Desk Officer Dave Entwistle visited Project Trust’s Volunteers in China in November. Here are five things he learned:

Project Trust Gap Year China

James volunteering as a teacher on his gap year in China

1 – China was my first overseas visit as a Project Trust Desk Officer in 2012 and it was great to have the opportunity to go back again this year. You can clearly see that the country is constantly changing – every city seems to be growing, there’s a rising middle class and more visual signs of development and wealth in some parts of the cities. The average income remains very low, but there are also high end shopping malls, cinemas and restaurants opening. This was also my first visit to Gansu province where we have eight volunteers this year. I’d planned on catching up on some sleep between projects on the train journey from Lanzhou to Zhangye but getting to see the epic mountain ranges stretching off into the distance as the train sped along at nearly 200 mph was unmissable.

2 – Volunteering in China is unique and the projects there are unlike any other Project Trust country programme. The Volunteers are all based in cities so the community they engage with is much more open and there is a great deal of freedom for the volunteers to explore and interact in different ways. The relationships and interests they develop have a huge impact on how much they will get out of living in China and there is no shortage of people interested in getting to know them. The first friends to be made are often the other teachers in the English departments they are working in and this opens up much larger networks as the year goes on. In their spare time Volunteers this year are getting involved in Uighur dancing, mountain hiking and camel riding and there are a bunch of Volunteers this year committing to learning T’ai Chi. You have to be patient and willing to be embarrassed as you get everything wrong at first, but it is all part of the learning process and it’s a really interesting insight into Chinese culture.

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I Am Project Trust 2015 – Calum in China from ProjectTrust on Vimeo.

3 – Learning Mandarin Chinese is a real challenge for our Volunteers. Being a tonal language, and a completely different alphabet, means you really have to put a lot of effort into it. What’s great about the China country programme is that the schools will dedicate a member of staff to set aside some time each week to go through different aspects of the language and while it is a long process most of the volunteers come on a huge way over the course of the year. Language is so often a gateway to getting a much richer experience overseas and having 12-months in China really does give you the opportunity to see that.

4 – I was really impressed with the level this year’s Volunteers are teaching at already, which I think is an endorsement of the developments made to the induction. This year the Volunteers spent three weeks in Beijing learning about Chinese culture but also having quite an intense programme of teacher training. Seeing the Volunteers at their projects you could really see that they’d put a lot of time and effort into their lesson plans and they understand that it takes hard work to become an effective teacher.  It’s a real privilege of my job to see Volunteers performing well at their projects and it made the visit really enjoyable.

Project Trust Gap Year China

Ava volunteering as a teacher in China

5 – I’m fortunate in that I flew between provinces: when the Volunteers travel they will almost always choose the budget train journeys which become the stuff of Project Trust legend due to the distances involved. The first train journey the Volunteers take is when they head to their projects from Beijing, which can take between 14 and 34 hours. Sometimes they get a seat, sometimes a bed but sometimes they have to stand. The Volunteers are all about to head off on their winter travels and they’ve planned some really exciting and elaborate routes. A lot of them are taking in the Harbin Ice Festival, where a city is seemingly consumed by gigantic ice sculptures. It’s really worth seeing, but for some of them getting there is the equivalent of travelling the length of Europe and treating the train journey as a test of endurance seems to be par for the course.

Learn more about a gap year in China with Project Trust