You may not be Kobe Bryant but you're OK

Updated: 2012-08-21 07:41

By Nick Compton (China Daily)

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I walked into the schoolroom in Wuwei county, Anhui province, not having the slightest clue what to expect.

I'd joined the Summer Service Learning Project at Tsinghua University for an adventure, to experience a chunk of China I hadn't seen before. Through the program, small groups of Tsinghua students, six or seven, along with a few international volunteers, are assigned to rural regions in China for a two-week summer stint volunteer teaching English.

Some of the assignments are truly rural, in the hinterlands of Gansu province, the Ningxia Hui and Guangxi Zhuang autonomous regions, and Qinghai province, where chalk is the only classroom technology. Others, like my assignment, are in outposts far removed from the speed and sparkle of China's first-tier cities.

So, having endured a 17-hour-train ride from Beijing to Anhui's provincial capital Hefei, then another three hours on a bus that didn't as much roll down the road as it bounced, violently, over pot-holes, cracks and cave-ins, I was in Wuwei, a county of 1.8 million people that 20 years ago, our host explained, was one of the poorest regions in China, but thanks to a boom in post-reform manufacturing had assumed a sort of muted prosperity - no towering skyscrapers or Starbucks, but a few multi-story hotels, garishly decorated cafes and streets peppered with luxury cars.

You may not be Kobe Bryant but you're OK

The classroom wasn't what I'd anticipated, blackboard and wooden desks; rather it was a nicely equipped lecture hall, with a projector, loudspeakers, and seating for 200 high-school students.

As the students looked at me up-and-down from their seats, curious about my hair, my jeans and my shoes, I set up my laptop, opened my Powerpoint and began my first lecture.

After introducing myself and talking about some famous United States places, I asked the class, around 50 first-year high school students, if they had any questions or anything to add. They'd been listening to my lecture hungrily, some with their mouths agape in awe as I described cheesecake in New York City, deep-dish pizza in Chicago, feral chickens and cold beer in Key West, Florida.

Reluctantly, almost painful in their hesitance, a few hands edged upwards. I called on a boy, tall, with thick glasses and a serious face. He stood up and began his question.

"So, you're from the United States?" he asked. "Do you know Kobe Bryant?"

I informed him that the US was a huge place, like China, and celebrities are separated from common people. I said I didn't know Bryant, Jeremy Lin, or any other professional athletes, for that matter. He shrugged his shoulders and sat down.

Then another hand, from the front row, a girl who had been jotting down notes as I spoke. Her English was near perfect: "I heard Americans don't like Chinese, is that true?"

Again, I said the US is a huge place, where people held many varied opinions. People in the US misunderstand China, I said, using language that I was certain would fly over the students' heads, but the class nodded in agreement.

By the time I left, a week later, the students spoke more freely, their questions flowed more naturally. Their curiosity about the US, about Beijing, about teenagers outside of China was insatiable. When I left, I was showered with note cards and Post-it notes tattooed with e-mail addresses, phone numbers, QQ accounts, and carefully written scripts that invariably said something like, "Good to meet you. Stay in touch."

One cut even more to the point: "Even though you're not Kobe Bryant, nor do you know him, I like you."

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China Daily