Why did you choose this program?
I checked out the reviews for Omeida Academy on GoOverseas, TripAdvisor and WorkAway. They spanned at least five years and were incredibly positive. The Academy offers free room and board (lunch and dinner, Monday through Friday) in exchange for 10 hours a week providing English conversation for the Chinese nationals who attend the Academy's affiliated English school, which is only a block away from the Chinese School. Omeida was flexible as to the length of your commitment as a volunteer.
We had two Skype conversations with school staff prior to deciding to attend. We were impressed with the professionalism of the staff.
What did your program provider (or university) assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?
The Academy's administration was very helpful in providing detailed advice on how to get to Yangshuo, which is not the most common destination in China. Through them, we hired a taxi to take us from the rail station in Xingping to Yangshuo. Upon our arrival in Yangshuo, we were met by students from the English language school, who settled us in our hostel room, helped us get a suitable SIM card and oriented us as to the city.
I not only volunteered to provide English conversation but also paid for Chinese language lessons. The first class I was placed in proved rather daunting. When I brought this to the staff's attention, I was switched into a Mandarin class that was a better fit for me.
The school provides weekend trips and activities at a reasonable cost for students at both language schools My wife and I took part in a cycling trip to the countryside, a hike up Husband Mountain before dawn (picture attached), an overnight trip to the amazing Longshen rice fields (picture attached) and other enjoyable excursions.
I study jazz piano back in the States. The school found me a place within walking distance where I could practice the piano at the very reasonable rate of $3.50 USD per hour.
What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?
Unlike four years ago, when I first visited China, it is no longer possible to install a VPN (Virtual Private Network) on your cellphone or tablet after arriving in China. VPNs are necessary if you want to use Gmail or visit common websites, such as Facebook, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and TripAdvisor. Sometimes the government is successful in blocking the VPN for days. So, it makes sense to set up an Outlook account through Microsoft prior to going to China, as the government does not interfere with Outlook.
What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?
If you study Chinese, you can take Mandarin lessons for a half-day or a full day. My lessons ran from 9:25 in the morning until noon, with two short breaks during which students would socialize, play a quick game of foosball and get some tea or coffee. At noon, we went into the basement (see attached picture), where about 100 students from both schools would gather to take lunch together. After lunch, I would rest, then study some Mandarin, take care of email and read the news.
Some afternoons, I would meet for an hour with a Chinese language partner. We tried to split the time between Chinese and English, so both of us got a chance to practice the language we were studying. At 5 pm, I would meet with a Chinese national student for one on one discussion in English. At 6 pm, I took dinner with the other students. At 7 pm, I returned to the English Academy for one hour, providing English conversation for 3-6 English language students.
On Wednesdays at 4 pm, the school would have free cultural activities, such as a lecture about the Beijing Opera, making Chinese moon cakes, tea tasting and learning about other aspects of Chinese culture. Thursdays are Social Nights from 7-8 pm, at which time students from both schools took part in activities together at the English School.
Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?
I have traveled extensively for many decades, so I did not have any fears. I was concerned, however, whether I would be able to master the ability to use Asian squat toilets, as squatting in a low position is a challenge. Fortunately, there were Western toilets not only at the Chinese Language School but also in most public parks. Remember to bring your own toilet paper.
What can you tell me about Yangshuo?
Yangshuo is a small city of some 400,000. It is a throwback, a trip back in time. It has no skyscrapers. The tallest structures are apartment buildings, which are generally only seven floors. There is an open-air vegetable and fruit market. It is common to see vendors at random places in town, spreading vegetables and fruit on mats on the sidewalk. Periodically pick-up trucks appear, carrying truckloads of pomelos, walnuts, watermelons, and other fresh produce. Traffic is very light and moves at a leisurely pace of perhaps 20 mph. The city is extremely safe. For breakfast, I got most of my food - mei fun, bean pancakes, dumplings, etc. - from street vendors. It was tasty and very inexpensive.
Yangshuo is surrounded by karats, beautiful steep mountains that are shaped like upside-down ice cream cones. It has been said that the producers of the movie Avatar drew their inspiration for the movie's scenery from Yangshuo.
What type of people attend both schools? The students in the English Language school generally range from 25-35 years of age. They come from all over eastern China. In many cases, they have quit the jobs and left their spouses and children to spend three months, six months or even a year at Omeida, so they can improve their English skills and get an even better job upon returning home. They are very hard-working.
The students attending the Chinese Language school are mostly in the 18-35-year-old range, although perhaps 15% were older, with the oldest one being 68 years of age. They come from all over the world. Some are taking a gap year after high school or university. Others are studying Chinese to enhance their job prospects in the fields of engineering and finance. Then there are those with considerable job experience in one field but have stopped in order to explore other career options. There is a wonderful camaraderie between the students of both schools.