China dream comes true

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An Indian-Australian teacher spends a year volunteering at a Chinese university. By LP Ayer

 With students in traditional dress

A cursory look at an indiscreet ad in the daily newspaper one lazy afternoon, took an Adelaide woman away from her home to China where she did voluntary work for a year.

“At an age when many are probably thinking about retirement, I was looking for a dream job that would give me personal and professional satisfaction,” Rajni Madan, an Adelaide-based teacher, says. “With my China sojourn organised by the Australian Volunteers International (AVI), I was able to do just that”.

Placed as an ESL teacher for Life-Science students at North-West University for Nationalities in Lanzhou, capital of Gansu province adjoining Tibet, Rajni claims she has had an amazing year.

“I’ve always had an inherent pull towards China and wanted to visit,” Rajni reveals. “So to go there, and that too for a year, doing what I love best, was a dream come true”.

A keen traveller and one who is always looking for new challenges, she was on the lookout for projects that would suit her qualifications and skills, when she chanced upon two returned AVI volunteers from Fiji and Indonesia speaking about their experiences. Her mind was made up.

Not long after, she found herself in a classroom in China, surrounded by students eager to learn.

“It was a pleasure teaching in Lanzhou,” Rajni tells Indian Link. “The students are hard-working and polite and very respectful of their teachers. All the other volunteers thought so too: many felt that they had never experienced such respect in their careers! The students had only one objective – to learn. Since there were no behaviour problems to deal with, all my focus was on my goal, that is, to teach. I felt I had made an impact on a number of students who initially thought English was too difficult a language to learn but became enthusiastic learners during the course. At times my class had 168 students, the largest I have ever handled. Some students are still in touch”.

Rajni Madan is a multi-faceted personality in the true sense of the word. Arriving in Australia in 1993, armed with a Bachelor of Education and Masters in Life Sciences degrees, she went on to obtain a PhD in Biology. Finding opportunities limited in that field, she used her B.Ed to take up relief teaching at schools and, at the same time, run a small business besides managing a family of three school children and a husband whose job often took him to the bush.

Today she is all for organsations like the AVI that help people realise their dream of working to make a difference in the lives of people. But it was no cakewalk, she soon found out. Interview after interview assessed not only her skills but also her capacity to survive in a foreign land and level of family support, besides medical and psychological evaluations. It took more than six months to get that final nod.

“When I landed in China, I was received by an AVI support officer and a university staff member. I felt I was with friends”.

Her accommodation, however, was a bit daunting, but she claims all the concerns disappeared when she opened her fourth floor windows out to a beautiful hillside view.

“The university paid me local wages, and though this was not comparable to my Aussie wages, it was enough to live comfortably.  Volunteer colleagues stayed in the same building as me and before I knew it, I was on my way to becoming a ‘Foreign Expert’, a terminology used to describe us all”.

Outside the classroom, the students became friends and local guides.

“They informed us regularly on issues such as when the power or water supply would be cut, since such instructions were always in Chinese. The entire city had an efficient heating system with oil heaters for the biting cold weather. Some students accompanied us to the market helping us translating to the stall holders and even bargaining. Invitations to dinner at their homes were numerous, in line with Oriental hospitality”.

China itself was a revelation.

“Although the population is larger than that of India, I never saw crowded streets or rail stations because of its large land mass. Generally the streets are clean and safe to walk at any time of the day. I tried to learn Chinese too, in weekly lessons. I tried my Chinese on some students with limited success. Writing the Chinese script however, proved to be a kind of meditation. And when my family visited, we saw the sights, such as the Great Wall”.

How did she cope with food?

“Food was a major fear, yes. Being a vegetarian how would I cope in a land where they say, anything that creeps or crawls is eaten. But that fear was soon overcome: the markets were full of fresh produce, vegetables, fruits and varieties of bread. It was a delight for a home cook like me. However there were problems when I went out with colleagues or to students’ homes. They had no concept of how anyone could live without eating meat… has Buddhism failed in this regard, one is tempted to think”.

And finally, any regrets? “Probably that I ended up teaching ESL rather than life sciences!” Rajni laughs. “But overall, it was an amazing experience. I will AVIdly support anyone thinking of taking this plunge!”.

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