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It’s safe to say that this has probably been the craziest week of my life so far.

I guess I came in with my own expectations about what my team would be like, how the city will look, how the students would act, etc.- but I quickly realized that I could not possibly have previously imagined the way that this week has gone. I think the first couple of days in Guangzhou were not particularly out of the ordinary; we visited one of the city’s high schools, met some of the students there, got a small glimpse of what would later become very, very familiar to us as the swarm of WeChat requests, and ate a lot of steamed rice and chicken. We were also starting to understand what Hsiao-mei meant by her warning that she would keep us busy.

When we heard we were going to start teaching as early as our first week, we recognized how fast of a pace we had to keep up with. Questions started popping into my head: Am I prepared? Will I be able to communicate with my students? Will they like me? Where do I even begin? We were not told much about how the first day was going to proceed, so I tried to answer those questions and fill in the gaps in between with the little information I knew. The moment all my expectations blew up in my face was when we stepped onto the Zhuhai N.9 Middle School campus.

We were stunned with a huge welcoming ceremony equipped with dancing dragons, a big TV screen with all our faces featured on it, balloons, drums, music, flowers, adorable students, and of course, a red carpet. They were all pulling out their cameras to take pictures of us while we did the same for them. After going down the red carpet with students lined up on each side cheering and giving us flowers, we stepped onto the main stage completely dazed and in absolute disbelief at what we just got ourselves into. There’s no making this stuff up, no way to even fabricate feelings and images like these in your mind before experiencing them. The shock of that Wednesday morning still resonates with me now and serves as a constant reminder that my expectations are not very applicable throughout this program.

Improvisation, leadership, and confidence despite the lack of preparation is what we are developing as strengths together as a group. It’s scary, fun, and wonderful in many ways- every encounter and interaction is unfamiliar and brand-new.

I will likely go into a lot of my experiences here with little knowledge and preparation, and that’s actually okay. That reminded me of something Hsiao-mei mentioned in our meeting- that are strengths can be our weaknesses as well as the other way around. A lot of us may be used to being very good at a skill in a particular environment coupled with a fair amount of planning and practice; some of our strengths have conditions that need to be met. Since I’ve been here, the environment has often been unpredictable and constantly changing, so our strengths that lie in a pursuit of perfection and stringent planning beforehand have transformed into a point of weakness. We have had to instead adjust to going with the flow and being alright with what we may perceive as imperfections in our executions. Our knack for making sure to be “prepared” for most of our Duke life served as a disadvantage this time. Improvisation, leadership, and confidence despite the lack of preparation is what we are developing as strengths together as a group. It’s scary, fun, and wonderful in many ways- every encounter and interaction is unfamiliar and brand-new. This also means that every day tends to require a lot of small problem-solving, thinking on our feet, and constant activity- aka I usually want to pass out by 9:00pm.

I can already tell that my relationships with the students will be the highlight of this program. They are so energetic and full of love, even with the huge barrier in communication. They often come into our office, and we play games or songs to help bridge the language gap and give us a point of connection. Teaching them can be a challenge, considering they all have different levels of English skills, but it’s always so wonderful because of their enthusiasm and eagerness to get to know us. They come up to us after class ready for hugs, WeChat IDs, questions, gifts, and signs of our recognition. I feel myself getting attached to their unconditional smiles and endless hospitality, things that can often only be found during our younger years. I’m already dreading the day we say goodbye to them. With all the adorable students we are meeting and the many new situations we face every day, it’s easy to forget that we have a time limit. My DukeEngage team has become my little family, and I also realize how difficult it will be to separate from them once this program is over. We are all quite different in our personalities, but I think we share very similar values of consideration, kindness, and love in the way we treat each other and the people around us. Having the time to reflect in this post really reminds me how grateful I am of being able to share this unbelievable experience with people I care about. I’m looking forward to what the next 7 weeks have to offer!

<3 Athina