Tyler Grant '12 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Teaches English in China

Tyler Grant is a Politics and East Asian Languages and Literature (Chinese) double major from Suwanee, Georgia. He applied for a Johnson Opportunity Grant to spend his summer as a volunteer with Harvard World Teach program, a TEFL non-profit organization out of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

I have been passionate about my study of Chinese since day one of my first year at Washington and Lee. I have always found the language fascinating, the culture intriguing and the politics engaging. Coupled with my politics major, I realized that I wanted to be on the ground in China this summer. The Johnson Opportunity Grant allowed me to further this passion by traveling there with the Harvard World Teach program.

I landed in Changsha, China, on July 8 for what is sure to be one of the most rewarding experiences of my college career. Days in China begin early and end late. Hot noodles, peppers, and beef cooked in a wok on a dirt road beside the school were my typical breakfast opener. Often times, a street vendor would be selling his vegetables from the day before or another vendor would be cutting the throats of chicken for families / businesses to eat for lunch. Very appetizing. The morning was a great chance for me to sit on a stool under a tarp covering to observe the morning rituals of many of the Zhangjiajie and Zhuzhou people. And believe me, the people are fascinating. Men, women and children are all hard at work.
The morning was also a great opportunity to notice standard of living differences. At times, a man pulling a two-wheeled cart would pass a man driving a Range Rover or Audi. Women wearing high heels would walk by women wearing makeshift grass flip- flops sewn from grass stems.

After breakfast, I would walk to the school. In both locations where World Teach held summer camps, the schools were massive campuses with acres of property servicing over 3,000 students. Students in China begin studying at 8 a.m. and work until around 9:30 p.m. The environment is intense, and students work hard all the time. But despite high pressure, students never ceased to amaze me with their passion for understanding the world around them and continuously seeking truth. I don't mean seeking the right answer. Rather, students want to get to the bottom of things. I was constantly asked questions like "what makes America special?" "Should people be as free as they are in America?" And "why is America one nation under God?" Think through those questions.

Each day, I taught three English lessons. Class sizes were between 25 and 30. My lessons included holidays, sports, the environment, the future, jobs, slang and idioms. At the end of the summer camp, I taught the students to debate, broke the classes in half, and conducted a debate on the American educational system versus the Chinese educational system. This was among the most rewarding aspects of the trip, watching students articulate what they had learned through an exchange of ideas that they were very passionate about.

The World Teach program also encouraged the volunteers to engage with students after class. In the afternoons, the students taught me songs, we played basketball and, my personal favorite, we held a mock prom (after learning about American high school traditions). Later, the professors of the school would teach us tai chi or practice oral Chinese with us. We also learned a Tibetan-Chinese ethnic dance, how to write Chinese calligraphy, and most importantly, how to make Chinese dumplings.

These cultural experiences, coupled with my experience walking around the various towns of China, gave me unique perspective on my studies. Things I had merely read about in textbooks were live in front of me. At first, being immersed in Chinese was difficult. But after I forced myself to practice and speak, language became easier. Furthermore, opening my eyes to cultural differences helped me see my politics studies come to life. Consider this--while I was in China, six people were arrested for what they had written on Chinese "facebook," or QQ. Also, the intense smog hovering over the three major cities I was in made me appreciate the environmental protection we have in America. Things we take for granted and sometimes abuse are not omnipresent in the rest of the world. I saw that for the first time.

Finally, the Harvard World Teach program gave me the opportunity to develop as a student and member of the W&L community. My patience, perseverance, leadership and passion were continuously tested over this trip. At times, there would be 10 things that needed to happen with only two hours notice, and the other volunteers and I were forced to work rigorously and delegate tasks to run an effective summer camp. And nothing quite tests your patience like 30 highschoolers in a room, especially when they speak rough English. But coming back to the dorm for bed after long days of working hard, I could always look back on my days and see the many things that made me smile, as well as the work I had accomplished that day.

Upon this reflection, it is easy to see that despite cultural differences, Chinese and American high school students share many similarities. After this experience, my hope is that I can work for the U.S. in some Sino-American capacity. I know that if we can realize our similarities, we can make the world we live in safer and leave our lives enriched by the exchange of our different cultural heritages.

I want to thank the Johnson family for their generous contribution to Washington and Lee University that enabled myself and other students like me to travel to various parts of the world pursuing their aspirations. I know this experience has changed the way that I perceive the world and has made me more passionate for the people in it.