Trick or Treat

With China being the West’s complete and utter opposite, I would have never expected to encounter Halloween let alone teaching its history to a bunch of ten-year-olds. Not too long ago, I was afforded my first volunteering opportunity with the Sunflower Program, which is a English teaching program designed for the children of migrant families. These children are unjustly denied access to a public school education because of the imposing Hukou (户口) registration system. I was excited for today’s lesson was, 万圣节 (which in an indirect way translates to Halloween), but to my surprise, I assigned to teach traditional words, such as pumpkin, skeleton, ghost and witch. The truth is, I am only registered as a volunteer, but I cheerfully accepted the ad hoc responsibility and (at least) attempted to inculcate these amazing little people with the chilling spirit of Halloween.

Even though my final project is geared to the rapidly emerging civil society in China, I still had no concise idea of the Sunflower program’s targeted aims, focus and primary objectives. However, I met an ABC Fudan graduate student, Amy, who clued me in on many of the struggles imposed on migrant families as a direct consequence of the Hukou system. She also explained to me that the Sunflower program is one of many initiatives stated by Grassroots Community (a local NGO), and that they have volunteers from all over, not just Fudan’s FFSVA (Fudan Foreign Students Volunteering Association). Talking with her, someone so entirely passionate about Chinese social trends and issues, both gave me direction for my project and also painted a picture for the kids that I was going to meet promptly. Normally, the classes take place in this currently unknown hotel, but because of the occasion, we gave the lessons outside where we face painted, ate candy and ran about rambunctiously.

I’ll admit that I was a little unsettled because I had no idea how to face paint and I’m Chinese challenged. However, I soon realized that it takes little to impress ten-year-old boys and girls who either tussled over vampire fangs or flaunted the pretty flowers on their faces. However, the experience intensified as soon as the program’s director assembled the kids for the day’s lesson. Toby, a volunteering teacher (and Lincoln’s roommate) gave me a packet, saying “I am entrusting you with this.” I assured him with a Professor Wei’s infamous nod and waited for his return. I personally thought that he was hurrying for a bathroom break before he taught his group… but then I realized that the other groups began and I was the only one in my group with the lesson plan. Plus, Toby was in a different group! Someone had to teach the lesson. My survival instincts must have kicked in because I started spitting Chinese, more than I imagined possible, and I really think that they learned a few things.

Although I do feel that the content was a little shallow because it really didn’t explain the true Halloween of Halloween. In popular culture, Halloween in primarily known for candy, catchy and cliché rhymes and insidious costumes, but I feel that China misses out on the traditions of Halloween that make it the best holiday. Walking around in Walmart and other major commercial areas, I saw the same superficiality in everything that represented Halloween. Although I was surprised to see the promotion of Halloween through billboards, posters and decorations, I still concluded that it lacked that genuine touch. I wish I could have showed the students an authentic Halloween feeling.

I really enjoyed my time with the students, and seeing their beaming ear-to-ear grins. However, there was one kid, Keller, who refused to participate the entire class. I eventually got him to join the group but his mom eventually told me that he is half American (and she is Taiwanese) and he spoke impeccable English. (He was also the one who painted the pumpkin on my face!). Keller made the trip the memorable because aiding him with solitude taught me something about myself: I have the power and desire to connect with anyone and everyone, to include them, and to befriend them. It was a self-empowering epiphany. If these are characteristic outcomes from volunteering, then I am excited for any and all of my remaining experiences.