I think it is essential that anyone participating in service abroad constantly question the ethics of his or her work. We have to make sure that we are doing more good than harm and that we are actually achieving the goals that we set out to achieve. I have tried to keep this in mind throughout this program, and while I don’t think I can ever fully understand the effects of my presence here in Zhuhai, I would like to think that I am making a positive impact on the community and that I am wanted here.
However, I questioned this idea a few nights ago when Riley and me and our host siblings, Sophia and Bowen, were riding in a taxi home from a movie theater (we saw Finding Dory, which was fantastic). The cab driver obviously noticed that Riley and I were foreigners, so he asked where we were from. We told him America. He then asked why we were here, and our host siblings explained that we are here to teach English at their middle school. The cab driver then said in Chinese, “they are teachers??” and let out a sound of disapproval and disgust. I asked why he reacted that way, and from what I could understand of his rapid Chinese, he said that too many Chinese people are learning English. He then had a longer conversation with our host siblings, but I was lost through most of it.
After we paid and got out of the cab outside of our apartment complex, I asked Sophia and Bowen why the driver was so unhappy to learn that we were teaching them English. Bowen responded with, “that cab driver is very bad!” and Sophia basically explained that the driver feels that way because he did not do well in school. However, I was more hesitant to dismiss his feelings. I realized that if this cab driver feels this way about our service in Zhuhai, many other members of the community must feel this way too. After all, we are aware that China is currently stepping up efforts to keep out Western influence (it was very difficult to get our visas). This has really bothered me ever since. While it seems like the community is excited to have us here, I have questioned if that is because we are actually helping their students or because they enjoy the novelty of having foreigners in town?
On the other hand, a few weeks ago, Kally Rousala, an alumna of the No. 9 school visited our group. She just graduated from the No. 1 high school and will be attending NYU in the fall, which is super exciting! She talked to us for a while about how our Duke Engage program affected her in middle school. It was incredible to hear her say that Duke Engage was what inspired her to apply to school in America and to believe that she was capable of doing it on her own (without paying an agent to help her apply). This helped me to realize that even though we likely will never see any tangible effects of our own service first-hand, these kids will hopefully grow a greater confidence in their ability to speak English, or to try something and fail and try again. Hopefully they will see us as role models and as evidence that stepping out of your comfort zone is a good thing. And hopefully our short time in Zhuhai will allow these kids to consider possibilities they never considered before.
So, yes, there are people in this community that see our service as over-reaching Western influence. That is disappointing and definitely an issue, but we can only hope that over time more and more people will see that our contribution is not about spreading our Western ways but about giving the No. 9 kids a better chance at success.