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A summer in China: So much more than the Olympics

By Sarah Groneck

A job in a foreign country may simply be a dream for some Dordt students, but for Jaclyn Ver Mulm and Melissa Ver Haar, working in China became a reality last summer.

Melissa Ver Haar (fourth from left) and Jaci Ver Mulm (third from right) taught English to Chinese students in Beijing and Sichuan this summer. After teaching in Sichuan, Ver Mulm attended the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. She attended  field hockey, women’s softball, and gymnastics events.

Melissa Ver Haar (fourth from left) and Jaci Ver Mulm (third from right) taught English to Chinese students in Beijing and Sichuan this summer. After teaching in Sichuan, Ver Mulm attended the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. She attended field hockey, women’s softball, and gymnastics events.

Ver Mulm and Ver Haar flew to Beijing, China, on May 23 to teach English to Chinese students. After a bit of sightseeing around the Beijing countryside, the women began work on June 6 for the Total Immersion Project (TIP) through Educational Services Exchange with China (ESEC), an organization where adult students are immersed in the English language twenty-four hours a day in order to earn their ESL certificate. Ver Mulm’s older sister has worked for the program for the last three years.

“We spoke in English basically the entire time we were there,” said Ver Mulm. “Sometimes the students would only know three words of English, but others would be able to have full conversations with us.”

Though Ver Haar spent two months and Ver Mulm three months in China, they spent only three weeks with the TIP program itself. TIP students were divided into levels based on their fluency in English and assigned to a help session and a career club where they performed special projects.

Instructors with Ver Haar and Ver Mulm, ranged in age from 13-78. “A couple came, and a mom and a son also taught,” said Ver Haar. “One instructor was legally blind. We definitely got to know a lot of different people.”

TIP is a unique organization for China in that it doesn’t deny its religious intentions. “It is an openly Christian organization, meaning that the government knows it’s Christian-run,” said Ver Mulm. “But we can’t openly talk about our faith [since China disapproves of Christianity], so we had to show it through our lifestyle.”

In some ways it worked, according to the girls. “We had some people ask us why we were so happy all the time,” said Ver Haar. “Then others would ask if we were really tired when we would close our eyes to pray.”

“I learned that actions speak louder than words. People could see our faith through our actions,” she added.

The living quarters were a bit of a change for the girls. Ver Mulm, Ver Haar, and fourteen other summertime instructors stayed in apartments at an extension of Peking University outside of Beijing. “We slept on plywood and a couple mattresses,” said Ver Haar.

Ver Mulm and Ver Haar had other culture shock moments too. “We had to use chopsticks all the time, either that or spoons,” said Ver Mulm. “Also, the Chinese have a different concept of personal space. If you were in line, and you weren’t pressed up against the next person, someone might cut in front of you.”

While staying in China, Ver Haar and Ver Mulm also did some traveling. They visited the Great Wall of China and the Forbidden City two times each, and they frequented the open street markets.

After Ver Haar returned to the United States on July 22, Ver Mulm traveled to Sichuan, a city that had been devastated by the 8.0 magnitude earthquake in May. “Even in August, they were still experiencing aftershocks,” said Ver Mulm. Along with the nearly 600 tremors each day, Ver Mulm also experienced two substantial earthquakes. “We had to run out of the buildings because they were so unstable that they probably would’ve collapsed on us,” she said.

Ver Mulm, along with a group of students from the Netherlands, taught at two elementary schools in Sichuan, one of which had 1,200 students and the other 200.

“[Because of the earthquake,] the students lived in housing tracts that were the size of a dining room,” said Ver Mulm. “They were basically dirt floors with Styrofoam walls.”

Despite the destruction that surrounded them, the Sichuan residents were welcoming to Ver Mulm and the other English instructors. “The parents realized that they’d lost everything,” said Ver Mulm. “But you see kids who have hope for the future, and they want you to be there.”

The young students were eager to learn. “These kids had grown up mostly with lecture-style teaching,” said Ver Mulm. “When we taught them English, we were able to give them more of a hands-on, one-on-one learning experience.”

Progress was cut short when a rainstorm swept across the area. “For part of the week, it rained and the school flooded,” said Ver Mulm. “So, I spent that time trying to clean up houses and trash.”

Back in the United States and to Dordt, both girls remain in contact with friends they made while in China. “I still Facebook some of the girls that we met there,” said Ver Haar. “It’s pretty nice to be able to still talk to them, even though they’re so far away.”

Ver Haar and Ver Mulm hope to one day return to China. “We’d like to go back and visit,” said Ver Haar. “We made friends all over China—in Shanghai, in Tibet. We could visit them and then maybe teach while we’re there.”

The overall experience opened Ver Mulm and Ver Haar’s eyes to the world outside of the United States. “We got to be engaged in the culture while we were there,” said Ver Haar. “You can’t read about stuff like that.”