My internship is in what I consider to be one of the most exciting cities in the world. The skyscrapers in Lujiazui point their needle-like rooftops to the sky. Hundreds of thousands of cars run across Puxi on the Yan’an Elevated Road. If you drive slowly on the elevated road, you could spot some of Asia’s most expensive real estates in the former French Concession. Yes, this is Shanghai, a city known for its rapid urbanization and its splendid lifestyle. However, behind the shiny office buildings and luxury shopping malls lies the institutional discrimination against migrant workers and their children. The Hukou system restricts non-Shanghainese’s access to the social welfare in Shanghai, such as free public education and healthcare. Many migrant schools were established to provide education for migrant children. In recent years, the Shanghai municipal government has integrated migrant schools into the public education system and has allowed migrant children to join public schools. Nevertheless, many migrant students still have learning difficulties, especially in English. Schools in many other provinces only offer English to students from the third grade and above. Meanwhile, schools in Shanghai offer English from the first grade. Thus many migrant children cannot catch up with the class assignments. In addition, most of the migrants have little knowledge of English, so they cannot provide sufficient assistance with their children’s English studies. As a result, migrant students are in relative disadvantages when competing with Shanghai students.
Stepping Stones aim to help these migrant children with their English studies. It runs English programs in numerous migrant schools and community centers across Shanghai. All the teachers are volunteers. Some of them are foreign expats, some are exchange students, and some are passionate Chinese. Their main tasks are to help migrant children with their spoken English and to increase their interests in English. As an intern, my task now is to assist Professor Friederlike, a German Professor, to investigate the feedback from teachers, parents, and students. Professor Friederike used to be a volunteer at Stepping Stones. She is interested in how the English program has changed the children’s perception of English, how the program has changed their grades, and how it could be improved. She is also interested in the Chinese people’s perceptions of NGOs and migrants’ living conditions. Her research topics are in my interest as well, and I learned quite a lot from our conversations with teachers, parents, and students.
We have spoken to four English teachers, one parent, and more than ten students at two schools and two community centers. Their feedback is all positive. When asking what is their definition of “volunteer”, they tell us that volunteers are warmhearted and benevolent people who are willing to help those who need assistance. Students enjoy the classes taught by volunteers. These classes have greatly increased students’ interest in English. A teacher from Tangsi Elementary School tells a story about a student from the second grade. The student used to be sleepy in her English class, but he is now very active in the English classes taught by volunteers. In these classes, students not only can consolidate their English studies, they can also gain new perspectives of the outside world. For instance, volunteers introduce western festivals to the students, such as Christmas and Thanksgiving. The children have the opportunity to experience these festivals in their classrooms, and the experience has inspired them as well. One of the students that we interviewed hopes that China will adopt Thanksgiving and make it a day for children to thank their parents.
Although government regulations are unfair and the prejudice against migrants is rooted in some local people’s minds, you can still see that many migrants enjoy their lives. Living in this mega-city can mean that it is hard to find the sense of belonging, yet migrants have discovered and developed their own communities. Moreover, they have not given up their dreams. The students are confident about their future. They talk about going to colleges in the US, becoming a lawyer, and teaching English abroad. What really impresses me is that the migrant students from Tangsi Elementary School donate money to a school in the relatively underdeveloped Anhui Province every March. They believe that even though they are not rich, they still need to help those who are poorer than them. I am moved by their kindness, and I am glad to see that such spirit is still powerful among the so-called “selfish and spoiled generation” that is the Chinese youth nowadays.
In the following weeks, I will be one of the program coordinators at a local school, so I will interact with the volunteers and the students more closely. I am looking forward to that, and I hope I can learn even more about social works and social justice. Everything is changing rapidly in Shanghai, and I am glad to be part of the change.
Terry Chenyu Li