Making the Case for Peace Corps China

White mists thicker than wool cloaks blanketed the river valley where the Wu met the Yangtze, as groups of young women congregated of a morning behind fixed rickety desks in folding chairs, kneading their exposed fingers for warmth in the unheated classroom.

These were the daughters of farmers, of laborers, of the men and women who toiled with their hands, whose bodies told the stories of their professions – shoulders bowed from heavy yoke or fingers callused from scythe and sickle. Their parents worked in the city, or the terraced acreage climbing the mountains just beyond the university gates, or perhaps in a province hours away by rocky bus ride. Nowhere was easy to access, as rural as we were. And these daughters, with the occasional son hidden in the back of the room, were the sum total of their parents’ hopes and aspirations – each family was allowed to bear only one child.

This was my China.

I travelled to China in 2004 as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer. My primary project was teaching English at a teachers’ college in a rural area in the heart of the country. Rural was much larger there than it is to me now, but in a country of over 1.3 billion people, that’s to be expected. This was no Beijing, no thriving east coast city. I worked with over 1,200 students in my two years, teaching not only English, but also educational methodology classes, that is, teaching teachers how to teach. Our students worked hard to develop the tools that would allow them to obtain jobs teaching, often in even more remote areas, and ensure that the work of Peace Corps was spread far beyond each volunteer.

In the summers, we organized trainings for middle school teachers from surrounding rural areas, offering English and education classes which were eagerly attended. This is how you spread a small number of resources over a large area and empower those in need, while establishing real cross-cultural exchange in the process.

Representative Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, doesn’t understand this. He made an attack on Peace Corps China that appeared in Friday’s Denver Post: “Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman wants Peace Corps out of China.” In this article, Rep. Coffman expresses “shock” at seeing volunteers teaching in universities and demands that Peace Corps China be immediately suspended, as a symbol of poor usage of tax funds.

I hope very much that Rep. Coffman is misunderstanding and not using the Peace Corps as a political soapbox.

It is true that Peace Corps China is not the conventional Peace Corps assignment of digging ditches and building latrines, and teaching children in villages of 150 people. This model is not feasible in China. Nor could Peace Corps insist on it, since the first goal of Peace Corps is to help interested countries meet their needs for training. It would be alarmingly arrogant to assume to set those needs ourselves. We teach the teachers who return to rural areas and teach, and our lessons are passed on ad infinitum. In addition, we maintain peace and build stronger friendships between undeniably important nations. These ties will only grow more vital as we move forward into a global community.

And Rep. Coffman said himself that we did it for a “small amount of money,” quoting a representation in China of 0.5% of the total Peace Corps budget of $2.9 million.

The cost of Peace Corps China is small, the benefit to the U.S. is significant and the positive impact on rural China is immense.

This is a time for increased understanding, and I hope that those considering the Peace Corps and its funding will take the time to weigh the small costs of an effective program versus the potentially painful consequences of making insignificant cuts.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Justin
    Sep 04, 2011 @ 21:51:41

    I had the pleasure of working one summer with Nicole as a peace corps volunteer. I now work as a diplomat in China. I can’t imagine a better program than the peace corps to encourage friendship and promote better relations between the US and China. In fact, the Chinese government has begun sending Chinese teachers in a very similar capacity to teach Chinese in the U.S. Almost all of my former students are now teachers in the countryside in China, but one of my very best was chosen by the Chinese government to teach in America and started teaching just this week at a school in Colorado. Like peace corps volunteers, she will return to her country after two years where she will continue teaching and promoting good relations between our two countries. Like Peace Corps volunteers, she is devoting two years of her life for true people to people diplomacy in a grassroots manner and at a cost that could never be done through traditional diplomacy, and in a way that greatly serves traditional diplomacy.


  2. rsmurray
    Sep 12, 2011 @ 03:56:33

    This is a great description of PC in China. I’m a China 16, teaching in Guizhou now. Many of my students are like yours—from small villages, children of laborers. I hope we are serving them well! Thanks for your post.


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