A foreign land at a dangerous time

In March, reports of an unknown virus originating in China reached frenzied proportions, prompting some individuals to dub the virus-SARS-as the next great epidemic.

In attempts to curb the disease’s influx, governments across the globe tightened security for internationals attempting to enter or leave specific countries, including China.

For U student Kim Skaggs, this tightened security affected the length of her stay in China as a volunteer English teacher.

“I left in February and we were supposed to be gone for five months,” said Skaggs about her volunteer mission through the U’s International Language Programs. “It didn’t happen. We were there for three months.”

However, Skaggs described her experience as incredible, helping her gain insight into Chinese education, culture and government.

“I would never trade [my] experience for anything,” Skaggs said.

“I loved China. It was character-building, even though I went at a time that wasn’t optimal,” she said.

Skaggs said the character-building began when she arrived in China and boarded a train to Urumqi, a city on the northwest border of China, near Russia and Mongolia.

“It was just a wake-up call about what I was getting myself into,” said Skaggs, about the two-day train ride. “It was the worst experience. There were so many people on the train and no room to move.”

Skaggs said she was introduced to new sights and sounds on the train, including unfamiliar food and awkward restroom facilities.

However, she added that things got better once her group arrived in Urumqi and was transported to the school where they would teach English.

“It was like a little community. The kids and teachers lived on campus, and they had apartments for the foreign teachers,” said U student Charlotte Tyler, who traveled to Urumqi with the program last year as a volunteer English teacher.

“It was very nice,” Skaggs said about the school. “We lived in luxury there. We had a computer in our room-it was amazing.”

During her three months there, Skaggs taught English each day to four groups of students. Using lessons about cooking, drama or arts and crafts, Skaggs taught in a question and answer format, precisely describing objects then asking simple questions.

“You describe things using every single word you know how to use,” she said. “It took five times as long as explaining to someone who already knew English, but that’s how they learned.”

She added that she tried to teach English in an entertaining manner-not through repetition of textbook phrases.

“We taught them English while showing them how to make cookies,” Skaggs said. “We’d teach them English by making them think we were teaching them something different. They weren’t just repeating things.”

“It was like we were playing with the kids,” Tyler said.

After about five weeks of playing and teaching, Skaggs and her group were placed on lockdown within the school after war was declared with Iraq. No one could enter or leave the compound without special permission.

“Security in China was particularly strict,” said Skaggs, describing how approximately 30 percent of Urumqi’s population was Muslim.

“It was hard for me to understand, but they thought there would be hard feelings against us as Americans,” she said.

After war-related fears died down, Skaggs and her group were again placed on lockdown, this time because of SARS.

“People here [in the U.S.] probably knew more than I did,” Skaggs said. “It was very interesting to be kept in the dark-we didn’t know which reports were real and which weren’t.”

After weeks of being told they didn’t need to leave, travel in and out of the country became increasingly restricted. Without notice, Skaggs’ program told her group they would need to leave the country.

“They kept telling us that everything is fine-keep teaching,” Skaggs said. “Then they started refusing people onto the flights for simple cold-like symptoms. We were afraid we might get stuck in China.”

About seven days after being told to leave, Skaggs and a small group of volunteers took a flight out of Urumqi and arrived in Beijing.

While there, they were subjected to a series of strict health inspections.

“We had to have masks the whole time,” Skaggs said. “If you didn’t, [the officials] would get mad at you.”

She said that each person in her group was slightly sick, and one woman was sent to a Chinese hospital because of a fever.

“These guys in suits came and picked her up in an ambulance,” Skaggs said. “She had to pay $400 right on the spot, but made it back to the airport.”

After 16 hours in the Beijing airport, Skaggs and her group safely left the country.

“I was just relieved to get out of that situation,” Skaggs said.

However, Skaggs emphasizes that she loved her experience in China-despite a truncated stay.

“I don’t like how we left, but I loved those kids,” Skaggs said.

She added, “I also loved touring China, seeing the sites. It’s so colorful and beautiful in its own way.”

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