At 7 o'clock in the morning, Feng Shaojie goes to his office to prepare for Chinese lessons _ something he does every day. As the supervisor of the Chinese class at Bangkok's Jintek School, the 26-year-old from China is one of the few thousand volunteer teachers who live in the Thai capital.
He is a member of a special group called the Volunteer Chinese Teachers, made up of young people from different provinces in China. The group is run by Hanban, the Confucius Institute Headquarters, a public institution affiliated with China's Ministry of Education which is committed to providing Chinese language and cultural teaching resources and services worldwide. Given the surge in interest in all things Chinese, they are having a busy time in Bangkok.
A CRAZE FOR CHINESE
Lu Junyuan is an executive of Jintek School. Lu said that after 2000, Chinese language education in Thailand has had a big boost, partly due to the support of HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, an avid Chinese speaker. The princess' influence has sparked off a craze for learning Chinese.
Jintek is one of the oldest Chinese schools in Bangkok, established by the Hakka Association of Thailand in 1913. It has six to eight Chinese volunteer teachers at kindergarten and primary school level.
"Jintek began to expand the enrolment of students in 2000 [due to growing demand]. The number of students in the Chinese language class at weekends reached 800 at one point," said Lu.
While he's proud of that, there was a dearth of Chinese teachers and Lu had to go back to his hometown to recruit more. The problem was not solved until Hanban started to supply volunteer teachers in 2003.
Since then, Hanban has sent more than 8,000 volunteers to Thailand. This year alone, more than 1,600 arrived. The volunteer teachers are assigned to different areas of the Kingdom, and now they are spread over 75 provinces.
Apart from their daily work they also organise competitions, such as the Youth Chinese Test and Business Chinese Test, as well as various activities to disseminate Chinese culture, including the Spring Festival, Dragon Boat Festival and Mid-autumn Festival.
Lu said that Chinese culture is attractive to Thai people, who are already quite familiar with it, while business opportunities in China mean more people want to learn Chinese. The increasing number of Chinese tourists is also a major factor encouraging Thai people to take more interest in Mandarin. Exams to select the volunteer teachers are strict. According to Wang Yang, a volunteer teacher at Suksanaree Wittya School, candidates must display a specialised knowledge of the language as well as teaching skills, and even psychology.
After graduating with a law degree, Feng Shaojie participated in the examination held by Hanban. That year, the education bureau of Hebei province selected 128 volunteer teachers from 1,200 candidates. Feng was among those who passed the test.
The main reason Feng chose to become a Chinese teacher is his passion for Chinese culture. Meanwhile, 25-year-old Liu Juan, who has been at Jintek for two years, said that her university major was teaching Chinese as a second language. After graduating she initially worked at the Bank of China. But Liu always wanted to be a Chinese teacher and when she heard about the volunteer programme, she quit her job and embarked on a new life in Thailand.
"I just want to do what I want so that I won't have any regrets," she said.
IMPROVING THEIR SKILLS
In the early days when volunteers came to Bangkok, it was not easy to adapt. A few days after he arrived in Thailand, Feng was assigned to work at Jaroensil School in the northern province of Phrae, a wholly unfamiliar place to him.
Like most volunteers, Feng had just graduated and had no teaching experience. And his command of Thai was pretty limited.
Feng studied Thai for three hours every day. Three months later, he could use Thai to teach students and communicate with others quite comfortably.
As his teaching skills improved he gained more confidence and built up good relationships with the parents of his students. Besides improving their own language skills, volunteer teachers also have to work on teaching aids and think about how to make Thai students interested in Chinese. For children, if the teachers take a more playful approach to teaching, they will pay more attention in class. But for teenagers, the teachers have to think about how to be friends with them in order to manage them better.
Wang Yang faced this problem. She said that the students did not respond to her at first, since she was only 22 and looked like a teenager when she started to teach.
This situation made Wang feel disheartened. One day, a student who was not good at learning in other subjects came to her office and asked her: "Can you teach me personally if my classmates don't pay attention in your Chinese classes?"
Moved by this experience, she decided to rebuild her confidence and searched for an effective way to connect with her students.
"I tried to communicate with them, shared my feelings with them, and visited places with them after class," said Wang.
After the first year, she chose to remain in Thailand in order to prove that she can be a good teacher as well as make good friends with the students.
THE LIFE OF VOLUNTEERS
Some of the volunteer Chinese teachers are assigned to schools in remote places. Their lives aren't always easy, but they enjoy it.
When Feng was in Phrae, besides learning Thai, he read Chinese poems every day. He also wrote poems, some of which were published in the local newspaper.
He moved back to Bangkok in May, bringing only two small suitcases as when he first arrived in Thailand. But this time his heart was full of memories. And there are thousands of photos and videos about his students on his website.
Every volunteer teacher has a heavy workload. Wang Yang has 36 classes in her school but only three teachers. While the students at Jintek learn Chinese for two hours every day, the teachers have to teach at least six lessons a day.
Liu Juan said that she wants to do nothing but have a rest after working for a whole week, but she still has to teach weekend classes. Sometimes she also makes teaching aids and prepares the next lesson. If she has time, she often practices Chinese folk dance and calligraphy. Dining out is her greatest pleasure at weekends, because there is only one dish for every meal at Jintek.
Eating problems also plagued Wang. Her school is in a remote area and there are few restaurants and no market to buy fresh food.
Volunteer teachers also sometimes have to put up with poor living conditions. At one well-known Chinese school in Bangkok, the teachers' dormitory is a temporary shelter set up in the school's courtyard. At Jintek, the Chinese teachers' dorm is on the roof of the building. There is no washroom and water sometimes leaks in on rainy days.
Nevertheless, the volunteers have adapted and remain upbeat. On the roof of Jintek there are two hammocks.
"The previous volunteer teachers set them up. They had been here for more than two years," said Liu, adding that she enjoys lying in a hammock and looking up at the sky.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE HOLD?
What does she think about when she is lying in the hammock? The future.
Teaching Chinese is not a guaranteed job for the volunteers sent here by Hanban.
Hanban has a preferential policy; if they participate in the graduate examinations they can get 10 additional points. But for the older volunteer teachers who have already worked for many years, it is hard to recover the knowledge to participate in the exams again.
Wang wants to make the best use of this preferential policy. When she returns to her hometown next year, she aims to participate in the graduate examinations. However, she is not very confident about this. If she doesn't pass the exam, she has to find other ways to get a job.
Liu Juan may not be able to get a cushy bank job again when she goes back because state-owned banks usually recruit fresh graduates.
For every volunteer teacher, planning for the future needs to be considered carefully. They are respected by their students but the students rarely know about their lives beyond the school. They find joy amid hardship, but the future for them is like standing on the roof of Jintek School overlooking the distant buildings, lights likes stars, partly hidden and partly visible.
Liu Juan is one of many Chinese volunteer teachers now working in Thailand.