The program has finally concluded, and after a little under 40 hours of traveling, I’ve made it home. I usually travel to China in about half the time for pretty cheap, so I’m not sure why our tickets were booked so, how do I put it, differently? I made it home safely though, and I guess that’s all that mattered.
It was strange. Walking around the streets of Zhuhai, I felt a sense of almost superiority. I was from America! The land of opportunity, the land of freedom! I was a superhero, hiding among the regular citizens, and nobody knew who I truly was. In reality though, I was just the same as them. I had just been fortunate and was blessed with the opportunity to be raised in America. I had been given an easier life, I was dealt a hand full of face cards and trump cards, while the students in Zhuhai had made their way through life with some number cards. Landing back in America at the conclusion of the program, however, I returned to my normal self, lost in JFK airport. The insecurities that I faced being among other Americans, I felt almost inferior. I hadn’t showered in a few days because the trip took so long, my hair was a mess, and I was wearing my glasses (which I hate). Above those, I was Asian-American. But that is a completely different train of thought that I will save for some other time. Back to China.
My experience in Zhuhai was amazing, and there were so many factors that led to this unforgettable journey. My English classes exposed me to teaching and helped me gain confidence, as well as my acting class that made me so proud, in addition to the new friendships I formed, and the host family that provided me with care and a new home while I was away from home.
One day when Leo, my host father, and I came back home from a long day of something that escapes my mind at the moment, we felt something different about the house. We walked through the front door and there was an odd and unfamiliar sensation that I felt. The house felt cooler. My host mother had turned on the air conditioning in the rooms to max, and had closed all the windows so that the whole house could receive the cold air. It indeed felt really refreshing for a change, and she had such a proud and happy expression on her face. It made me happy that she was so happy. It was a rare occasion that they did something like this, as they usually reserved the air conditioning for only the separate rooms.
Back in America, if my parents turned off the air conditioning, or if it got even a little warmer, I would complain and whine my head off. Here in Zhuhai though, this simple thing made me realize how lucky I was to have been raised in America. Such a simple thing as air conditioning made my life so much easier, or harder if there was a lack of it. Whenever I got out of the shower, I would start sweating before I quickly retreated to the coolness of my room. Using the bathroom would leave me drenched in sweat, because the bathroom was simply so hot and humid. Eating dinner would be all right because my host family graciously placed a big fan right behind me, but sitting in the family room would make my underwear and pants start to stick to my bottom.
Teaching English classes was among one of my first experiences at Zhuhai No. 9, and I still remember my first class. Hsiaomei had told us how the kids loved to see your pictures and would get up into your personal space to get a better look. And sure enough, that first day when I sat my class of eight students in a semicircle in front of me right outside the teacher cafeteria, and pulled my phone out of my pocket, eight students got right up in my space. I didn’t mind though, and I went on to show them my baby pictures, a picture of my house (which always elicited big wows, thanks Hsiaomei for that tip, too!), selfies with the basketball players, and the picture of my class standing in the shape of 2020 (the kids died when I pointed at the spot I was standing; they loved it!). I taught about so many different kinds of things like sports and celebrities and travel. Some of my classes went well, while some were more of a struggle, but I loved all of my students in the end. Before I knew it, my English classes were over, and all eyes turned to the final performance.
In the beginning, me and Megan weren’t really sure at all what to do with acting class, considering we never acted before, and just didn’t really like to act. When we were finally able to settle on Harry Potter, I was fortunate enough to have one student act as a mini director, getting others to help write the scripts, and help cast and assign roles. This student, Peter, ended up playing Voldemort. He was tall and skinny, and I remember from day one that he always cooperated and participated in our failed attempts at acting activities. Another student, Jack, was short, skinny, and had glasses. He was cast as Harry Potter. I hadn’t known it then, but these two students would go to be the greatest little actors I’ve ever seen. They were our two little stars.
Rehearsals were stressful, as the students kept talking and playing on their phones, and as the number of classes left dwindled to zero, levels of worry and anxiety rose. So many factors still hadn’t been settled, and the final performance was coming all too soon. Running the dress rehearsals in the days leading up to the final performance was almost hell in itself too. Rain came in the worst of times, making it hard for my kids to practice on the stage, and kids ran all around. We weren’t able to get through all of the acts, and I felt horrible watching my kids scream the lines they spent countless hours rehearsing while rain drenched the costumes they had all bought before they were brought off stage and the dress rehearsal was halted. Heavy rain continued to fill the weather forecast, and it looked like the final performance would have to be moved inside to an auditorium with enough seats to seat only a few hundred. My acting class had worked so hard, and we had pushed and yelled at them so much. All of our hard work couldn’t just go to waste like this. But alas, there was nothing we could do. We could only pray and hope for mercy. (I also told students on WeChat to do the rain dance, but no one knew what that was and they thought I was crazy. I now realize the rain dance is supposed to bring rain, not hinder it, maybe I am crazy).
