
Fast forward to a couple days later: the day of the final performance. The practice before the performance was stressful because everyone was scrambling around anxiously trying to deal with costumes, makeup, herding the students, stage prep, logistics and final touches. Though everyone on the team was really nervous before the performance (I personally was freaking out big time a couple minutes before the show started at 7:30 while I was standing under the lights/sounds tent prepping for the start of the show) and all of my students were anxiously practicing their hand motions and reciting memorized lyrics, I thought they performed very well. On stage, the kids sang with radiating smiles and energizing movements. Even when the mics went wonky and soloists got nervous over sound system blips, they embraced the situation and blasted right through the performance. The last song they performed was the (in)famous “See You Again” from the Fast and the Furious movies (though a lot of my students translate it to “Speed and Passion” hahaha Baidu Translate). As we took a final bow grasping each other’s shoulders, I could feel myself beginning to well up from how proud I was of my students and how they performed. The “epilogue” act of the final performance was dancing to “Juju on that Beat” (in reference to our show name “Zhuhai on that Beat”) with all Duke students and all of our students on stage. As I was dancing and jamming to the song with the students, I realized how much I had changed. Before Duke Engage, there was no way I would have tried to dance the juju in front of an audience of over a hundred people, especially on a big stage with bright lights. I would be too embarrassed by my lack of dancing skills and swag to accomplish such a task. But there I was, on stage in a faraway place, in front of hundreds of parents and adolescent teens, happily and unashamedly dancing the juju with my uncoordinated and unswaggy self.
After the performance, all of the students came on stage to give us hugs, take pictures, and ask for WeChats in hopes that when we went back to the States, we would still be in contact. Some of my students such as little Leo, Nana, Willa, and Angel started to cry, knowing it was almost time to say goodbye. I took so many pictures, hugged so many of my students, and received many gifts that night. I was so incredibly proud of my students for putting on such a courageous and passionate performance, especially since it was the first time for many of them to step on stage and perform!
On the last day with my host family, we went to watch my host sister’s singing and piano recital. My host mom said that it was just a small recital for the students in the piano and singing studio, but the performance venue was a fancy and medium sized auditorium with a huge poster banner on the back wall of the stage. There were also colorful lights and two emcees to run the recital, which seemed so much more fancy than the small class studio recitals I was used to back in the States. Each act was so cute and I thought my host sister did amazing! She showed off her musical talents by performing a song and playing the piano accompaniment at the same time.
Near the end of the day, my host parents gave me a whole slew of gifts to pack and bring back to America. I got a silver necklace, a silver coil bracelet, a bunch of fancily decorated cultural chopsticks, some rare Chinese yuan, a shiny Peacock keyring, and a whole assortment of shiny hair accessories. I was so thankful for their gifts and so touched by their generosity, because these last two months, they had to feed me, entertain me, and let me into their family life. Yet, they still gave me so many gifts. I had prepared a bunch of gifts and handwritten letters for my host sister and my host parents as well, but I don’t think I could have topped theirs. While I was packing, my host sister stayed in my room and kept adding her favorite songs in a playlist called “Selina’s songs” on my Spotify (it’s seven hours long lol). We listened to her songs on shuffle while I packed late into the night.
On the morning before we had to leave for the Guangzhou airport, all of the host families, siblings and Duke students ate breakfast together at a fancy dim sum restaurant. We took many group pictures (courtesy of our poor waiter, sorry dude) and had a final toast, wishing us to be happy that we were going home after our two months of work in Zhuhai. We arrived at the school a couple hours later to say goodbye and head to the airport. While boarding the bus, my host sister gave me a handwritten letter and burst into tears. We hugged for a long time, and I began to cry too. Even after the bus left the school, I think I continued to cry for a while, already missing everyone.
I came to Zhuhai thinking that I would teach English and singing to middle school students and make some friends along the way. I left Zhuhai feeling so fortunate and loved, having experienced different facets of Chinese culture, stepped way out of my comfort zone, formed unforgettable friendships with my fellow Duke Engage Zhuhai buddies, and met enthusiastic and generous students, teachers and people. I have become a part of an unfamiliar but beautiful community. Are all my English students now amazing at the English language? No. And are all my singing students now pitch perfect and set to be singing superstars? Probably not. But I hope and believe that we opened their eyes a little bit more to what’s outside their little city of Zhuhai and taught them to be passionate in what they do and have more confidence, whether it is having conversations in English or singing Taylor Swift to their heart’s desire no matter how tone deaf you are. Step out of your comfort zone and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. And, like Hsiao-Mei once said, perhaps it is not a big or immediate change, but I think for many, small steps forward were made. It can be as small as something like the students chatting with us on WeChat in English, because maybe many years from now it can become something as big as stepping on stage and making an entire speech in English (like the No. 9 ninth-grade student, who used to be a previous Duke student’s host brother, that made a speech on stage on the day we first arrived in Zhuhai!)
To my fellow Duke Engage team, thank you so much for being such a supportive and hilarious bunch of people. Aditya, thanks for your positivity and strange like for smelly durian. Athina, my singing buddy, thank you for being an AMAZING co-teacher and for randomly bursting out into song with me. Caroline, thanks for being a great leader and being secretly cute. Daniel, thanks for your goofiness/inherent childishness and making us laugh. Jonah, thanks for your willingness to learn a new language and enlightening us with Cat Man stickers. Megan, thanks for stepping outside your comfort zone and strive for perfection. Nadia, thanks for your contagious smile and energizing attitude to keep us going through the day. Pam, thanks for always being game for everything (even belting Disney medleys) and being excited about Lucifer and cats. Phyllis, thanks for choreographing amazing dances and always helping us order food/survive with your bomb Chinese translation skills. Sara, thanks for being mom and taking such amazing care of us. Hsiao-Mei and David, thanks for always looking out for us, teaching us how to make each day better, and planning our experience for us!
Zhuhai, thank you for being so welcoming and nurturing these two months. Thank you for the best summer of my life.