By Rebecca Pham

My last two weeks in Zhuhai flew by in one huge blur. With the stress of the final performance building in the second to last week, it felt like there was zero down time/chances to breathe. Even so, I have found that I thrive best when I am busy and life is chaotic – it pushes me and drives me to do more. On the downside, however, I believe I stayed at No.  9 Middle School from 8am to 8pm those days and found myself having to miss dinner with my host families or returning home after they had all fallen asleep.

As head of the final performance committee, production preparation consumed my life (even during my free weekend in Hong Kong, I found myself working on details for the show) from dealing with last minute additions to the performance, continually changing program order and working with De’Shaun to reformat the narrative scripts in between acts, obtaining costumes and makeup, and of course, preparing all three sets of my dancers (my hip hop girls, my 9th grade breakers, and the teachers). When dress rehearsal arrived, I felt less prepared than ever. We were not able to run the whole show as many acts were missing/equipment for video & slideshows were not yet available. The kids were uncontrollable and I knew we had to figure out a way to contain them during the show.  The MC skits between acts were not running smoothly – actors were missing, people missed their lines, and students became frustrated with each other. We discovered issues with the CD player that made it difficult to search through a CD/about 3 CDs were burned before the order of the music was finally correct. That night, after running a mile, I stayed in the office until well past midnight in order to burn each music track to an individual CD. I also designated certain classrooms surrounding the outdoor stage for certain acts and labeled each room to organize students for the day of the show.

When the day of the show came, there was no rest that morning up until the start of the show. We went makeup-shopping, we experimented with makeup (funny story…Ji Won was testing makeup for her Chacha girls on me, and the girls wanted to observe – they were in awe of the cosmetic beauty world and exclamations of wonder were frequently heard; one student, female mind you, even declared that I was so beautiful she wanted to kiss me), we struggled with costumes (especially Ji Won – her dancers’ costumes did not arrive until around 2pm; we discovered that none of the black male pants fit her tiny-waisted students as they immediately fell to their knees, many of the red dresses were too loose as well, girls felt very unconscious about the form fitting nature and short length of the dresses as they had never before worn such garments – Ji Won grew nervous that they wouldn’t dance in them; at the end of the day, however, after obtaining many safety pins, the costume issues were resolved and the girls grew a bit more comfortable about the “scandalous” nature of the outfits), the 5pm dress rehearsal for all audio and visual equipment never happened (during the show, several videos would not work and we had no way of discovering this because equipment was unavailable earlier), we never knew the entire length of the show because we lacked a full run through (towards the end of the show, we had to cut the last MC act because the show was getting too long), putting on makeup for my hip hop girls took much longer than expected (about 3 hours for 40 girls…luckily an older student, Aileen, came to help me halfway through), and during the show, my method of confining the students to classrooms completely failed as they were loud and rambunctious – they all wanted to go outside and watch the show, and they acted like they were in an episode of Jailbreak when we put them inside.

Despite the many struggles, the final product was more than I could possibly have ever dreamed.  All the students did an excellent job. I could not have been prouder of the weeks and hours of hard work culminating into this final show of extreme brilliance. By the end of the performance, I was on stage, sobbing nonstop and clinging to all of my dancers, beaming with pride and extremely depressed that the performance had ended. Hsiao-Mei even has embarrassing footage of my wailing – I sound like a dying cat; to make things worse, a news crew decided they wanted to interview me in the midst of my bawling. Luckily, I still had another week at No. 9 and preparations for summer camp were able to quell my tears and temporarily hold the sadness of my imminent departure at bay.

The four days of summer camp were filled with games of ninja, dodge ball, capture the flag, screaming and laughing children running around, several scrapes/bruises/falls, blood and sweat, movies, amusing youtube videos, popsicles, and an epic water balloon fight (even the cafeteria workers happily joined and program director & assistant were both soaked to the bone). As the days continued to fly by, my heart began to sink with the knowledge that my 8 weeks was quickly coming to an end. With each gift from a student (free bubble tea from Drinking Express, a bracelet, hand-painted/hand-made pottery items, and cute cards filled with broken English and love), I found myself being tied closer and closer to Zhuhai.

