Over the past few weeks, Kristen and I have had the honor and pleasure of working with many different groups of children from varying areas in China. We spent three days working with children from the rural town of Laojunshan, in the mountains of China. The Laojunshan Nature Reserve welcomed the six Chinese-university students, as well as Kristen and myself, to facilitate summer-camp activities focused on conservation education. Children from Laojunshan warmly took a liking to us all, excited for the bird walk through bamboo forests, a water walk through their river, as well as singing “Hokie-Pokie” from the tops of their lungs. Kristen and I taught the children names of varying animals common to China, and ones that may not live directly near the children and are just as important as the wildly-loved panda.
Following our splendid time with the children in Laojunshan, our group of educators moved onto the town of Mabian where the Panda Base has had a lasting relationship conducting conservation-education summer camp programs. These children seemed to come from more rural conditions than the previous group, and yet, exclaimed gleeful responses to knowing the names of animals and knowing how to sing the “A, B, C’s”. We had a blast playing games like Bat and Moth (ask us in person what this is–the game is fabulous!), taking turns asking “How are you?” in English, as well as learning about why it is important to not throw trash into rivers. Unfortunately, our time in Mabian was cut short due to heavy rainfall and the governments halt on all summer-camp programs in fear of road safety. Despite our tear-filled, early departure from this magical place of innocence and laughter, letters were written entitled “Dear brothers and sisters…” from the children. A bond was formed.
The children mentioned above could be labeled as living in poverty, according to the US’s standards of what poverty is. Conditions of living are not pristine, and may even be considered unsanitary by US standards. Plastic is burned on a daily basis as a means of getting rid of it. Clean water is readily available, if at all. If one were to judge the book by its cover, then happiness and excitement to live would not be evident…this is why books should never be judged by their covers. The children we interacted with during these summer camps were some of the most ebullient, giving and graceful little humans Kristen and I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with.
A few weeks after we came off our high from spending time with humble, young beings, we were asked to conduct one-hour long English lessons with a different group of children taking part in the summer camp program at the Panda Base in Chengdu. We did not know what to expect or what the level of knowledge was amongst the group; all we were told was that some new English better than others and they were excited to learn about American culture.
Our first activity asked the children to write their questions for Kristen and I on personal pieces of paper. We got anything from, “what kind of music do you listen to?” to “what do Americans think about the next generation of Chinese?” Quite a mix. We tried our best to cater to all questions, but this group of children were too distracted by their IPhones and IPods to know that they were being addressed. When we stepped outside following the childrens’ desires of not just sitting and listening/talking, we were met with blank stares and depressed aura’s at the mere introduction of doing the “Hokie-Pokie.” We struggled getting through all parts of the Hokie Pokie, let alone begin a new game. The message was clear: we are over this…give me my electronic opium.
The next day was no better. Within thirty minutes of Kristen and I sharing some of our favorite bands (including Punch Brothers, Mumford and Sons and U2), as well as showing the children pictures of Colorado and Utah (and our best friends, aka: Kristen’s cats), a young boy covered his eyes with a napkin. The napkins mobility became non-existent with the baseball cap which kept the napkin firmly in-place. He then proceeded to lay down on his back and fall asleep. To this day, neither of us know if he was feeling ill, but after being awoken by none other than myself, we are more than sure that he was bored and rude.
The icing on top of this cake showed its true flavor after I showed the children a picture of a beautiful, Denver sunset. “Does anyone have any questions about what we have just seen?” A boy raised his hand. “Thank goodness!” I thought to myself as Kristen and I said, “Yes?” The boy responded, “what kind of camera did you use for the pictures?” This child of less than 10 years was more concerned with the model of camera used to take the pictures than what the pictures portrayed. Two hours in an air-conditioned building with plastic chairs and western-style bathrooms across the hall was all it took for Kristen and I to become disappointed in what the future may hold.
Thankfully, our lovely time in Laojunshan, Mabian, and a summer camp held by a former panda base employee, gives us hope that children–like a little girl named Mei-mei (meaning ‘little sister’ in Chinese)–will over-ride the electronic-dependent, cap-wearing-to-pretend-I-am-listening, young ones. Mei-mei lives in Laojunshan and although was too young to take part in the summer camp, came and participated in every activity…barefoot. She kicks butt.