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Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Paul D. Coverdell World Wise Schools

Out With the Old, In With the New

Asia, China

China's rich history has collided with its rapid modernization to produce a unique blend of the old and new. Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Riley Graebner tells his story in this slide show.


Hi. This is Riley Graebner and that's me in 2002 with an 86-year-old shopkeeper who referred to me as her fourth child. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in China from August 2002 until April 2003, when we were all evacuated because of the SARS epidemic.

The first thing that strikes you in China is the vastness of the country. It's as big as the United States with more than four times the population. You're looking at rice patties outside the city of Kunming, a medium-sized city of almost 4 million people.

Life imitates propaganda. This piece of government art shows the relationship between propagandistic art and the people of China. One Chinese character is as big as a person.

There's a running joke among foreigners in China: When you walk into the airport there's a sign that says, "Welcome to China: Under Construction." It's quite true. In the eight months I was there, my college campus built this massive entrance circle and a new library. I'd find myself walking by sections of the campus and town thinking, "That building wasn't there last week!"

This is a group of middle school students being taught at Neijiang Teachers College over the summer. The gap between cities with a population over a million and under a million is felt quite prominently in the schools. Not only is this a brand new facility, but many of the students are wearing expensive clothing. This urban wealth often manifests itself in a learning discrepancy.

I taught groups of around 45 students at Xichang Teachers College. This is a typical classroom. No heating during the winter or air conditioning during the summer months. Desks were bolted to the floor. The students themselves were usually eager to have an American professor, but had a lot of trouble adjusting to western teaching methods, where they had to interact with the teacher and other students.

My fellow volunteers and I tried to get the students to enjoy learning English. This is a Christmas-time event where students taught other students carols in English.

The student-run English library was a space where students studying English could meet and help each other to learn the language or just relax. A large-scale project of mine was expanding and maintaining this library. Students in China are just learning the power of self-directed learning. I would hang out in the library, working with students and answering questions. The most common question I would get is: "How can I improve my English?" They never liked the answer, which was always, "Read."

Contradictions are something you learn to live with and enjoy in China. Dingy, hole-in-the-wall noodle shops sit underneath apartment complexes inhabited by comparatively wealthy university employees. I would walk around my college campus: five-story classroom buildings, apartment complexes, restaurants…and garbage disposal by ox cart.

China was a place where you could turn off a six-lane thoroughfare in the middle of a city of 10 million people and find yourself in a market. I made a promise to myself: Every trip to the market I would purchase a vegetable I had never seen before. This was the only way to buy meat. Have a piece lopped off, and pay by the half kilogram or jin, as it's called in Chinese.

Despite the modernization there are these charming pockets of old Chinese architecture. This street in Kunming has been rebuilt on the 19th century model, bookended by 9th century pagodas.

China is a land of contradictions: breathtaking in its modernity and stunning in its rich history. A Buddhist temple like this one would have a shooting gallery on its property. Universities throwing up one concrete block after another would make the central building on campus, like this one at Sichuan Normal University, an ode to the old style of Chinese architecture.

This is my best friend and Chinese tutor, Peng Tichun, with his wife and daughter. A man of compassion and intellect struggling to navigate the complexities of a modernizing China—not entirely divorced from the process of an entire nation. This is Riley Graebner for Peace Corps' World Wise Schools. 

About the Author

Riley Graebner

Riley Graebner served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in China from 2002 to 2003 then continued his service in Romania until 2005.