Teaching English, Learning about China

The organization that I have been volunteering with is Hurstville City Uniting Church’s English Conversation Groups (ECG). The conversation groups run every Tuesday from 10am to 12pm where volunteers teach English to students in small groups of two or three. The main focus of these groups is on conversational English so classes tend to be more interactive as students are encouraged to talk about their weekend and other activities they participated in during the week.

I began volunteering at ECG in April this year after seeing an advertisement on SEEK. My initial surprise was that the demographic of both the volunteers and students was on the older side. The majority of teachers were retired teachers who were continuing their passion for teaching upon retirement. When I joined, there was only one person younger than me who had just graduated from high school and was taking a gap year.

The students were mainly, if not all, Chinese migrants from either Mainland China or Hong Kong. They were divided into two distinct generations: my parents’ generation and my grandparents’ generation. Those in their late sixties to early eighties had come to Australia to rejoin their children, most of whom initially migrated to Australia as university students but were now living here as permanent residents or citizens. In contrast, the younger generation of parents mostly consisted of mothers who had come to Australia to accompany their child as they entered and studied in Australian high schools.

Personally, the reason why I enjoy teaching at ECGs is because I feel like I am constantly learning more about my family and my heritage through the students that I meet. The students have so many stories to share and often their experiences of living in China reveal parallels with the experiences of my own parents and grandparents, sparking deeper conversations with my own family. I remember during one class, I was talking to one of my students who was only a few years older than my parents and she was telling me how she had always had an extremely anxious personality. When I asked her if she had always been so anxious, she told me that she hadn’t been so when she was younger. However, during the Cultural Revolution, her father had been persecuted and was later found dead in a river and she had suffered relative nervousness since that event.

When I was growing up, I had an old brick phone which meant that I hardly used it and sometimes would forget to turn it on after class. However, whenever my dad would try to call me and I wouldn’t pick up, he would call again and again in an urgent manner, scared that something had happened to me. For me, I had always found this behaviour strange as he was not an overly protective parent in general. Once I discussed this with him, and after sitting down and thinking about my question for a while, he answered saying that it was probably something that stemmed from his childhood. My grandfather was a political figure in their county which meant that during the Cultural Revolution, he was either persecuting members of other factions or being persecuted himself, depending on the way power switched in the top levels of government. Hence there would be periods at a time where my grandfather would disappear and be on the run without his family knowing where he was. My dad explained that this was the kind of anxiety he felt when he couldn’t get in touch with me and how he had developed a natural tendency to imagine the worst.

I have found it extremely insightful to listen to the experiences of older generations of Chinese migrants who attend the ECGs. Not only is it a window into what China was like during the Mao era, but it is also extremely important in order to gain a deeper understanding of my parents’ upbringing and the fears and motivations reflected in their behaviour.

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