Endless sojourn

Updated: 2012-03-16 07:31

By Su Zhou (China Daily)

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 Endless sojourn

Patrick Lynch is a volunteer teacher at a school where most students are the children of migrant workers. Provided to China Daily

A quick stop in china turned into a commitment spanning years for a school volunteer

Fenghua Primary School is located deep down a dusty lane in Wangjiazhuang village of Beijing's Haidiandistrict. Before arriving at the school, visitors have to pass by street-side vendors and piles of trash. It is hard to find Fenghua because there is no name on its gate - even though this is its fourth, upgraded location.

But for 60-year-old American Patrick Lynch, the school is familiar ground. For the past six years, he has been teaching English to its students, who are mostly children of migrant workers, without expecting anything in return.

Every Tuesday and Thursday, Lynch rides his black Giant bicycle to Fenghua. He does not call himself a teacher and says he is "only a volunteer" to supplement the work of "the great teachers who actually work here", but no one has stayed at the school as long as he has.

"Teaching here is challenging because the condition is not that good ... the dirt floors, dim lighting in classrooms ... Before Fenghua moved here (the current school site), my feet lost all feeling after two classes in the winter," Lynch says.

"But this place is much nicer than before, at least we have heat now.

"Besides, the kids here are very naughty, you cannot expect them to sit there quietly and remember everything you tell them," Lynch says.

"You have to be patient and give some interesting examples in your lessons."

Most of Fenghua's children come from poor families who cannot be registered as local residents and cannot get into public schools to receive better education. But Lynch says that does not mean they have to be bad students.

He can only afford to go to the school twice a week. He teaches the fifth and sixth grade because the students are under a lot of pressure to compete with others in the entrance exams for junior middle school.

Lynch is fully aware that he cannot perform miracles by turning the children into native speakers overnight. But his work has helped re-establish their confidence.

Liang Xiaofang, who set up Fenghua with her husband, says: "Most children of migrant laborers all know they cannot compare with other kids because they don't have this, they don't have that ... but they are proud to have a foreign teacher just like the students in public schools or international schools." The school can barely survive through the school fees and donations it receives, she says.

Lynch's reward from teaching at the school comes in the form of replies that students give him after they leave.

"I ask how is their English now and they tell me 'no problem'," he says.

"That is the best way to pay me."

Lynch is from Richmond, Virginia, and lived in San Francisco for 20 years before coming to China. He used to be an IT consultant, helping clients to figure out their software programs and clocking in extra hours just like many other people. When he turned 50, Lynch thought his life needed to change. So after his contract ended, he decided to travel around China or South America for a few years to figure out what was next for him.

In that trip to "find himself", Lynch thought China would be just one attractive stop on the map. But after he arrived, he decided not to leave. He found a lot of work opportunities through friends to teach English - first at Beijing Normal University, then the Beijing Information Science and Technology University. Lynch also taught many others, including nurses and waiters, free.

Lynch's friends in the United States thought he was crazy because he took a huge pay cut by working in China.

In the IT industry, Lynch could earn $10,000 a month but in his first job at Beijing Normal University he was paid only $400. Now he can get $1,000 a month.

"There was no big difference. Maybe I could afford nice hotels before, I just had to find cheap ones instead," Lynch says.

Then one day, when he was giving a free class in a vegetarian restaurant, one customer gave him an interesting suggestion: "Why not teach migrant workers' children English?"

Fenghua has always relied heavily on short-term volunteers, mostly freshmen from nearby universities. So Lynch's decision to join it surprised and delighted Liang Xiaofang, who could not afford a foreign teacher.

She soon discovered that Lynch offered not just subject knowledge, but also care and love for the children.

"Patrick has done a lot for those kids in these years," Liang says.

"When kids were learning the word pizza, Patrick noticed that they had no idea what it was because they never ate it, so Patrick bought some for them."

Lynch also took a lot of pictures of these students and printed them out at the end of a semester. He gave out candy and pictures to the children which quickly became routine from his second year at Fenghua.

"Some students don't have cameras and they have to move from one place to another because their parents don't have fixed jobs, so some pictures can help them to remember their school days in Fenghua," Lynch says.

Unsurprisingly, the students like Lynch very much.

When asked why they liked him, some students in the fifth grade shouted: "Because he moves his body when he is singing. Because he is handsome. Because he is fat."

For now, one of the biggest hurdles Lynch faces is the Chinese language. He is not always able to respond to children who are eager to talk to him.

"There was one time, one girl came to me and kept saying 'jia' (home), I thought she was inviting me to visit her home, so I said 'yes' and later she came to me saying, 'I can't go to America with you because my English is poor'," Lynch says, laughing.

But the girl may be upset by the fact that Lynch is not going to move back to the US anytime soon, even though he still has a lot of good friends there. Lynch says he loves China and is happy to spend the rest of his life here.

"It is always the people we miss," Lynch says.

"I really wish I can be everywhere doing everything."