Heart of the Treasure Valley: Peace Corps opens eyes of teacher in China

February 23, 2014 

  • ABOUT THE PEACE CORPS

    The Peace Corps was established in 1961 and has since placed more than 215,000 volunteers in 139 countries. There are now more than 7,200 serving. Work is done in the areas of education, health, environment, community economic development, youth in development and agriculture.

    The mission is to promote world peace and friendship through three goals:

    - To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women

    - To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.

    - To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.

    - Interesting fact: Idaho is ranked No. 7 for states with the highest number of Peace Corps volunteers per capita.

  • ON EDUCATION IN CHINA

    “Science, technology, engineering, math — STEM — it’s huge in the U.S. right now because American students are falling short by world standards. But China’s crushing at it, and it’s like, ‘Why?’

    “Well, I have some insight as to why they are good at science and technology and math.”

    For starters, Ann says, Chinese students are excellent at memorizing. That’s the focus of their education system; but in America, it’s more oriented to processing and multiple answers, different perspectives and the individual point of view.

    “Whereas in Asia, you just learn it. You memorize it, you learn it. There’s a right and a wrong and you get it.”

    Understanding that was valuable to her as an educator.

    “Americans are astounding at problem solving and critical thinking. Not so much in China.

    “There are definitely weaknesses in the America education system as far as math and science goes. But China and Asia, they have some weaknesses in their education system, too. They develop amazing rote learners.”

    For instance, she assigned students to give a speech with a point of view, like they might have to give in a diplomatic situation. She gave them a list of 30 possible topics; they’d draw one and have two minutes to prepare — a challenging assignment for anyone, including that they would be speaking in English, their second language.

    “So some of the students took that list and they memorized speeches on all 30 topics.

    “That’s what I’m saying. I have been in education for 25 years and it would never occur to any student I taught to do that. American students wouldn’t do that. … It’s breathtaking.”

  • A CHRISTMAS CARD FROM HER STUDENTS

    One class gave me a very sweet Christmas card:

    “Dear Ann,

    “We were surprised when we first learned that you are a volunteer of Peace Corps. We are much more surprised when we see your devotion to us. During class, you teach us and lead us to find our ways to study. There are so many interesting activities that make we become active and united. Attending your class is really a good pleasure for us all.

    “After class you talk with us, telling us things about America, things that we are curious about but not able to find the truth through the ones we know. And you are so cute that we love you so much. You show us a really amazing American teacher and the way of American teaching. We do like it.

    “Thank you for your devotion to all of us. We love you. May the joy of Christmas be with you through out the year. Wish you many good wishes for the holidays and the coming year.”

    Ahhh, I’m all choked up, and I have the same wishes for them. Christmas is in China, and at its best, it’s about peace, love, joy, and giving, here and everywhere.

    From her blog, Christmas 2012

When Ann Montgomery’s youngest son went off to college, there was a window of opportunity. And she took it.

She says: “I grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s; there was an ethic of service. John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, and there was a general calling for volunteering and serving the country — and I got swept up into that. It’s been part of my life since I was young, volunteering. ...

“It’s who we are as a people, (we) Americans. We volunteer. We do things.”

Ann is a science teacher at Frank Church High School, Boise’s alternative high school. She took a leave of absence in 2012-13 — having received the option of serving one or two years — and joined the Peace Corps.

“I’m a much better teacher for it. I’m a much better person for it. I took two suitcases over there, I had a little apartment, I lived very simply. …

“I came back and I’m re-evaluating different aspects of my life — like, do I need this (thing)? No, I don’t need that. But I do need meaningful work. …

“The work (at Frank Church) is very meaningful and I came back feeling more committed to that than when I left.”

The Peace Corps assigns volunteers their country, and Ann was surprised at her assignment.

“When you sign up for the Peace Corps, everyone has the idea of a grass hut in Africa. That’s what I had in mind.”

Instead, she was sent to Chongqing, China, a city of 32 million people, teaching in one of the top schools for international languages. She was one of 26 Peace Corps volunteers in Chonqing and one of 143 volunteers in China.

Her neighborhood had a million people. (In comparison, the population of Idaho is 1.6 million.) Everything she needed was within walking distance, but the crush of people, the sounds, and the smells were astonishing. And the pollution was overwhelming.

Ann likened the air to a bad wildfire year in Boise; sometimes she couldn’t see the building next door to her apartment. The Jialing River just smelled bad. And she had to be careful not to get caught in a storm without her umbrella because of the acid rain.

“So for an Idaho girl and a runner to go to Chongqing, it was a pretty big shock. …

“I was ready for a change, and boy, did I get it.”

She assumed she would be teaching English, but her class was in international communication and negotiation. She didn’t know anything about international communication and nothing about negotiation, so she had to learn her subject — and that was a satisfying challenge.

“I gained way more than I gave.”

It turns out, too, that her role in the Peace Corps was far more than just teaching. Several times a week, she volunteered at the Chongqing library “English Corner.” English Corners occur all over China for people to practice English. When a native English speaker attends, it’s a huge bonus.

“ To have someone help them with their English — but to also help explain the culture. And they can ask questions (about) popular culture … politics, how the world views China. …

“I felt that my best work as a Peace Corps volunteer was getting out into the community and talking to people.

