• Katie Trojak

Why I was in China for two months

Even as little as a year before I made my journey to China, I didn’t think I would be getting there so soon. Of course I wanted to visit, but China was a far off dream, one that I would get to when I was older and a more experienced traveler.

But the lure of earning a TEFL certification while staying in China was too much for me to resist. It was publicized at my school’s freshers fair, where clubs and activities are advertised to incoming students. I didn’t talk to the representative while there, but I took note of the name and researched it when I got home.

The company was called Gotoco and focused on sending students to China. It advertised teaching English in China and earning a Teaching English as a Foreign Language certification. There was very little information online, but I was entranced.

The stage at Camp Greenwoods just outside of Shanghai, where I spent my summer

I quickly signed myself up and dragged my friend into coming with me. Suddenly, my summer plans entailed traveling farther away from home than I had ever been.

My main complaint with Gotoco was that they didn’t give us lots of information as we went along. I didn’t have a lot of support in getting my Chinese visa, it seemed late that I got my assignment and was switched last minute, and I really didn’t know what I was going to do in China.

What I did know was that I was assigned to an English speaking summer camp for young children in China. I was originally assigned to Hangzhuo but was switched to Shanghai two weeks before I was set to arrive.

One of my closest friends at the camp and I posing with my girls from that week

As I boarded my flights, 4 over the course of 36 hours, I had no idea what was waiting for me on the other side.

It ended up being one of the best experiences of my life.

Styled as an American summer camp, Camp Greenwoods was a place that Chinese children, mostly from around Shanghai, ages roughly 9-13 (but really 7-15) could grow, learn teamwork, and try new things.

The entire camp at Color Run!

I always thought that describing summer camp as a place where children could really learn about themselves was cliche but in watching the kids go from day 1 to day 7, I could see how much they actually did grow. They came out of their shells, gained confidence in things they never thought they could do, and went from saying maybe five words to me to having full conversations about their days.

I worked as a camp counselor which meant that every week I got a new bunk full of kids. I was paired with one or two other girl counselors who would help me manage the kids and take them from activity to activity.

The friend that came to China with me getting his face painted with random colors by a few kids that already arrived while painting my face with flowers as we wait for more kids to arrive

We did everything together, from waking up in the morning to meals to winding down at night.

Besides watching over the kids and supervising activities, I also taught. In the mornings I would generally be teaching music inside or kayaking on the lake. Two activities on opposite sides of the spectrum, I know, but it was what I was good at and where they needed me.

I have about a hundred stories from the summer, hilarious, sad, happy. I’ll just mention a few that come immediately to mind.

My first week of kids and my co-counselors cheering when our bunk name, Iron Man, was called

My first week of kids were about as perfect as I could have ever wished. I knew I wouldn’t have a group as good as them, though my last group was close. They were so supportive of each other, my co-counselors and I loved them and they loved us, and they were so sweet and lovely. I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.

Also my first week of camp, the theme was Marvel. I worked on the skits for that week and with my short, blonde hair, I played Captain Marvel. The outfit was a bit iffy, but every time a cheer went up as we beat the villains made it worth it. And as the kids started to connect that it was really me, I would tell them that they had to keep the secret.

My friend to played Spiderman that week, which he was not too happy with, but Spiderman is a huge phenomenon in China, so I made him. The kids loved him so much that I know he had a fun time it.

Acting as Captain Marvel with my friends playing Thor, Black Panther, and Spiderman

When my last week began, the girls were all so quiet. The first few hours were a struggle, getting them to respond to my questions. And they didn’t know English very well. Most kids at the camp spoke a lot of English, some were fluent, and some really struggled but improved over the week.

I decided that I would make up for the communication barrier by adding so much pep they couldn’t help but be excited for activities.

And it worked! They responded so well and by the third day they would cheer and talk to each other and interact with us. Turns out they knew English a lot better than I thought, they were just too shy to use it.

Watching that transformation proved to me that what we were doing was small, but so so important. It was amazing.

Watching some of the kids really catch on to what we were teaching, like swimming, was so rewarding

I also taught swimming, since in teaching kayaking I ended up on the water team, and my last week there were three girls who didn’t know how to swim at all. I usually taught the girls that struggled a bit anyways, but we had never had any kids who didn’t know how to at all.

To make it harder, they didn’t speak any English.

But every day, they showed up and worked so hard to listen to my instruction on how to swim. And they really improved. Even though we didn’t speak any of the same language, I would show them how to do things and they would follow. The four of us became so close that week, they would run up to me even when it wasn’t swim time. They were unbelievably adorable.

