Working in Guyuan for five years:

A volunteer's perspective.

By Moira Laidlaw

I spent five of the happiest years of my life in Guyuan. No, correct that. Four of the happiest years. The first year was hard. I suffered from culture-shock (big-time), stomach complaints, dry skin (Guyuan has to be one of the driest places under the sun), loneliness, isolation, and a sense of being a square peg in a round hole; I missed England and what was 'normal' for me. I missed my family. I missed the familiar. It was a tough time. Although I met such marvelous people in Guyuan, I didn't feel able to benefit from it at first. To be honest, I wondered if I'd made a huge mistake.


But I'm stubborn – and proud. I was also driven by a sense of duty. I'd signed up for two years and this was a professional commitment with VSO, who had told us that our organisation pays out 13,000 pounds for each volunteer. And this was a charity. I couldn't just give up. It wouldn't have been fair. And I'll tell you, I'm SO glad I stuck with it. I went on to have those four golden years and learnt more than I could ever have thought possible. VSO says that volunteers often gain more than they give and in my case that's certainly true.


So, a little about the work in those five years. In the first year my dean, Tian Fengjun, scheduled me to teach Oral English. I met him on a brisk Autumn day in 2001, and after only a few minutes, he had agreed to assign me some Teaching Methodology as well. This was a strength I wanted to develop and he could not have been more accommodating. His open-minded and enthusiastic responses to suggestions, as well as negotiation of ideas, plans and practices, were to become a hallmark of our collaboration throughout the five years. During the second term, I started going to his office regularly, a couple of times a week, just to chat. We'd sit together over tea and a cigarette and put the world to rights. Always I went away from those meetings feeling energized. I realized I was in the hands of a brilliant manager, and started to count my lucky stars at being based in Guyuan. That placement is lucky enough to have secured two American volunteers and after my first two years, a further VSO volunteer as well. I have therefore been privileged to work as well with wonderful international professionals during my placement.


After the first year I taught mostly Teaching Methodology and also some British and American Literature, which I thoroughly enjoyed. My students – and this is a typical experience in China – were so keen and bright and uniformly pleasant. In addition, I went to Dean Tian to discuss a possible model of in-service and pre-service teacher-training – Action Research for use with staff and students. He asked me to give him as much material as possible and then a few days later, called a meeting with staff. This was to be a turning point for my placement. Action Research, over the next four years, became the principle method of staff development, and in 2003, Dean Tian, in conjunction with the Ningxia Education Committee opened China's Experimental Centre for Educational Action Research in Foreign Languages Teaching (CECEARFLT) – see and for details of the work). Professor Jean McNiff, a world-leader in Educational Action Research, was present at the inauguration. Guyuan now had something unique in the world – an Action Research Centre specifically devoted to the study of improvements in the teaching of English under China's New Curriculum. The College (as it was then, it's now a university) received letters of congratulation from the then Education Governor of Ningxia, an event unprecedented in the college's history, and started to gain a national and international reputation.


Most of my professional time was then spent on in-house in-service training, additionally with a Hui (Moslem) middle school in a neighbouring county where fourteen English teachers are now using AR methodology to improve their teaching of the New Curriculum. This project is now being supervised by members of the AR Centre at Guyuan. In 2004, we had our first international conference with VSO sponsorship. Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead (another world-leader in Action Research), plus volunteers and partners from Ningxia and Gansu, came to discuss, amongst other things, educational research and the New Curriculum. One of the most important findings was the significance to educational development of sustainability.


One of VSO's aims in China is for volunteers to share skills and then leave – putting it crudely! Promoting sustainable development is a VSO China goal, and I realized after my fourth year the time should soon come for me to leave. If the processes of staff-development that Tian Fengjun, and Li Peidong, Liu Xia, Ma Xiaoxia (colleagues in the department/AR Centre) and others had started were healthy and relevant, then my direct presence shouldn't be necessary anymore. So, with a heavy heart I started making plans to leave after my fifth year. Once I had firmly made my decision to leave, Jean McNiff and Jack Whitehead turned up for two weeks and during that time, Jean suggested her institution (St. Mary's University College) and its award-bearing University (in Surrey UK) might accept me as a visiting tutor, giving me the power to supervise some colleagues from the department to do their doctorates in educational Action Research!


Thus, after six months of working in the office in Beijing as a programme office-based volunteer, I am going to return to Guyuan, taking up a post as lifelong professor of educational research at Ningxia Teachers University. I am looking forward to it so much and now we are in the process of finding sponsorship.


To summarise. My volunteering years have been blessed by excellent management (Tian Fengjun), as well as the professionality and kindness of colleagues and friends (Li Peidong, Ma Xiaoxia, Liu Xia, Ma Hong, Liu Hui – and so many more – too many to mention, but you're not forgotten!). I've also been touched by the kindnesses of the Guyuan people themselves, in particular, the practical and warmhearted friendship of my dearest friend in Guyuan, Ma Zimei. I have been so lucky to get to know inspiring people inside and outside my workplace, and to have the privilege of being accepted as a Guyuanese. Indeed, I have insisted on it. Latterly, when people in the street looked at me and pointed: 'Ah, it's the laowai (foreigner)', I would turn on them and say, indignantly, 'no I'm not a foreigner. I'm a Guyuan person! And proud of it!'


I think the strongest proof of my belief in the value of what I have experienced in the last five years as a volunteer is shown by the fact that I want to go back again.


And for good, this time!     


Moira Laidlaw, September 2006.