Post Water Balloon Fight


I spent the last few nights with my students and family – shopping in the underground mall, getting lost in Vanguard with Abby in search of pancake mix (I ended up using cake mix and my host family loved it), going to my last KTVs, hosting a BBQ for 50+ kids at Seaside Park. I found myself tearing up at random moments and struggling to keep up a cheery demeanor with the kids. On my second to last night, I walked home from McDonalds with my host sister. Walking home after McDonalds was one of the most bittersweet experiences during this trip; Melody confessed to me that she had cried herself to sleep the day before. She also told me that at the start of this program, her teachers warned them that everyone cries on the last day. Melody found this statement very hard to believe, but she now completely understood. She also told me she was unsure if she would host another student next summer because she didn’t want to cry again.

On my last night, I gave gifts to my family –  a photo frame for the aunt and uncle with family pictures we’d taken in the home and at Seaside Park, first words flash cards for little Vivian, and a bracelet & letter for Melody. She started sobbing immediately when I gave it to her. Afterwards, my host aunt took us to the nearby beauty salon and we had our hair professionally washed (most relaxing experience ever!). We took photos around the house and then watched videos from the final performance. I stayed up late that night packing and repacking – my family and students had given me so much food/gifts that I had to buy an entire new luggage bag, but I was still struggling to figure out how to take everything back to America.

I awoke Thursday morning with a lump in my throat. Walking into the kitchen, I found my grandmother who attacked me with hugs and affectionate Cantonese phrases that I still could not understand. Yet, I knew she was expressing her love for me and how much she would miss me. I went to morning tea with Melody, Shariza, and Shariza’s host sister Sally. Afterwards, I borrowed Shariza’s scale and discovered that my luggage was 3 kilos overweight and so, again repacked.

Finally, it was time to head over to the school and load the bus to Guangzhou. Melody handed me a three page letter (in which she told me that she’d never cried with a person before and then she quoted the lyrics of Avril Lavigne’s When You’re Gone) and a box of origami stars (if you fold 100, then you bring luck to the recipient). Arriving at the middle school, I was met by a sea of students. A precious girl, Lucy, approached me and asked me to close my eyes. She proceeded to put earrings on me, and I burst into tears that could not stop for an hour. I held my students and my aunt and uncle. It was the hardest goodbye I have ever given. Knowing that I would most likely never see these beautiful people again was heartbreaking. Luckily for me, I am returning to China at the end of this month. I will probably have very little time to see any of my students the one day I am in Zhuhai, but I am going to try my hardest.

The bus driver honked for a full ten minutes before we all were able to pry ourselves from the kids and get on the bus. Fast forward about 20 hours and I found myself at home, lonely, dejected, and feeling a largely vacant and empty. I knew I’d left a part of me in a place on the other side of the globe. I used my laptop for solace and found myself spending hours on QQ and skype to communicate with my students. My host sister was still crying as I skyped her a day later (and apparently after our departure, all the students went to KFC & McDonalds to cry together).

Yet although, I have left China and a huge part of me remains in Zhuhai, I have realized that despite my sadness, there are so many things I am able to keep with me. On a surface level, I find myself still saying “Oh my lady gaga” and “Ai Yah” when I am frustrated. I find myself confused when I enter my bathroom and realize that the toilet is not a hole in the ground. I find myself making unnecessary noises to fill the eerie silences in my home and for the first time realize how busy, vibrant, and alive Zhuhai is whereas American cities seem constantly to be asleep.

