The Road That Is Blocked
Bai Hailun graduated from NYU Shanghai in 2018 and became a volunteer teacher in Yunnan Province with Teach for China. She traveled back to NYU Shanghai on March 9 to share her experiences at the I AM LIMITLESS conference. The conference, organized by the University's Career Development Center, brought together change makers from across China to share insights on how NYU Shanghai students might make a difference in the world by serving others. The following is a translated transcript of Bai's speech. It has been edited for length.
I’m Bai Hailun. I am from Beijing. I graduated from NYU Shanghai in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts. I am currently a volunteer teacher at Teach for China. I’m teaching at Shujie Primary School, which is located in Wuyin village, which is in Weishan County, Dali autonomous prefecture, Yunnan Province.
I teach English to four grades, physical education to two grades, and music to two grades. In total, I am responsible for 120 students, and teach 21 classes per week. I am also a school counselor, the cheerleading coach, a dance teacher, and a food safety monitor. A month ago, I finished my first semester, and will be serving for three more.
You may be confused at this point. After all, I’m talking about volunteer teaching here, why such a heavy workload for a supplementary role?
Today, I want to tell you about what volunteer teaching really means. How it differs from regular teaching, and why I’ve chosen such a difficult and unglamorous path
First, I want to tell you about the environment.
Weishan County belongs to the Dali autonomous prefecture, and is about an hour’s drive from Dali City. Our school is located in Wuyin countryside, a poorer and colder mountainous region located 1600 meters above sea level. Most of the population here belongs to the Yi minority, many of whom subsist on farming and migrant labor. Our school is yet another hour-long bus ride on mountainous roads from Weishan county. Every time I get off this bus ride, I have to go throw up for a while.
“These mountains block out their horizons, and limit the possibilities in their minds.”
We have 187 students at the school, with 11 local teachers. Most students live on campus, and all the teachers are in charge of several classes. My students come from different villages throughout Wuyin countryside. The students who live farthest away have to travel two hours by motorcycle. When the weather is bad, they have to walk for four to five hours.
Once, I visited a 6th grader in his home. His village is called Langmalu, which is two mountains away from the school. I travelled by motorcycle for two hours with his father. No travellers ever visit his village, which is primarily populated by the Yi people. The elders in the village don’t speak mandarin, and adhere to Yi habits and traditions. Most of them have not had a formal education, the most highly educated among them have only attended junior college. Relatively well-off families sell domestic animals and liquor. In poorer families, the men are migrant laborers, and the women farm. Annually, they earn 10 to 20 thousand RMB.
It was raining that day that I visited Langmalu. The motorcycle kept sinking into the mud, so we had to stop and push it along. My student’s father’s shoes and pants were stained with mud, but when I asked him if he was tired, he responded, “No matter. This is nothing compared to digging tunnels!” After we arrived, we sat around the fire to warm ourselves. When I asked to go to the toilet, I learned there wasn’t one, so I had to dig a hole and make do. Later, I spoke with the student’s mother. She spoke simply, but I could sense her nervousness and anxiety.
When I asked the parents who was responsible for helping my student study, they only rubbed their hands and said, “neither of us”. They explained, “Our child has grown, and we don’t understand anything he’s learning. So we must depend on you.” When I turned to my student, I saw he had picked up his mother’s phone and was playing a video game. Then, I climbed up to the roof of their home and gazed out at the countless mountains, and imagined his life in this home. Besides climbing hills, laboring, doing his homework, and playing with the phone...what else could he do?
The reality is, there is nothing else for him to do.
No extracurricular activities, no arts and crafts, no vacations, no movies, no zoos, no McDonalds. Even his parents can’t spend too much time with him. So many parents in big cities complain about the number of extracurricular classes their children are expected to attend, and worry about the piles of junk food their children eat. But the children in these mountains don’t even have the chance to experience these so-called pressures and negative influences.
Most of my students grow up in this environment. The money their family makes is barely enough to eke out an existence. Their parents cannot provide moral support, guidance, or help. In fact, these young children have to tell teach their parents to wash their hands before they eat.
Our principal has a slogan: “5+2=0.” It means these kids spend 5 days at school, studying and learning healthy habits. Then, they go home for 2 days and forget everything they’ve learned. I just want to tell you, who may have lived in a city all your life, that you really can’t imagine what obstacles a child like this faces on the path to adulthood. These mountains block out their horizons, and limit the possibilities in their minds.
