While studying abroad in Shanghai, I had the incredible opportunity to work with Stepping Stones, a non-profit organization through which I taught English to grade school students at various Shanghai migrant schools. Through my experience, I learned that there is a huge influx of migrants moving from the farmlands and agricultural areas into Chinese cities, with Shanghai having one of the highest concentrations of migrants in China. In recent years, the government created many new schools to provide the children of migrant parents with access to education they might otherwise not receive. In theory, the idea is a good one, but there are still many underlying issues affecting the quality of education these students are receiving.
Stepping Stones placed me at Huabo Lixing Hang School, an elementary school about an hour away from the university campus at which I was studying. When I first arrived, I immediately noticed that the area was much poorer than the area in which I lived in and went to school. I noticed that even the inhabitants looked recognizably different (or distinguishable) from the Shanghainese people I normally saw in the city, probably due to the fact that they originally came from inland provinces such as Anhui, Hunan, and Sichuan.
The government chartered school I worked at clearly stood out from the rest of the environment. Its modern architecture seemed out of place among the surrounding buildings and shops. The classes were packed with students. A normal class size was around 60 which, as one might imagine, made teaching English incredibly difficult. The children were extremely excited to learn, but there were many daily challenges in the classroom. Having so many peers, the students were often rowdy and distractible, and the ones in the back of the classroom had trouble understanding what was occurring at the front. Furthermore, the children were all greatly varied in their English abilities. This is a common characteristic in migrant schools, as students who weren’t born in Shanghai have a wide range of educational history. One of the Chinese volunteers who worked with me in the classroom told me that her elementary school was nothing like this. She said everyone was always well-behaved because parents reinforced their children’s behavior at home. Unfortunately, with parents that often have to work late, these children tended to have very different home lives, and these differences translated into the classroom.
In December 2018, at the end of the most difficult semester I had faced in college yet, I traveled to Honduras as a part of the Global Medical Brigade team at USC. By this point in the semester, I was ready to return home for the holidays, and going to Honduras for 9 days was one of the last things I wanted to do. What I didn’t realize at the time was that this was going to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
The nine-day brigade consisted of three categories of activities: clinical, water, and public health. The first three days of the brigade were the clinical days. The typical clinical day started with a 5:00 AM wake-up. We had a freshly made Honduran breakfast consisting of beans, eggs, tortillas, and fresh juice. We then took a 3-hour bus ride to the rural village that we were assigned to provide medical attention to. Upon arrival at a local school in the area, we set up supplies for prescription pick-up, basic check-ups, as well as dental and gynecology exams. As students, we completed basic tasks such as taking blood pressure and measuring height and weight. For the more complex exams (dental and gynecological) we watched Honduran doctors perform them. For three days we treated patients until around 4:00 PM, and throughout our clinical work, the USC team and the Honduran doctors saw over 500 patients.
Language is not something I really think about on a day-to-day basis. Most of the time, I just go through my day freely communicating with ease and not running into any language-related problems. I feel like this is the way a lot of native English speakers living in America feel, and I’ve found that it is a very ignorant way of thinking. Everyone should acknowledge that being fluent in English is a major privilege that is often overlooked or taken for granted by native speakers.
During my first conversation session at ALI, I was talking with an international student specifically about what our high schools were like. He said that he had a few required classes that he had to take during high school, and that one of them was four years of English. I mentioned that I was also required to take a foreign language and my conversation partner was puzzled by this, and he questioned me on why I would be required to learn any other language besides English. This forced me to step back and think more deeply about English.
My conversation partner’s statement is sad but true, because in a practical sense, if you know English, there is not a need to know any other language because of English’s dominance in the world. This is unfortunate, because it is not fair to rate languages above each other because it creates a big disadvantage to those who are not native English speakers, and thus they are given the burden of learning another language (usually English) out of necessity.