Spirit enriches Brunei exchanges
Volunteers face rewards, challenges in yearlong teaching program
The first batch of Chinese volunteers to go to Brunei had to make some tough decisions concerning families, education and work. Some of the 23 volunteers, ranging in age from 21 to 53, left babies behind. Some delayed finishing their college education. Others quit their jobs.
But as Edith Piaf once sang, they had no regrets and were grateful to have participated in the yearlong program, which ends this month.
“We are lucky to be making history. As a volunteer, I learned and got back more than I gave,” said Yao Rui, the team leader, who is in his 30s.
Proposed by then premier Wen Jiabao in 2011, the exchange program sent the volunteers — mainly from Beijing, Liaoning and Guangdong provinces — to ease Brunei’s personnel shortage in health, sports and Chinese language teaching.
Despite having the kind of impressive expertise and rich volunteering experience at home that made them stand out from hundreds of applicants, they found the experience both challenging and rewarding.
When Ye Chaoran, a teacher and doctor of pathology for nearly three decades in China, first volunteered as a tutor at the Institute of Health Sciences at the University of Brunei Darussalam, students seldom talked to him and did not call him doctor in class.
“I think they did question my professionalism at that time. I can understand that because I hadn’t gotten used to the different teaching style and my English really was not good then,” the 53-year-old said.
Unlike the “cramming” style of teaching popular in China, the institute’s problembased learning is student- centered pedagogy in which students learn about a subject through the experience of problemsolving, mostly in group studies.
“At first, I felt lost when I didn’t have the dominating role in the class, but I was trying to adjust by watching how other professors taught,” said Ye, who taught at the Guangxi Medical University for 13 years.
Though teaching styles differed, Ye’s experience proved to be an advantage. Having performed more than 1,000 autopsies on real human bodies, instead of the models widely used in Brunei, Ye soon impressed the students in class and in free tutoring sessions afterward.
“They call me ‘professor’ or ‘doctor’ now,” he said.
“But every country has its own conditions. The point of exchange is not to compete, but to improve together. ... We can learn from one another. Problem- based learning is better but is used on a small scale and is not appropriate for Chinese schools. Autopsies using models are much cleaner operations but, obviously, are different from the real ones,” he added.
Yao, another tutor in the institute, said he also struggled during his first two months because it was the first time he had taught medical science in English.
“People in Brunei speak and write English better than Chinese people do,” he said. “Since there were no compulsory textbooks, I had to prepare English materials myself. As a member of the institute’s obesity research team, I had to stay up late to read the medical literature in English,” said Yao, who was a chief doctor in the Zhuhai Center for Disease Control and Prevention in Guangdong.
“There were several Chinese tutors in the institute and we joked that this year in Brunei was like our time on campus as students. We studied English and medicine together every night, trying our best to contribute something to the research here,” said Yao.
Fatima Arni, a lecturer in nursing at the institute, said that despite occasional language obstacles, she found common ground.
“I used a Chinese dictionary, and they were learning English and Malay. I shared teaching duties with them and invited them to my class,” she said.
“Chinese people are always very motivated, and I like that,” Fatima said. She learned a great deal about Chinese culture when she was a student in Canada and Britain.
Fatima is one of an increasing number of Bruneians interested in China and she encouraged the volunteers to be a bridge between the two countries.
Ye, the pathologist, said he had “disappointed” many people who had asked him whether he practiced traditional Chinese medicine. He hadn’t.
“When my sister, a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine, emigrated to the United States about three decades ago, she had no choice except to give up her major to make a living there. Now the world is increasingly interested in traditional Chinese medicine and China as a rising country,” he said.
Yin Guanghui, a volunteer Chinese language teacher at Maktab Sains secondary school, said he had neglected his tai chi exercise and tuishou, a non-competitive training of tai chi, at home until he saw the local children’s desire to learn them.
“I’ve picked up all these hobbies again because I’ve been a Chinese teacher for more than two decades and I want to do something to promote Chinese culture abroad,” said the 45-year-old.
Yin taught Chinese language and tai chi at the secondary school, and provided free tutoring in these two subjects to about 20 students on weekends. Yin’s wife mailed him about 60 pieces of special paper on which his students could practice Chinese calligraphy.
Sung Hui Yee, one of Yin’s students, said she had longed to learn tai chi for a long time, but in Brunei, Korea’s Taekwondo was more common.
“Japanese and Korean culture are quite popular among Brunei’s young generation,” Sung said. “I’ve seen Japanese and Korean culture festivals at the university but not Chinese ones,” said the 23-year-old graduate of the University of Brunei Darussalam.
After months of preparation, Yao and his teammates made history on Oct 30 by holding the first Chinese Culture Day ever held at the university or in the country. Chinese volunteers demonstrated tai chi, Chinese calligraphy, traditional Chinese massage and weiqi, a Chinese board game, at the event.
“Before leaving for Brunei, someone asked me how I could be away from my two-year-old daughter for a year. But pains and gains are just twins, and we have been happy to win people’s friendship in Brunei through our efforts,” he said.
“Also, it has been personally worthwhile to have such a special experience.”
Volunteers are greeted at the airport of Shenyang, Liaoning province, on Dec 9, after their one-year service in Brunei.