To illustrate, the mobile phone is often the only window for these kids to explore the world. There’s an app called “Kuaishou,” which is very popular right now. It’s a platform for sharing all kinds of personal opinions and media, and many of my students use it. One of my grade four students wrote down a message they saw on his father’s Kuaishou. It said, “When I’m the boss, I’ll take a 98 Karabiner [a type of rifle] and kill the Japs.” I asked my student if he understood what these words meant, and he replied “I have no idea, I just think it’s cool.” When their only window to the world is a mobile phone, these are the things they’re exposed to. What do we do about this? How do we teach them to be discerning about what they see online? I have been thinking about these questions, with no answers.
Let’s talk about teaching.
What is it like to teach 21 classes a week? You have to prepare four powerpoint presentations, one for each grade. You stand at the lectern for an entire afternoon. Five classes in a row means talking for 200 straight minutes. A hoarse throat and aching feet. Because of PE class, I’ve even learned how to run in heels and play games with students. Of course, when I get mad, my roar resounds across the playground like any other PE teacher, and the mountains echo my frustration.
Am I the only one so busy? Certainly not. All of the teachers have the same or an even heavier workload. We have a professional music, art, and PE teacher, but they also have to teach Chinese, math, and science. Once, my colleague came knocking at my door late at night. She wanted me to teach her how to solve a 6th grade math problem because she had to teach it the next day. As an art teacher, she had no idea how to solve the problem. Eventually, she asked me directly, “Could you take my place tomorrow?” You might feel that this is ridiculous, that an art teacher shouldn’t be teaching math.
“Volunteering is a disappearing road. Like other roads that don’t lead to money, power, or influence, it is obscured by millions of voices telling you to go the other way. An easier, more comfortable way.
It’s impossible to summarize the significance and benefit of an education in one sentence.
However I believe that a truly good education teaches you to be yourself, rather than to imitate others. Knowing this, if you stop to take a real honest look at yourself, I believe you will see what you truly want. Even if your decision is selfish, you have to face yourself with courage.”
But this is the reality in the mountains. There aren’t enough teachers because no one wants to teach there, so the ones who choose to go have to teach a subject they’re not trained for. What’s more, their salaries and promotions are tied closely to their students’ exam scores. How are they supposed to improve the quality, comprehensiveness, and range of their students’ educations at the same time?
The local teachers often tell us, “We really admire you volunteer teachers for your passion. We were like you in our first years, we gave our hearts to these students. But after 40 years, it takes a toll.” Teach for China tells us to influence local teachers, but when I hear the reality of what they’re facing, I don’t feel I have the right to push them to do things my way.
So where, exactly, is the problem? These schools don’t lack equipment or facilities anymore. What they lack are professional teachers with the energy to do things the right way. “My grade 3 students came in first place in Weishan county in English last semester, but I don’t feel happy at all. I worry: What if I leave after two years and no local teacher can teach the children English?
Lastly, I want to talk about why I joined Teach for China, and why I wanted to teach in the mountains.
The title of this speech is “The Road That is Blocked.” This title is not referring to the lives of my students in the mountains. I am talking about my peers. This group of people who think they’ve had a high quality education. You might be familiar with this famous saying by Lu Xun, “Originally there are no roads in the world. When people walk in the same way one after another, roads appear.” One of my best friends, Liu Bin, a TFC member in Chuxiong County, Yunan told me her version of this quote. She says, “There were once many roads in the world, but because so many people took the same path, the other roads disappeared.”
Volunteering is a disappearing road. Like other roads that don’t lead to money, power, or influence, it is obscured by millions of voices telling you to go the other way. An easier, more comfortable way. It’s impossible to summarize the significance and benefit of an education in one sentence. However I believe that a truly good education teaches you to be yourself, rather than to imitate others. Knowing this, if you stop to take a real honest look at yourself, I believe you will see what you truly want. Even if your decision is selfish, you have to face yourself with courage.
I’d also like to add that volunteer teaching isn’t just about passion, you need the ability to back up that passion. You need teaching abilities, but you also need practical life skills. Can you cook with a wood burning stove? Do you know how to deal with thousands of mosquitos? Do you know how to adapt to a totally unfamiliar environment? I don’t think you can learn these things in Shanghai, Beijing, or New York City.
As for what I’ll do in two years, I’m not sure. But I do believe that if you truly know what you are meant to do in this life, the fog of confusion will dissipate. Conversely, if you don’t know this, you might feel regret, regardless of your enviable career, family, or achievements.Some people are drawn to the mountains, to the hard and twisting paths. They want to light up their lives. I think I am one such person. I hope that all of you will find your own uncommon and inimitable road, and that it will never be blocked.