Special places . . . .
. . . . . are made by special people
Perhaps, soon, we will be able to travel again. When we do, it will be the people we meet that make a place special, according to Susan Bennett.
What makes a place special?
I am often asked to recommend travel locations, and this is always a challenge. What makes a visit to any location memorable? Is it the natural landscape, the historical architecture, the tantalising food, the high energy vibe, or something else? The answer is as varied and individual as every person that asks. But for me, when I recall a trip, a holiday, an adventure, the experiences are always resonant of the people I meet. The spontaneous alliances formed to navigate the challenges, the friendly locals proudly sharing their home or the prospect of friendships that entice me to return.
While working in Ningbo China, from 2006 – 2009, I accompanied a friend to the Jiangbei Catholic church and met Sister Mary. She was attached to the church and the order “Saviour of Souls”. This vibrant, forward thinking sister, worked tirelessly to help those in need, to empower young women in rural villages and to support followers within the boundaries of Chinese restriction. She had a vision for the sisters, which included helping them to learn English.
For me, this was the beginning of a wonderful relationship that developed over 3 years. Each week, the communal quarters in the church basement became our classroom. During winter, it was frigid and conversely in the summer, hot and humid. Going out into a cold winter Chinese night, was not for the faint hearted, but their delight and enjoyment with the sisters was my reward. They were so very shy, coming from distant villages to enter the convent. Confined within rigid Chinese restriction, I am sure, heightened their sense of isolation and being away from family was a significant element to endure in their chosen vocation.
Understandably, they were keen to learn, however, their educational experience did not prepare them in any way for our weekly English lesson. For the first few weeks, I think they were waiting for the ‘real lesson’ to start. There were no grammar exercises, recitation of prose, or spelling lists. Collaborative learning came from making shopping lists, preparing menus, making collages from magazines and spontaneous activities while sharing each other’s culture. Our differences and similarities inspired discussion, debating and acceptance. The bleak, chilly, winter basement warmed with conviviality, echoed with laughter, and encouraged fun with the English language.
One fond memory is the sisters’ response to my question at the beginning of each lesson. I would ask them to tell me about their week. The solidarity of their answer was consistent across the 3 years. “We prayed”. At first, I felt sad, believing that their vows and the National austerity prevented them from enjoying the pursuits of other young people. But as our relationship developed and my understanding increased, I was able to appreciate the meaning and depth of their response.
Sister Mary fostered a desire to continue her study and extend national boundaries and applied for a program in the United States of America. To study abroad required the acquisition of English at a level to pass the IELTS entrance requirements. Together we embarked on this journey of learning. For Mary it was the English language comprehension difficulties, and for me, the inflexible structure of formal English grammar tuition, necessary to pass the exams. Our relationship developed well beyond mentor and mentee. These sessions, sometimes long, somewhat challenging, but always culturally and personally enriching, cemented an enduring bond of friendship. Mary was a dedicated student and passed her entrance exam, relocated to the Minneapolis where she graduated in 2012.
Do visit Ningbo
Ningbo is an exciting city. It is “old-world” China sharing the same track as the fast-paced train of commerce. The city has an abundance of tourist sights to explore and is worthy of a travel recommendation. I could list, many “must see” attractions. But personally, Mary and the wonderful sisters at the Jiangbei Church, remain uppermost in my recollection of the Chinese experience.
Susan Bennett is an Australian who has worked in education across 8 countries in managerial, advisory and curriculum writing roles. Her interests include working with groups who share her values in social responsibility. She is passionate about travel and seeks out opportunities to broaden her understanding of cultures and sharing her adventures with others.
Support images kindly supplied by Susan