A gap year spent in a remote place can be tough, but it pays dividends, say Jodie Abrahams and Christina Passey.
I have always been curious about China and its languages, which was the main reason I have chosen to do an oriental studies degree. I wanted to get a proper context for my studies, so I enrolled in a teaching English as a foreign language course, which enabled me to spend three months teaching in Woyi Shan, an isolated city in the southern part of China.
Wuyi Shan is 17 hours from Shanghai by train and taxi. It is surrounded by mountains and has been named as a world heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. This beautiful place has inspired generations of poets and painters.
I taught in a primary school and two senior schools as well as giving personal tuition to others. It was wonderful to have the chance to teach different age groups. My classes had around 60 pupils. I was lucky: schools in other areas have up to 100 students in a class.
While there, I was often touched by my students' stories, some of which were very moving. One boy, his face filled with emotion, told me of his desire to become a policeman. Every year in the village where he lives floods destroy homes. Last year, two policemen died trying to save lives and he wants to remember them by becoming one himself.
The city centre of Wuyi Shan is open, spacious and modern looking. Even the open sewer in the middle of the street is disguised as a canl, with a border of flowers.
In contrast, Old Wuyi is crammed with wooden houses and the streets are very narrow. You have to avoid the constant onslaught of motorbikes, rickshaws, pedi-cabs and people carrying baskets on bamboo poles. Farmers' produce is laid out in baskets. The shops all have open fronts, filled with silks and wood-carvings. An open-air dentist nestles between shops selling noodles and herbal remedies.
Beyond the town, there is mile upon mile of paddy fields, tended by farmers in coolie hats from dawn until dusk.
One memorable experience was a journey by bamboo raft down the Nine Twist River. There wasn't a sign of civilisation except high up on a sheer cliff, where there are remains of ancient boat coffins buried thousands of years ago in the nooks and crannies.
The Chinese philosophy of life is based on being at peace with themselves and in harmony with others and the environment around them. Municipal parks are landscaped to create a sense of tranquillity and beauty. People start the day there with tai chi, or stroll through them in the evening. Buddhism contributes to this concept of harmony and wholeness of body and mind.
I learned so much from the community I lived in, far more than they have learned from me. It has changed my perspectives on life and my priorities.
Christina Passey's teaching placement was arranged through Teaching and Projects Abroad, Gerrard House, Rustington, West Sussex BN16 1AW.
Tel: 01903 859911.