A Non-Mathematical Kind of Giving and Receiving
By Samantha Toh, published October, 2010
On my last day I took a taxi to the airport. I remember the clouds looming up behind tall apartment blocks and the sudden sound of rain, exploding on the windshield, a cacophony of grey patters. I reached for the hand near me – belonging to one of my dearest friends this summer – and thought to myself that I really would miss this city.
Before arriving, I had been well prepared for what to expect of Hong Kong. On the glamourous side were images of highways littered with streetlamps, subways crowded with human bodies, and a skyline, stretching along Victoria Harbour, of metallic buildings laced with neon. Culturally, I was told, there were temples, art galleries, and traditional roadside stores with their sagging green awnings, lines for good food extending beyond storefronts and onto the walkways.
“You’d better eat a snake or something cool like that,” one of my friends said.
By the end of my two months in Hong Kong, I had little chance to get to know any of these popular images. Yet, the missing continued. Hong Kong to me had become more than a tourist hub of glitz, glamour, and history. Eight weeks had tied me to a little school on top of a hill, where we had all created a home.
Every summer, Hong Kong Island is home to a program run by Summerbridge. Established in 1992, the non-profit organization adds to its year-long bevy of English language programs with a special summer day camp, forming an English immersion environment for motivated, underprivileged, students in Hong Kong.
I had applied some six months before the summer began, believing Summerbridge to be an ordinary English-teaching program. The kids would probably treat the program like a regular class, I thought, where learning would be a necessary chore stemming from the need to master English. I, on the other hand, would play the part of the concerned but mandatorily distant teacher, sweeping into class, teaching what I had planned, and sweeping back out again. In conjunction with this first impression, I imagined my weekends filled with sightseeing, food tourism and the occasional thumb-twiddling.
Reality crashed down hard in the form of 60-hour work weeks. To arrive punctually from the middle-of-nowhere village I was boarding in, I had to wake up, with bags under my eyes, at 5:30 am. Before dashing off through a series of minibuses, subway systems and chartered coaches, I had to have consumed a good breakfast and enough caffeine to get me through the day, days which sometimes extended late into the night, filled with lesson planning and meetings. I still remember being in a Department Head meeting on the bus home, in the middle of a Red Rain Alert thunderstorm – an alert in which all people were ordered by the government to head home. Rain lashed at the windows and wind howled. We camped on the bus and later, in a café, we planned on until 9 pm.
Long hours aside, not everything we did could be considered typically pleasant. Some days we recited our lessons to the students till we were hoarse. Other days I had to endure a litany of Taylor Swift medleys, in remix, rewritten, and harmonised forms. Yet, little of my long work week actually felt exhausting; I was physically tired by the fifth week, but I never wanted to stop trying.
This feeling of effortless determination characterised my summer. There would be days when I would lounge around in the staff room, stuffing my face with a variety of Hong Kong snacks, unwilling to move. As soon as somebody reminded me of the arriving students, however, my muscles would begin to do a little twitchy dance of excitement. Actually seeing the crowds of teenagers flooding into school, togged out in neon-colored spandex – the summer trend – made us teachers all perk up. The students’ presence made being energetic an inevitability, a prerequisite to an effective day.
How teachers could become so attached to the program remains a bit of a mystery. One staff member would say, “It’s the magic of the Summerbridge spirit!”
I cannot dismiss this somewhat vague, overly zesty term, which even cynics in the program had begun using toward the end. Spirit aside, I noted much about Summerbridge that made me believe in its legitimacy and influence – namely, its sustainability and efficacy.
Summerbridge’s motto of “students teaching students” rang true. From situations in the classroom, where students were encouraged to help one another with work, to those that spanned years, with students coming back to eventually become volunteer teachers. Shirley Man, executive director of the program, mentioned that a student had even come back once to be co-director of the summer camp, an impressive feat considering how nervous and shy many were in their first week.
In my experience at Summerbridge, I came to know a teacher who had risen through the ranks of the Summerbridge program over seven years. He had entered the program in 2004 as a 15-year old, graduated from it at 16, in the next two years went on to become an Office Assistant (OA) and a Future Teacher (FT, or a teaching assistant). He then co-taught a class before teaching his own in Health and Nutrition during the course of this summer.
While a student rising to become co-director may have been quite the anomaly, as was the teacher who had spent seven years in the Summerbridge system, these two examples reflect students’ desire to give back to the Summerbridge community. At the end of the program, I felt overwhelmed by the numbers of the graduating students who longed to come back as OAs and FTs.
“Come back and see me!” one of my students said. “I’ll still be at Summerbridge.”
Summerbridge had brought them a different, more creative, and freer way of learning in an otherwise examination-oriented Hong Kong system. As someone who had also grown up in a highly structured examination-oriented system, I viewed my students with a mixture of both envy and pride. Envy that they had had this opportunity. Pride that they had done so well in taking advantage of it.
We talked about our experiences in the few days after the kids left. I would say an overwhelming majority loved the program and missed the students. A trend in our reflections further developed the way I thought about the program. In articulating what we had given to and received from Summerbridge, many mentioned that they had put in very little compared to what they had received. The summer was, as they had expressed, more fulfilling than they had imagined it would be.
Something about the mathematics of this just didn’t add up. Ten people cannot each put in a dollar and end up with more than ten dollars. Somewhere, somehow, the effort we had each put in had magnified itself into an enormous globule of happiness. This summer was filled with seemingly small actions going a long way, individual people coming together to make an enormous change. I came out of the summer knowing that I had, selfishly, learned so much and, less selfishly, helped empower kids with the odds stacked against them. Every second spent at Summerbridge became more than a little precious.
As I told Shirley on the very last day, what made Summerbridge special was working all those hours and loving each moment, even the tough and frustrating ones. We all choose, in our own ways, how to spend our time. Even if it is something we believed we “must” accomplish, we had chosen to give in to that supposed obligation. I happened upon Summerbridge quite by chance, and chose to give it everything I could during my last summer before graduation. It paid off, and quite handsomely, in the most intangible of ways. Ten years from now, I said, as I put in my foreseeable work hours into some unforeseeable job, I would know if I was in the right place if I felt the way I did during this summer: full of effortless determination.
So in the end, this is Hong Kong for me: the smell of the cool morning air that conceals the upcoming heat of the day. Napping on the way to work, my head snuggled in a nearby lap. The smell of exhaust as I cozy up to the side of a thirty-foot bus, shouting and greeting my students. Singing chants about peeling bananas. Climbing five flights of stairs, multiple times each day, from staff room to classroom and back again. Laughter at skits put on by students, their brows furrowed in concentration. Mailboxes overflowing with students’ letters. Tickles and counter-tickles. And at the end of the day, chasing the departing buses down the black tar road, tripping on sidewalks, the students’ faces pressed to the back windows, waving goodbye.
So much for highways, skylines, and eating snakes. I liked my Hong Kong a lot better.
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