The day of the final performance arrived, and our chances of a beautiful and epic outdoor performance looked grim. We had our students prepare to perform inside, and all day I checked the weather forecast to only be disappointed. As the hours until the show winded down, something incredible happened. The skies cleared up. I had never been so thankful in my life for no rain, and I began to become hopeful of a memorable and legendary outdoor show again. I was so happy, but we still had so much preparation to do. I was in charge of playing the music and lights for the show, which was a lot more stressful than I had originally thought. I had a few packets of paper with directions next to me, and I probably wouldn’t have survived had some of my teammates not helped me. Nadia and Phyllis, our two emcees, stepped up on the stage, and it was time (I never knew it was spelled emcee, I always thought it was MC!?!?!?! Mind blown!).
Show time. Act after act, I tried my best to hit the play and pause buttons on time, while getting told the stage was too dark and needed more white light, or the music was too loud or too soft or that I had almost missed my cue. When it was time for Harry Potter and the Witches and Wizards of Zhuhai, anxiety began to fill my heart even more than before. As Harry, Hagrid, and the Dursleys took the stage, I began to play the series of music I had found on Spotify to try to enhance the play. Hagrid kicked down the door to retrieve Harry, Neville tripped before making it to the sorting hat, Dumbledore toppled beneath the wand of Snape, Snape in turn found his untimely demise in the Shrieking Shack, Neville bravely challenged the merciless He Who Shall Not Be Named after seeing their leader Harry lying dead at his feet, Molly ended the wicked Bellatrix and her wicked laugh, Harry sprinted and jumped back on stage to shield his friends (omg this part was literally so epic omg), and cast his greatest Expelliarmus to end Voldemort’s cursed reign.
It was over. They had done it. We had done it.
I played the final song on my soundtrack, which I hoped elicited emotions of epicness and beauty and bittersweetness and every emotion that I was feeling. I had chills running through me, and I couldn’t have been more proud of them. Every time they had done what I had told them, or showed brilliant and correct emotions of nervousness or anger or joy while playing their role, or caught the wand after casting the Expelliarmus spell, I did a mini fist pump. As they took their final bow, which we had rehearsed so many times, I ran back stage to congratulate them. I saw the joy on their faces as they ran off the stage. Pride filled my heart, and I tried my best to tell them in Chinese how proud I was (which probably just consisted of good job and very good). This is what it felt like to be a teacher and see your students succeed. It was a feeling like none other. It truly was magical.
Back to reality, there was a show running, and I didn’t have any time to say anything else. I had to go back to manning the music station. I wanted nothing more than to go hug my class, but duty called (that was really cheesy but whatever). The rest of the acts went smoothly, besides our small quartet arrangement of Libertango (I blame the humidity which made my fingers all sticky and icky, and that bloody ascending run that haunted me in every finger position). I went up on stage to become Wiz Khalifa for a few brief moments during the singing classes song “See You Again”, and delivered the 10 or so lines that I had so painstakingly memorized (I don’t know why I had so much trouble memorizing those. Also, all the kids love See You Again so much, I’m not really sure why). I just tried to tell myself that I was a rapper with swag and confidence, and so I went up on the stage and delivered and did something I would never have done before experiencing the DukeEngage Zhuhai pressures. At last, our final group dance came. “Here’s Mamba number five.” The music started, Aditya and I failed at the dance for a few brief moments, and it was over. Finally, we called our host siblings up onto the stage for one last hurrah, and then proceeded to fail at Juju on that Beat.
It was all over. All of our time at Zhuhai No. 9 Middle School had culminated to this moment, and it had finally arrived. The hours of blood and sweat poured into putting the acts together (minus the blood and double the sweat to make up for it, literally), and arranging costumes, and getting my students to stop wandering off, and yelling at them to stop doing dumb things, had all been for this very moment. As cliché as it sounds, it truly was glorious. Harry Potter ran onto the stage and gave me a big hug, and hoards of students came to enjoy the moment with their Duke teachers. Pictures were taken, hugs were given out, and memories were made.
Our remaining time in Zhuhai had been slowly but surely dwindling away, and our final day had come upon us quicker than any of us could have expected. We said our final goodbyes before the bus took us back to Guangzhou so we could catch our flights back to America. Before I left, Leo told me, “In Chinese culture, goodbyes aren’t sad. They are happy. This is the beginning of a great friendship.” Dang was that little kid so wise.
As I’m sitting here in my comfortable home, thinking back on the life changing two months I spent in a place I was dreading beforehand due to its heat and humidity, I can’t help but miss my friends and students and host family. It’s so difficult to explain my experience, the things I saw, and the things I learned, and the things I gained to others. No matter how hard I try, only the 11 of us, plus Hsiaomei and David, who went on the trip will be able to truly digest and appreciate the beauty of this DukeEngage program. However, life goes on, and hopefully I will be able to return someday. I want to see my students graduate from ninth grade so badly, and see how they are doing two years from now. But that is the future.
In the present, I can only imagine. Meanwhile, Aditya says they are making a movie about Columbus, Indiana. Lol. Who is gonna watch that? Just kidding, I’m sure your hometown is a great place. I’ll miss your crazy Durian fantasies. For the final time, Daniel out.