On a deeper level, I carry with me the memories and bonds I have forged with these people. I know that in the future, this is a summer I can never forget. When people ask me about DukeEngage, I can truly say that it has changed me and my life. I was able to create relationships in a foreign place, I am able to understand and communicate with individuals when we do not even share a language – our method of speaking transcends language and I can understand them better than I can many people who do speak English. I understand the value of patience and I understand the importance of flexibility, I know what it means to be a leader, and I know how to be a better teacher, mentor, and friend. I have replaced stereotypes with real and concrete knowledge and experiences. And most importantly, I have realized how wonderful and necessary it is to possess passion in all that you do.

I came to China thinking I would teach English and dance. Which I did. Yet, I did so much more. My students do not have perfect English now, and in my eyes, that does not mean I have failed. I have succeeded in so many ways – the majority of which are intangible and immeasurable. I believe that the Zhuhai students are instilled with desire, drive, motivation, and confidence now. We teach the value of happiness and a smile. A father of one of the students spoke to Hsiao-Mei about how he loved my performance as I was always smiling. Many of the other students had never before been on a stage; they lacked stage presence and looked like “cement” he said. He believed that this vibrant attitude was the most important gift we brought to Zhuhai.

Where before, every task was automatic and mechanical, I believe they have now begun to think about their lives and how every action has a purpose. They have started to think about what they really want and how education is one way to achieve it – they are realizing that education is more than memorization and high test scores. They have choices and options in their lives; they have an infinite number of paths to choose from – they just were unaware previously. I did not know that this would be the final outcome of my teachings but in realizing what I have brought to my students, I also realize for myself now. This is what DukeEngage has not only helped Chinese students to see, but has also helped me see in my own life.

So no, I did not produce 100 middle school students with perfect English. But each of my students can now say their name and age confidently in English. For me, that is enough. For many of them, that is more English than they have ever spoken in their entire lives. Their English classes do not teach conversations or public speaking. We have helped them come out of their shell a bit and feel comfortable in their skins – we have helped them create their own voices.

DukeEngage, thank you for the most rewarding summer experience I have ever been blessed to partake in. I am eternally grateful.


Some snapshots & videos as well as kind words:

Post Performance Emails

-Rebecca, It was a really wonderful night that I have never had. Of course,we will visit you every day ^_^. Baby…he really misses you(oh my god,I can’t stand it. O(∩_∩)O).  Remember this summer,OK?I

am looking forward to your coming back.



-We spent a really wonderful party last night,and I also really thanks for holding such a surprised

birthday party for me.I know that you are going back to America soon,but I really want to be

with you…T-T.I hate Gods,because when you are going back it’s when I deeply miss you.But I

believe we will be good friends forever,won’t we?We will visit you everyday,all right?


(Translated by Jacky)

Skyping with my Host Sister, Melody

-See the letter you gave me when I cried for a long time. Every day I will see it again. For you I will study hard in English. I said to my mother i should be admitted to Duke University to come find you. Of course, another choice is help my mom wash the bowls for 4 years.

-You just walked away?I will never see you again?Someone said, some people can only meet once, just you and me.12: 00I look at you in the living room to picking up something on your forehead cloth out of thin Khan, but I can see.That night you come into the room to find me, you gave us a lot of gifts. These are outside can be bought, but I think only you can buy, always think so.Then we hugged and cried, suddenly I like the life of the tears had light. If you are so good, that I would not cry forever to you.Really want the time stop at that moment. Maybe you do not know it, was the first time anyone so hold me cry.My endless missing, infinite love, give you.

QQs from students

-Rebecca,I am Linnet. I miss you, I miss the time and you. That period of time, I am happy, never happy. I grew up, must go to the United States watching you. Also, remember that regular contact. I will miss you every day. And,I love you.

-Jackie: I am busy with my computer competition
Rebecca: oh wow. what do you do
Jackie: it’s about informatics. some rudimentary knowledge of computer,make programs,solve some mathematic question
(He’s in the 8thgrade! What?!)

Last Day Photo (post hairwashing)

My Breakers!

My Breakers’ Dance:

Jonathan’s Video Montage:

Zhe’s Photo Montage: