A father and son volunteer vacation in China

This spring, David Cohen took his 11 year old son Andrew to Beijing, China for 10 days. Inspired by Mark Solon, and organized through Globe Aware, David and Andrew worked in a school for the children of migrant workers who have no government services. David’s goal was for his son to experience more of the world and to learn how many others are not as fortunate as they are. “Mission accomplished,” relates David.

Globe Aware is pleased to share their daily observations, impressions and experiences while on their volunteer vacation in China:

Day 5

our first day at the school. up at 5am, because everyone in this hotel is awake and yelling by that time. there is some sort of strange rush hour each day around 530am at this hotel. it seems to be the normal time to wake up and yell. it doesnt help that the walls are paper thin. because of this, and helped by the natural jet lag, we’re always in bed by 9pm when it seems to get reasonably quiet, so that when we’re inevitably awoken at 530am we have had a full nights sleep. andrew is usually beat from the days and asleep by 8 so he is often up at 5am anyway, reading his kindle when i wake up. today is no different.

Our school schedule

Our school schedule

we leave for the school at 645am, after a granola breakfast in the room. onto the bus, it’s supposed to be 10 minutes. but as with every day, it’s a packed bus, so we are standing but andrew gets a seat after a while. there is a huge traffic jam, as there is basically no order on the roads. cars, busses, people, bikes, animals everywhere. the area where the traffic jam occurs is close to school, marcus says. so we can walk. he gets the driver to open the door and we are out of the bus and into the streets. my first thought is that this looks like a war zone. incredible number of people around. it’s very poor here, worse than where the hotel is. everything, literally everything is in disrepair. there is junk and concrete and trash and crap everywhere. kids just pee on the street here. people working to repair scooters, with one year olds sitting a foot from traffic, watching it go by, but nobody watching the kids. one false move and one bus driver not paying attention, and those kids are done. there is shock and sadness as i walk. but somehow it all seems to work. the kid doesn’t move, he knows better. he seems content, not needing anything in the freezing cold, while he watches the adults work on the bike.


Boarding of all the students is 12 to a room – pretty sparse.

suddenly we are there. there is a big gate, with a security guard. they wave us in. our first view of the school is the open playground. a true oasis from the street, there are 6 outdoor basketball goals in what is called the “front yard”. it’s cold this morning, maybe 25 degrees. we go to the main office and we are told to sit. 10 minutes go by. we watch one of the kids being scolded by the people in the office. they grab his ear and pull it gently. they thump him on the forehead. the kid is laughing a little bit. he broke some rules, and there is a strictness but you can tell it’s not too much. i wonder if it’s for show for us, but i decide it’s not.

now it’s time for breakfast, and we’ll be eating with the teachers. the previous volunteers sent us a note that said that the food is fine except for the breakfast. luckily, we had eaten in the room and didn’t have any of the wet white slop that was being given out. we meet a few other teachers, and english is not widely understood or spoken by them.

we are taken next door the to english reading room. there are english books locked up, and two computers – one english and one chinese i think. there are english board games like boggle. this is our base for the day – the room is not used much. we meet “jade” who is the english teacher. we are supposed to be grading homework but one of the teachers is pregnant and not coming in today, so we sit there for 90 minutes or so. we are starting to understand that many people deal with very long stretches of boredom better than we do. these rooms are cold, i think there is heat but you’d barely notice it. i remember being cold the entire day.

time for a tour of the school. it’s bigger than it looks, once you go past the front yard and the buildings around it. it’s an old factory. we tour the boys dorms, which smell like boy, a sweet sort of stink. sort of like old sweat. there is room after room, and each room has exactly 12 beds. the only other thing in the room is a fan. there is no a/c so in the summer all they have is a window and a fan. we are told that 98% of the students board there during the week monday to friday, while their parents who are migrant workers work. they see their kids only on the weekend. the other 2% have no families – either abandoned or they have no parents. 15% of the students pay no school fees, because they are too poor. 85% pay about a dollar a day, which includes a bed, and three meals.


The “front yard” at the school.

we tour the library, go by some classrooms, and are shown the teachers bathrooms which we are allowed to use. they are not nice, but they are modern fixtures. very dim light, and only cold water for washing hands. and no towels, you shake dry.

finally, the assembly. we are taken outside and lead to the side of the stage. at the back of the stage is a flagpole. songs sound instead of bells for the changing of the period. so the assembly song plays. 600 children, all between 12-14 run in lines perfectly formed to their places in the front yard, between the basketball goals. they are line up, and it happens in a strangely military sort of way. they are all in the school uniform. they look at us and giggle but have a seriousness too, as they know they are being watched. several men in suits walk the front of the line, checking uniforms and making sure faces are clean. once satisfied, a color guard of students with special armbands comes out with the flag, and national music plays. the students are called to attention again in a military way, and the flag goes up the pole while they sing. fireworks go off in the area, and nobody says anything about them. maybe it’s some sort of holiday, or maybe this is for us. we’re not sure, and nobody can really tell us.


