I’ll start by saying this — I’m never really certain how to write about myself. I never know what information about myself is relevant, or what will fully describe me. I could write the basic things — I’m Lauren Thornberg, I’m 18 years old, I’m from Lewes Beach in Delaware — but those pieces of myself don’t really disclose much of who I am, they just put you one step closer to stealing my identity (please don’t). Instead, I’ll tell you quickly about my values, because a person’s values, to me, are the most important aspect of their being.
I value kindness, I value altruism. I value curiosity, wisdom, and those with a drive to learn. To me, there is immeasurable value in culture — both material and immaterial — and in the diffusion of culture. It’s fascinating to watch the infinite connections between human beings. I value bad jokes and good books. Most importantly, I value empathy, and I believe that every interaction we have with others should be spilling over with empathy.
Alright. I’m done sounding pretentious (why do I always sound pretentious whenever I try to blog??? I’m really trying to tone this down). Now, onto the part I’m sure is more exciting — my gap year plans.
In August, I will be heading to Beijing, China, for 9 months. I have a 9 month contract with a “home educator” program. My credibility as an educator largely came from my unique position as an ambassador for the 100,000 Strong initiative, a nonprofit investing in US-China relations. I’ve already been assigned my host family — the mother is a journalist, the father, a producer in the film industry. I will be teaching their daughter, 皮皮 (Pipi), not only English, but also French (Je parle aussi français!). I’ll be a home educator, performing the duties of a teacher and an au pair, but I’ll also volunteer. What many expats in China do is offer tutoring sessions to help adults improve their English skills. However, I’ll be volunteering my time while Pipi is in school to help sharpen people’s English skills for free. In China, knowing English is a valuable skill, and improves their chances of being hired for well-paying jobs.
I know that in America, we don’t really consider the value of English. As my neighbor said when I told him I was leaving for China, “Why bother learning Chinese? Everyone already speaks English.” My answer to him, and the rest of us native English speakers, is that language is a means of connecting, not just communicating. Sharing a language is something very special, and we oftentimes take it for granted, especially those of us who speak English. Hearing someone speak broken English to us doesn’t make us excited, but for most Chinese people, hearing a westerner trying to speak in Chinese is a big deal. It means we’re trying to connect.
I know this because this isn’t the first time I’ve been to China. The state of Delaware’s department of education sponsored a free trip to China last summer for students studying Chinese. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and convinced me I had to go back to China again. I distinctly remember standing in a Chinese pizza restaurant (we missed pizza), trying to tell the waitress 我们有十一个人, we have 11 people to seat. As I spoke with her, I thought, this is it. This is connecting.
That’s why I’m teaching English, and placing so much emphasis on language. I know I could’ve paid an exorbitant amount to go on a “voluntourism” trip, or converted to a faith and gone on a mission trip, but I don’t have a couple thousand dollars to pay a tour group, I’m not comfortable with the idea of mission trips, and I don’t know how to build wells or houses. All I have are a couple languages up my sleeves and a need to not only teach, but also learn. I want to help people, but I know I have to help in the way that I best can.
I don’t expect it to be entirely easy, despite living with a host family in a comfortable area of one of the world’s largest cities. It’s frustrating trying to teach (I don’t know how my teachers do it). Though 3 years of Mandarin classes taught me enough Chinese to go out on my own, it makes one feel lonely to be surrounded by a sea of language that isn’t one’s home tongue. It’s rough knowing I’ll have to get sick from the water all over again, and find food that doesn’t contain meat all over again. Just like at home, I’ll see homelessness, and poverty, and cruelty, and I’ll remember that the world isn’t as pefect as I had always hoped it should be. But that’s why I’m here. I’m here to make things better in the ways I can.
But, despite that, it will be amazing. I’ll spend 9 months in one of my favorite places on earth. I will teach, and learn, and I’ll have experiences I never even dreamed of. It’ll be a great prerequisite to my future studies of anthropology and sociology. I’ll be a tiny piece in the big puzzle of Beijing, and the bigger puzzle of the world. So, as they say in China, 再见! I’ll be back to write again soon.
Lauren Thornberg (罗溪)