A Stateside Cultural Exchange

A Stateside Cultural Exchange
Each year PiA sends a handful of Princeton undergraduates to Jishou, China to teach English as a part of our Summer of Service program. Many of the students they teach go on to become teachers themselves in rural parts of China. Most never leave China. This year, three of them visited the U.S. for the first time, thanks to scholarships they earned through a local speaking competition organized by Summer of Service 2011 participants Wynne Callon and Caroline Kitchener.
After my freshman year, I got on a plane with PiA’s Summer of Service crew and headed for Jishou. Two years later, three of the students that I met there followed me back to the U.S.
After winning a public speaking contest that we ran in Jishou, Sharon, Tina, and Maria were awarded scholarships to attend a speaking camp at the George Mason Institute of Forensics in Washington, D.C. I got to watch the three girls deliver speeches at the end of their two weeks at the Institute. It was a performance for the camp’s international contingent, and five students from China -- consisting of Tina, Sharon, Maria, and the two 2013 winners of China’s CCTV cup (the fancy televised English-speaking competition in Beijing) -- would be speaking. 
The night before, the girls called me, freaking out. “These other students are so excellent,” Sharon said. “They go to the best universities. We will be so embarrassed.” But the next day they mustered the courage to get on stage.
At the final performance, Tina was the first to speak. Her parents couldn’t find enough work in their hometown to support her studies, so they left to work in a bigger city. She got up to the stage and started talking about her experience in China as a left-behind child -- only ever seeing her parents once a year at Spring Festival. She knew her whole speech by heart, and delivered it with incredible passion and conviction. Every one in the room could feel how much what she was saying meant to her. Sharon and Maria were just as powerful, talking about the dangers of technology and the academic pressure that parents put on their children in China. But even more than the speeches themselves, what hit me hardest was what the girls said to me afterwards. 
When I went to congratulate them, Maria was smiling and giggling but wouldn’t tell me why. Finally she said, “I think maybe we were better. They read their speeches.” And it was true. The CCTV winners – who the girls regarded as the very best and brightest in China – hadn’t memorized their speeches. They had stellar pronunciation and poise, but their speeches lacked the feeling that reverberated through the Jishou girls. 
That one statement made me know that the USA trip and the two weeks at GMIF had fundamentally changed the way that Sharon, Tina, and Maria saw themselves and their futures. They saw that they could be better than “the best,” and are now back in China with a whole new set of goals. Right now, they’re planning to start their own public speaking courses in their hometowns. I have no doubt they’ll make it happen.

 Caroline Kitchener (Summer of Service ’11)

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