Andrew teaching English.

once the flag is up, we are called onto stage to be welcomed. everyone claps enthusiastically. i am asked to say a few words – i say i am from america, we flew on a plane 15 hours to be here, my name is david, and i thank them for allowing us to visit. jade translates. andrew says he is andrew, he is also from america, and i am 11 years old. he looked like he wanted to say something else but didn’t, and some students giggled in the silence. then everyone clapped again after the translation of andrew. from the side, two little girls are running together up to us with gifts. they are tshirts, presented in ribbons, as a welcome gift. the girls are adorable.

the song plays for the next class, and we go back to the english room for another 60 minutes. i meet the geography teacher who asks us (through marcus’s translation) to prepare a geography lesson for his class later that day. he wants it to be on places in asia i’ve visited, and for me to tell some stories. so it will be singapore and japan. andrew has never been to china so he is off the hook. i use a computer to do some research and eventually a powerpoint for the classroom. but that will happen later today.

time for english class. andrew and i are put in front of the class, it’s about 30 students. andrew has prepared pencils and erasers to give out to students that participate. he really likes the part of teacher, i think. we talk with the class, working on words like airplane, and turtle. andrew drills the class to repeat words from a book, so they can hear him speak it. the time flies, andrew is really enjoying this part. he walks the room listening to them practice words and giving them feedback. he’s giving out pencils and erasers that we brought with us to students who answer.


Art class in the front yard. The girls liked Andrews blue eyes.

the bell again. we notice that there is usually 5 minutes between classes. the basketball courts erupt with boys, as do the ping pong tables. the girls ignore it all. we take a bunch of photos but are not a part of this, yet.

lunchtime now. there is white rice in one bowl. cabbage in another, and various meat of some kind and vegetables in the third. i pick out some carrots, and ‘winter melon’ whatever that is, and eat it along with the rice. andrew eats some rice and nothing else. the winter melon was hot, so i figured it was ok, but i still have no idea what it was. i even tried a little cabbage, as it was also very hot. the rice was good, actually. just plain white rice but that was hot and it was cold.

walking back after lunch i nod towards one of the kids with a basketball. he throws it to me and i put up a terrible shot. andrew is standing next to me, so the next ball goes to him. we played basketball with these kids for 10 minutes. it was a blast. the kids are all incredibly nice and sweet.


The pink flower people.

next up is art class. this is a double class, so about 100 minutes long. we go to the art class and when we walk in the students are sitting at tables. immediately they all start patting on stools to try to get us to sit next to them. they’re calling ‘and ooo’ – the girls really like him. we both find seats. i sit between two girls that i remember from english class. one of them is really special and smart. she speaks english better than anyone but still not well. the teacher talks for a bit and then we go outside in the front yard. the project is to make passports. all the girls want to help andrew, he is participating and i am supposed to observe. this is kids stuff. andrew draws on his passport, and then some kind of game occurs. it’s a puzzle, there are various cut up pieces of paper and there appears to be some kind of challenge to assemble it. andrew works with a bunch of boys and his team assembles their flower first. they get their photo taken, the winners. andrew names the team “the pink flower people” when asked. that is chanted by the kids in english – ‘pink… flower… people!”

upstairs to the classroom again. we redo the passports, and this time i have to do it too. not really sure why it’s being done again, very little is explained to us. we just do stuff with a few clues. the two little girls give me hints and encouragement. i draw horrible stick figures playing ping pong, basketball, and snow skiing.

IMG_0130-300x225art class ends, now i have time to work on my geography lesson. i pull in some photos of harijuku girls in tokyo and the Ferris wheel in singapore, thinking the kids will like that. now to the geography class. kids present to their teacher about various regions. the work is impressive. they report on the areas with great pride. at the end they always say something like ‘we very much enjoyed this lesson because we got to learn about the people and culture of this place.” marcus is translating the activities for us.

now i present my slides. marcus translates. everyone claps. they liked the Ferris wheel but didn’t really seem to get the harijuku thing. girls here do not seem to care about shopping or cool outfits. not at all.

next to Chinese calligraphy class. note that it’s about 5pm now. classes started at 730. still going, and that’s normal. we practice calligraphy, and the teacher shows us how. it’s very difficult. we are told our chinese names, and shown the symbols. andrew quickly masters his and memorizes it. when he says it to other students, they say “androoo”. close enough.

on the way down the stairs one of the students slips and i hear what sounds like a horrible fall. he’s hit his head. everyone is laughing. they carry him away, i guess he will be fine. it scared me alot. i guess you have to be tough around here.

now to open play time. more basketball with the kids. super fun. there is no competitiveness, just fun and good sharing of the ball.

off the dinner. marcus takes us to town for dinner, afraid andrew is not getting enough food. little did he know about the clif bars etc that i’ve been giving him in the english reading room all day. we end up at kfc, and andrew gets some chicken nuggets. this is about a 25 minute detour to town. we also go to the ‘cookie shop’ (which we would call a bakery) for croissants for the morning and lunch the next day. a taxi back to the hotel. andrew hits the bed and is out by 8. i fight to stay away until 9 with my one English Channel – the news. there are some sports updates from america, mostly nba. that’s big here i guess. i ignore my email and fall asleep.



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