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Making a difference

Updated: 2013-05-03 10:15
By Meng Jing ( China Daily)

Making a difference

William Oduor Owino says before coming to Beijing in September last year, he vowed to become the "Kenyan student ambassador to China". Provided to China Daily

When Liu Yanling met William Oduor Owino, the two were drawn together by an interest in each other's culture and a desire to contribute to society

Liu Yanling has harbored a dream ever since setting up an airplane ticket sales business with her husband on the grounds of Beijing's prestigious Peking University.

A middle-school dropout from a small town in Central China, Liu has watched students pass through her office and hoped that some day she could invite a few to her home town to teach there.

But the 33-year-old, from Dawu county in Hubei province, never expected the first student would be from Africa.

During the university's winter break in January and February, Liu's friend, William Oduor Owino, a Kenyan government official who studies at the School of Government at Peking University, volunteered to teach English to students at Dawu No 1 Middle School.

The positive response Owino received from the students and management of the school has prompted Liu to make it a long-term project, investing around 100,000 yuan ($16,220; 12,400 euros) to refurbish her three-bedroom apartment in Dawu, with the aim of making it a base for more Peking University students to teach from.

On the surface, Liu has nothing in common with 37-year-old Owino, an administrative officer from Mombasa, the second largest city in Kenya. But a passion to interact with people from different cultural backgrounds and contribute to society brought them together.

Owino, who received a Chinese government scholarship to study at Peking University, says before coming to Beijing in September last year, he vowed to become the "Kenyan student ambassador to China".

"My idea is to make as many Chinese friends as possible, not only to let them understand my culture better, but also for me to understand China better," says Owino, who admits that he knew very little about China before arriving.

The way he chose to do this was through teaching English, partly because he speaks almost no Chinese and partly because he wants to make a contribution to China.

"The tuition fees of the school and the money I spend living in China are all covered by the Chinese government. I have no idea how much it is but English skills are my strength here and I want to be useful and make my contribution to China," he says.

Though he can only communicate with most Chinese through body language, Owino manages to teach basic English to administrative staff at the School of Government, and also to retailers and shop owners at Zhengda International Center, a hotel in Peking University, where Owino lives as an international student.

It was through teaching English that he met Liu. "Every time when he passed our ticket office at Zhengda International Center, he greeted me by saying 'ni hao'. I got the impression that he must be a very nice guy," says Liu, who has been selling train and airplane tickets at the university since 1999.

"So when I have some questions about English, I turn to him for help. We have become each other's teachers since October last year," adds Liu, who wanted to learn English so she could speak with international students.

For Owino, their friendship was an opportunity to learn some Mandarin and about Chinese culture through their conversations both face-to-face and online.

"We are very curious about each other's cultures. So when the winter vacation came, my family decided to bring him to our hometown to show him another part of China," Liu says.

When Owino arrived in Dawu, a county near Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, he made quite a splash simply by showing up. "People there seldom have the chance to meet foreigners and I'm probably the first African there. So when I said ni hao to them, they were so shocked and some of them immediately ran away," Owino says with a laugh.

But when he arrived at the entrance of Dawu No 1 Middle School, he was quickly surrounded by curious students who were eager to talk to him. His charming personality got him invited to teach English at the school, where students rarely have an opportunity to practice with a native English speaker.

"The school arranged 19 classes for me to teach, each lasted about 40 minutes. But I only had the chance to finish 17 of them, because the school closed for China's Spring Festival," says Owino.

Liu adds: "The children there just loved him, because he is so different from the other teachers. He practiced oral English with them and he taught them by playing with them. Many students cried when he left."

It was at this point that Liu made up her mind to set up a permanent base so that students in Dawu could have a place to communicate with Owino or other international students willing to go there to teach.

Liu has equipped her 140-square-meter apartment with chairs, desks and projectors. During the recent three-day May Day holiday, Owino and eight other students from Japan, Thailand and South Korea, who Liu met while selling tickets, traveled to Dawu to meet and teach students there.

"I want to make it a sustainable project. As a middle-school dropout myself, I truly understand the importance of education, and I think children in the small county of Dawu deserve as good education opportunities as children in big cities in China," Liu says.

She is considering seeking sponsorship from companies in Dawu to cover the travel and living costs of international students. But for her, to make it a sustainable project not only requires money, but also the help of warmhearted international students like Owino.

At the end of his one-year program on public policy, Owino will leave China and return home to his career as a district officer.

"Liu and her husband offered me a job to stay here teaching in Dawu. I politely turned them down because it would be difficult to move my entire family to China," says Owino, who nevertheless plans to return to China to teach during his vacations.

"My course will end in July but my mission of interacting with Chinese people is far from ending and can never be ended."


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