Canby woman discovers so much more than an ability to teach in China

While in China, Shelby Bennett got to know the people and culture far more intimately than most tourists get the chance to. It may not have been Shelby Bennett’s first time in China, but she still had a lot to learn, she discovered. From calligraphy and authentic Tai Chi to using the Beijing bus, subway, and train systems, so much of it was new.

Bennett, from Canby, returned in February from a six-month stay in China. It was the longest trip yet for Bennett, who graduated from high school in June 2013.

This trip was significantly different from the two-week trip she took last year, simply by virtue of the amount of time spent.

“I wasn’t a tourist like I had been before,” she said, explaining the people in her village knew who she was and saw her multiple times a week. “It’s just living real life with people.”

Bennett worked for a private school for migrant children called The Dandelion School, teaching character, like what it means to be compassionate or courageous, how to take initiative and things like that. She taught the class in English with a translator, which meant the children also expanded their English skills.

“The Chinese educational system is pretty much memorization based,” she explained. She said the idea that she just wanted them to think by themselves was new to them.

The character class is especially important to the curriculum at the school because it serves mainly children who have experienced poverty and oppression.

“They have a lot of temptation to forget about what’s really important as they try to pursue money, wealth and prosperity,” she said.

Canby native Shelby Bennett (second from left) enjoyed her teaching assignment in China and said the system is far more memorization based than American education. She said the hardest part was when her students dropped out of school to sell fruit with their parents or sweep grocery store floors.

“I just wish I could do something more to help them get that education because they probably don’t realize how important it is,” she said. “I don’t think I realized how important it is until seeing their lives.”

Bennett considers her growth in speaking Chinese the greatest success of her trip. She has never taken a Chinese class, but after being immersed in the language for so long, she said she’s “conversational.”

She said she has many fond memories of the trip, ranging from the weird foods she ate (roasted grubs, cooked bee larvae, and fried fish heads among other tempting treats), to walking students home from school, tutoring from the volunteers at her school from all over the world, and demonstrating swing dancing to Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.”

But one of the most memorable parts of the trip was staying with a Chinese family in a remote village in the Hunan province for Chinese New Year. They spoke no English, just a dialect of Mandarin. Walking through the poverty-stricken village was like “walking through a National Geographic documentary,” she said.

Some people there lived in homes carved into the sides of the mountains.

“It was crazy waking up in the morning and eating their rolls of bread and rice porridge, and hearing the shepherds with their bells and sheep walking outside the courtyard, and going to find a chicken to kill for dinner, going down to the yellow river for a quiet moment, and just realizing that most people from America will never get to see this, will never get to be here,” she said “I was just so grateful. I never really imagined that I would get to experience this from the perspective of the people who actually live here.”

Bennett is returning to China for 10 months in the fall to be head teacher of the Access program for Dandelion School.

Through the program, the school partners with the U.S. State Department and the Embassy to teach intensive English and prepare students for college interviews in hopes that they will get more chances to study abroad.

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