by Lee Mook

Holidays are always welcome, of course, but after five months of intense Chinese classes and English tutoring, this particular winter holiday was especially welcome. China’s winter break is a full month surrounding the Spring Festival, a holiday equivalent to Christmas and New Year’s Day, but involving many more dumplings.

To start winter break, I traveled with the rest of the students in the NSLI-Y program to Nanjing for a week of volunteering.

First, we visited a home for the elderly. Chinese culture holds very high respect for one’s parents and the elderly. One is expected to support one’s parents in their old age, so elderly homes, while rare in China, are typically lively, social, and well-maintained.

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The residents and we volunteers prepared a number of performances for each other. My favorite was a dance their all-woman dance crew put together. I couldn’t help but smile as they launched into their dance. The women, all 60 or older, were wearing matching dark red velvet shirts, black velvet dresses, and multi-colored scarves, outfits looking as if they had just stepped out of the disco age. They danced to a very light and up-beat song, a song I would describe as the Chinese equivalent of techno music, a mix of “boots and cats and boots and cats” with flute and the Chinese ErHu. The dance was very well done. The odd juxtaposition of the women’s synchronized dancing, unfamiliar music, and bright outfits reminded me of a group of cheerleaders from a 90s sports movie.

In return for their dance, we showed the dance crew how to do the Macarena. They followed me step by step as they learned, and so when I started deviating from the Macarena they had no idea. They followed me, and by the end of our performance they knew how to Bernie, Dougie, and do the “shopping cart” (you pretend that you are pushing a shopping cart and picking goods off a shelf – very advanced). I do not have the best dance moves, so I was quite surprised when they invited me back to the community center Tuesday night for a group dance class. Now that I think about it, maybe they were trying to tell me something about my dance moves.

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On one of our last days, we went to a developing island two hours away from Nanjing to teach English at a migrant school. The island is being transformed into a science and technology research park, and the current residents are preparing for their way of life to be severely altered. These residents will most likely be pushed out of their homes and lose their businesses in order for continued construction of the Science and Technology park. This is the case because in China there is no actual private property. Instead the Chinese government owns all the land and leases it to development companies and real estate agencies for 50 to 75 year contracts.

The students we taught on the island were around 12, very bright, and exuberant about learning English. It was a blissful experience to have students so enthralled by my English lesson. I taught my lesson on sports. These students picked up the words I taught with such ease that I worried they would become bored. However, these students’ attentive focus and excitement persisted.

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To test their knowledge we split up into groups and played some games. My favorite moment came when I was testing them on the word “dancing.” I asked “what is dancing?” All at the same time they broke out into their best dance moves. Some students started ballroom dancing, others raised the roof, and one student even started doing the worm. I could not stop laughing. These students’ energy was unparalleled and moved me to find a similar program in Beijing to volunteer at on the weekends.