One of them would even cling to my arm as we walked to and from swimming every day. She cried when she had to leave camp.

My girls and co-counselors inside the bunks where we lived

In what I think was my second week, there was this one amazing girl and we became fast friends. It all started with her asking if I believed in fairies and my response of “absolutely” to send us into talking during every walk to and from the dining hall. She talked about her story ideas and the way that she saw the world.

Even if you didn’t believe in magic, you would’ve seen the world in a more wonderful way after talking to that girl.

There are some kids that you never forget, and she is one of them. I won’t be surprised if she ends up being a bestselling novelist someday or something else spectacular.

Teaching music was another wonderful time. I had never taught music before but quickly fell into a routine of curriculum. I taught them lyrics to songs, hand signs to do-re-mi, the length of notes. I knew that girls usually liked filling in the numbers under notes to show their time value whereas boys really connected with it better when you just let them pad it out on the drums.

One of my favorite photos from the summer, me teaching music

During one lesson, I realized that the kids already knew what I was talking about since they all knew piano, so we joked around with some of the notes and got into harder material.

Before I knew it, I was explaining 256th notes! And they were understanding!

My fourth week of girls, the youngest girls, were the hardest to take care of. One night, it took 90 minutes of me standing next to one of them to get her to shower. At the same time, another girl, our youngest, was sobbing in a corner because she missed her mom.

Towards the end of that week, those two girls became really good friends and made each other behave worse. When they wouldn’t go on the sidewalk, I had them stop to wait for one of the directors to come speak to them in Chinese. They held hands, one whispered something in the other’s ear, they giggled, then sprinted off in opposite directions into the (calm, there were no cars in sight) street.

Teaching the children to kayak was always a bit insane, but when some of them found that they really loved it, everything was worth it

That was one of the only times I used my harsh teacher voice all summer. Thank heavens it worked and they came right back to me.

Also that week, my co-counselor assigned to kayaking with me was out on the water and I was by the dock when I called out to him, thinking that I saw a kayak passed the roped off area. He paddled over to help the girls out, and when he turned around, he saw that two more girls had followed him out to the restricted area!

Kayaking was always a bit of a panic, from loading and unloading the girls to racing around the river on our own kayaks trying to guide the kids into going forwards and backwards without tipping over, all in an hour and a half.

Maybe my absolute favorite photo of me from the summer, taking a moment to breathe on the lake while teaching kayaking

That week tried my patience a lot, but even the hard times had their wonderful moments. That same week was the one where I learned my colors in Mandarin. Though I know my pronunciations were terrible, the girls laughing around the campfire is something I’ll never forget.

Sitting around that campfire was where I made a lot of the best memories from the summer. My first week, one of the older girls that I had struggled to connect with talked about how much she had enjoyed the week. She complimented each of her counselors, ending with me. In her broken English, she called me “perfect”. I nearly cried right there.

My three Chinese co-counselors and I on Friday night, dressed up for Banquet Night

I tried to make a campfire speech every week, to let the girls know how much they meant to me and how much I would miss them. It was always so sad on Sunday morning to see them leave.

My last campfire speech was the most meaningful, of course. It was my chance to say goodbye to all the amazing friends I had made. The counselors at that camp were like no other people I had ever met and I couldn’t believe how close we had all become.

We were there for each other when things were challenging but also when they ran smoothly and were so much fun. We hung out together on our off hours and nights. We helped each other run events and respond to issues.

We became a tight knit family and well oiled machine.

I really loved those guys. I really loved Shanghai. I really loved that camp.

My co-counselor friends and I headed into Shanghai for a day off

At the end of every campfire, we sang the Camp Greenwoods song and had a candle lighting ceremony. Every camper received a candle and one after another, they were all lit.

One of the directors would then talk about how the fire we all created that week burned brightest when we worked together. How we would never have all these same people together again, but how we would all carry that fire inside us.

And then when we were ready, we blew them out.

A quiet moment at the candle ceremony at closing campfire

The candle of my 2019 summer at Camp Greenwoods might have been extinguished, but the amazing directors were right, I’ll carry it in my heart. I made unforgettable memories and learn some unforgettable lessons. And who knows, I might go back next summer.

Make sure to subscribe or like the “American in London” page on Facebook so you can be updated when I write more about my time in China! I’m planning on writing more about teaching in China, different cities I went to, Shanghai, and other crazy stories I have. I spent 5 weeks at Camp Greenwoods, then 3 weeks traveling after, which I'll be posting about soon.

Hopefully this clears up the question of why I was in China this summer, but if you have any other questions feel free to shoot them my way!

Every welcome morning I would have flowers painted on my face, it became something I looked forward to every week


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