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Our first week looked nothing like the first week of Duke Engage Zhuhai in 2019, to say the least. Perhaps the biggest difference was that we… weren’t in China? Having perused all the videos and pictures and many of the blogs available from past years’ programs, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what it was like normally — and absolutely nothing has been normal about this year.

2021 DukeEngage Zhuhai Team Picture
Team Picture: Meet the 2021 DukeEngage Zhuhai Team! (not pictured: our fearless program director, Hsiao-mei Ku <3)

Before the program started, Hsiao-mei asked several of us to join a test call with the students at Zhuhai No. 9 School. I think this was literally before the Duke Engage acceptance letters went out, and that’s kind of when I knew that there would be a lot of learning and flexibility this summer. For starters, we couldn’t see the students. Their computers weren’t yet equipped with cameras, so those first couple of test calls felt like a literal shout into the void. (I now understood why my own professors were always adamant that we keep our cameras on.) On top of that, it was nearly impossible to get students to engage in conversation or answer our questions.

At our final test call, though, we were ecstatic to learn that the middle schools had successfully purchased and implemented webcams for every computer. And by the time Sunday rolled around and it was time for our very first lesson, I was both immensely excited and terrified. We had just finalized our lesson plans earlier that day; would we be prepared enough? Would the students like us? Were we going to be good teachers?

My fears were soothed with my very first class. The schedule informed me that it began at 8:05 pm EST, and around 8:10 or so, students began populating my screen. Donned with chunky headphones and school uniforms, their eyes were bright and their smiles wide. As I introduced myself with pictures and a short video of me playing violin, I saw some of their jaws drop in amazement. Some brave individuals even typed messages like “cool!” and “好厉害” (“amazing”/ “very impressive”) into the chat. How cute is that?? These kids were the literal sweetest. When it came time to introduce themselves, I quickly found that they loved popcorning each other. It appeared to be a new concept to them, and they seemed to find it quite amusing that they had the power to say who went next.

Zoom Chat Screenshot
The students are too kind!!

Zoom Chat Screenshot
The students are too kind, pt. 2 (translation: “not bad at all” / “not bad” / “teacher is so beautiful” 🥺 / “and plays [violin] well” / “very impressive”)
One of my team members had suggested a game,, that had proved very popular during the test calls. At every single class I taught this week, the students went crazy over this game. They essentially had to shout the number of an image (out of ten options) that corresponded with a vocabulary word on the screen, and our ears were filled with the ringing of “Eight! Eight! Eight!” or “Three! Three! Three!” The only problem was, though each teaching pair only taught around six students, all 50 kids were in one classroom… so to make themselves heard, the students would shout their answers louder and louder. Despite the chaos, I was so encouraged by the students’ eagerness to demonstrate their knowledge.

GamesToLearnEnglish Screenshot
Thanks,! For high participation and pure chaos 😉


Chinese Classroom
All the students in one room! I really loved seeing pictures like these because it gave me a sense of what it was like on the other end, with the kids.

The week did not go by without its challenges, of course. Certain classes of students were rowdier than others, while others were shy and needed extra coaxing to participate; greeting each new group was an adventure of discovery, patience, and flexibility. The internet connection was spotty at times, with the students either repeatedly shouting “卡!!” (“glitchy”/ “lagging”), not being able to connect to audio and hear us at all, or dealing with some other technological issue. My last class of the week had one girl whose video was just upside down the whole time.

But despite all our struggles, I’d say Week 1 was a brilliant success. Not only did I get to work and learn with my phenomenal co-teachers Sandy and Zach, as well as get to know the rest of my team better, but I was also able to meet and talk to so many incredible students. To be honest, I’m still quite sad we can’t be there with them in person, but this week has given me hope for the rest of this summer. I can’t wait to see the energy that the students continue to bring next week!

Zoom Screenshot
One of my classes!!