Culture sharing in China

Posted: Monday, February 02, 2004

When Barbara Knapp and her daughter, Laura, visit China this summer, they'll spend most of their time teaching English to middle school-aged Chinese students.

But what they really will be doing, Barbara Knapp said, is sowing seeds.

"Part of what we're doing is building better relationships with people in the world, and this is one seed, one way to start," said Knapp, who will be the dean of an English camp for Chinese students for two weeks this July. "You never know which seed will come up, which is why we're planting a lot of them."

Knapp visited China for the first time in the summer of 1984 - eight years after the end of the cultural revolution. The China she visited still was emerging from the decade of oppression instituted by Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.

"When we landed in Beijing, it was night and it was totally black, there were no lights," she said.

Airport employees used flashlights to identify luggage pulled from the plane, and buses whisked them through dark city streets. The city couldn't afford the electricity.

Knapp returned to China 10 years later to pick up Laura, then a parent-less 8-year-old in an orphanage. The China she visited had changed dramatically since she first experienced it.

Her third visit was in 2001, when she and Laura traveled to teach in a Global Language Village - an English-learning camp for Chinese students run by Concordia College of Moorhead, Minn.

"We could both see the changes in China, which were incredible," Knapp said. "It's really grown up."

Teaching at the camp gave Laura a chance to meet Chinese kids her age. It gave Knapp a chance to meet adults other than tour guides who could introduce her to Chinese life, she said.

The experience was so enriching for mother and daughter that they decided to endure the 12-hour flight from San Francisco again this year. This time, Barbara Knapp will run the camp, while Laura, who is now a junior at Juneau-Douglas High School, will act as a teacher.

"We help them understand American culture," said Knapp, who is looking for volunteers from Juneau to teach at the camp. "We may be the only Americans they ever meet in their lifetimes."

Teachers at the camps - who often are not educators in the United States - can share their culture, language, and interests with students eager to learn, Knapp said.

By learning English, Chinese students can give themselves an extremely valuable leg-up in their careers, Knapp said. And learning from Americans, who teach vocabulary, grammar and common colloquialisms, can make the students more culturally aware.

Knapp brought cans of frosting to China during her first teaching experience there, bought cakes at a Chinese bakery and showed students how Americans celebrate birthdays. She also shared the legend of the Easter bunny and Santa Claus and decorated her room with American posters, including one from the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

This summer, Knapp is looking to recruit 10 to 12 volunteers to help her at the camp. The experience costs about $2,300 and includes airfare from Juneau, room and board, and a small allowance to help pay for teaching supplies.

Volunteers don't have to be teachers, they just need to know how to teach, she said.

"Many of us teach," she said. "On the job, to our children, in clubs, at churches."

Knapp, who is trained as a nutritionist and works for the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services, said her teaching experience prior to joining the Global Language Village was teaching her daughter English.

Mostly, Knapp said, the camp is about sharing cultures.

"You realize we're all just people," she said. Americans "are not all like what's on MTV and the movies, and they're not all like the people in Kung Fu movies. ... It's an awesome experience."

• Christine Schmid can be reached at

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