“I learned a lot, too. I could ask them questions as well: What is this? How does this work? Why do you do this? Do you believe that?

“As I started to see people regularly and develop friendships, they would really open up to me. That was good.”

Ann found herself being a mini-ambassador for America and reading the New York Times obsessively to keep up with current politics and world events.

“I was over there during the Romney/Obama debates, and they were both bashing China. The Chinese government likes to broadcast that part. … People were like, what’s with that? (I’d say), ‘Well, we don’t all feel that way. I don’t (always) agree. …’

“Politics hasn’t really been a big interest of mine. But I felt like I had to speak intelligently about what was going on. And I wish I had paid more attention to U.S. government in high school because I got asked a lot of questions about how the government worked. I’m like, OK, I need to look that up. … It was good for me to get reacquainted with all that as well.”

The Chinese had some common misconceptions about American culture.

“They think their culture is the best and dominant, and they’re a little surprised when they learn that maybe Americans have the same view about America. ...

“And I found myself constantly saying, ‘No, we’re not like “Desperate Housewives.”’ That’s created for our entertainment and doesn’t really reflect how we actually live.”

In her classes, Ann both confronted — and learned about — cultural differences in education. For instance, in China, it’s impolite to ask a teacher a question because it implies the teacher didn’t teach well.

“So I had to work really hard with them in learning and teaching them to ask questions and how to engage in conversation. It was good for me, too. Some of these things we take for granted just aren’t the same way in the rest of the world.”

There were limits, though. Ann was forbidden to talk about Tiananmen Square or she would have been sent home — and what she taught was watched.

“The goal is to build bridges. You can’t do that if you’re bashing your host country or ridiculing your host country. Things are very different in different parts of the world, and we’re expected to go and embrace that and accept it and live with it. And not fight it or change it or make people feel bad for their culture.”

But within those limitations, Ann could introduce ideas.

“For example, I was teaching about the free flow of information, and I was, ‘Oh, by the way, you don’t have that in China. But this is how the rest of the world works. … ’

“It was a delicate walk a lot of times to keep my views and embrace their culture — but I also wanted to share that there’s a different perspective out there. ...

“There were times in my mind … what I was thinking was, ‘This is crazy, this is crazy.’ But out of my mouth was coming, ‘Oh, we have a different way of doing things.’ Or, ‘You know, Americans actually think this.’”

The students listening to her in class were Chinese students who might someday be diplomats or international businessmen and women.

“One at a time. One connection at a time.

“If my students become diplomats, perhaps they’ll think back on that time (in class) and maybe something I said rang true for them. They could represent China on the international forum; they may represent China in a business … or in academics.

It’s the ripple effect again. “I totally believe in the ripple effect,” she says.

But still. China is a big country and Ann was just one person. She’s an amazingly gregarious, outgoing and dedicated teacher, but she’s still just one person.

“There’s just a level of connecting with people that is mind-expanding. It’s like we’re all in this together.

“It was really a defining experience for me. … That the world is becoming smaller and smaller and we all are connected, and we should all be working together to solve these global problems and issues.”

Ann kept a blog while she was gone (called “A Peace of China”), as a way of keeping in touch with friends and family back home. Her entries started with personal “I did this” and “I did that” stories, and with her emerging world perspective, evolved into writing with a sense of urgency.

“(Sort of) ‘This is what’s happening in the world and we should be aware of it. … ’

“In China, like the United States, we’re struggling to get a handle on pollution and human rights and other environmental and political issues. Every country has their own agenda — and it conflicts with what’s going on with other attitudes in the world.

“The American attitude will conflict with the Chinese attitude — and I totally get that now. … And I would not have known that if I hadn’t gone there.

“But it’s important. You have to keep trying — and that happens on the human connection.”

What brings that home, she says with a laugh, is finding the massage place — run by two blind guys. They didn’t speak Mandarin, which is what Ann had learned, and she couldn’t understand the local dialect they spoke.

“But I went every week, and over a year, we really developed a relationship even though we couldn’t speak very much. …

“That was fun. I taught them some words in English. I taught them ‘Ouch,’ because they would really press hard, and I taught them ‘OK.’ And they would be like ‘OK.’”

They are among the people Ann will miss the most from her year in China, and they have come to symbolize what the year was all about.

“The human connection and being grateful and generous. I think that is what really defines our life.

“I’m really grateful for what I have and I can be generous with what I have. I mean — love is boundless and limitless and you know we all feel it; it doesn’t matter what culture you’re from. That’s a universal emotion.

“And we can choose to live in love, rather than anger or hate or desperation. …

“I saw some very poor people in China, and I interacted with some of them who seemed pretty content with a minimal — what we would consider sub-standard — life. So I’m not sure wealth equates with generosity or happiness. Some of those people were very generous giving me noodles when I was traveling.

“Yeah, that personal connection. And like that blind massage — you don’t even have to have language to have it. Right? Just kindness. Everyone responds to kindness.”

Know someone living “from the heart”? Idaho Statesman photojournalist Katherine Jones spotlights someone in the Treasure Valley who influences our lives not only by what they do, but how and why they do it. Do you know someone we should know? Call 377-6414 or email kjones@idahostatesman.com.

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