April & May 2008, Shanghai  How do I even begin to describe an amazing once in a lifetime experience? It all started with the first words I spoke in Shanghai: “zhe li shi huo che zhan nan guang chang ma?” (is this the Railway Station South Plaza?) That is how I came to meet the beautiful volunteer coordinator with Xu Bo. It turned out we were waiting right next to each other the whole time, and because she was expecting somebody “Western” she didn't think I was the volunteer she was waiting for.

 

This event sums up my experience in China: a “Westernized Canadian raised Hong Kong born Chinese guy” trying to figure out where he truly belongs in the world: the East, or West? More important than having the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to embrace my people's culture and language was the sheer feeling of reward in imparting my knowledge of English to my wonderful students.

The School  The Zha Bei Primary School, where I taught, is one of several schools where placements are available in Shanghai. Over 1000 students, between grades one and five, study at Zha Bei. The founder of the school created a vision which is lived through the teachers today: “to put our students above all else.” The students here are incredibly bright and well behaved, thanks to the hard-working teachers at the school. Sometimes I had homeroom teachers help me manage the classroom, but trying to keep a class of 40 young students focused is an experience in itself. I loved hoola-hooping and hacky-sacking with my students during their breaks: they are as playful as they are diligent!

The Location  As one of the fastest developing cities in the entire world, Shanghai is the modern jewel of China. The contrast between the old and the new is striking: towering modern skyscrapers can be seen from historic streets where street vendors and shop owners still carry on traditional lifestyles. The city itself is ideally located with excellent transportation links to nearby cities. The famous gardens of Su Zhou and the West Lake of Hangzhou can be easily enjoyed through day trips during weekends away from school.

The Lifestyle  I stayed at the cozy Xu Bo volunteer flat in south-central Shanghai during my placement. Every week I taught 16 classes in grades 1, 3, and 5 from Monday to Friday, adding up to about 10hrs/week spent in class. I stayed at the school from 8am – 5:30pm each day to get to know the teachers, students, and learn Chinese in between. The other volunteers would visit the flat during the weekends where we would get together and have unforgettable adventures around Shanghai and China!

The Food  Don't let “Chinese food” in your home country fool you, as there is a whole undiscovered world of delicious food to be enjoyed in Shanghai! My personal favorites are Xiao Long Bao (a type of dumpling invented in Shanghai), Ma La Tang (spicy noodle soup from Western China), Zi Cai Rou Bao (vegetable eat bun) and Zhi Ma Bao (sesame seed bun).

The Xu Bo and Zha Bei staff were incredibly helpful in meeting my needs from day one, making for an absolutely incredible experience. Many believe the best way to learn is to teach, and I fully agree with this idea. Living and working in a foreign country adds so much to one's outlook on life. At the very least, you will come out with many unforgettable stories of sheer hilarity with your wonderful students!