An American Teacher Chases Her Dream in Yunnan

By : InKunming | Published: 2019-02-13

[InKunming--Interviews & Polls“How can I be the king of the world?” A warm and clear voice came from the Mingde Building of Yunnan Normal University. The hallway on the first floor was dimly lit, but the room at the end was bright. Many different kinds of English books were placed neatly on the four bookshelves in the room. More than twenty students, each with an English novel in hand, were listening intently to Joan. This is Joan’s Reading Room.

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Joan is reading an English book to her students. SU WENQIAN/InKunming

Joan Boulerice, who comes from the United States, was reading chapter 11 of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane to her students. The 64 -year-old foreign teacher, with silvery hair and dark eyes, always wears a gentle smile. When she stands in front of the blackboard, she likes discussing the plot of various books with students and talking about her life, especially her lovely cat.

“I have dreams and lots of them.” Joan made a cup of coffee and said, “I dream of driving a van full of books into the remote areas so that children can borrow books that they could never afford to buy. I dream of students realizing the life-changing value of a good book.”

“For 23 years, I never lost the hope of being able to teach in Yunnan” 

Time rewinds to 36 years ago.

Joan got to know about Yunnan the first time from books. These inspired her to come and work in China. It became her dream to be an English teacher in Yunnan. In 1982, Joan studied Mandarin at the Minzu University of China. Three years later, she began teaching at Northeast Agricultural University. Although the living conditions were not good at that time, she insisted on staying in China.

She lived and taught in various provinces and cities, such as Hunan, Ningxia, Shaanxi and Beijing. “For 23 years, I lived and taught in various provinces and cities in China. All that time, I never lost the hope of being able to teach in Yunnan.” She said.

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Joan is giving a lecture. SU WENQIAN/InKunming

Joan realized that there was something missing in the English education of Chinese universities. College students usually gave up when they were confronted with classical literature and preferred reading Chinese translations of these books. Students didn’t have the opportunity to read books at their actual reading level. They could not be helped with their English reading ability, so Joan began to build small libraries or reading rooms at schools.

Joan could not tell the exact amount of money that she spent on books. When various teaching textbooks fill university libraries and many kinds of e-book readers try to replace printed books, Joan is still an advocate of original English books. She is a frequent customer of library sales in the US, always looking for more books at affordable prices.

Schools sometimes offered small classrooms to be used for the library. Joan selected books with varying level of difficulty to ensure that each student’s reading level was taken care of. If there were no room available, Joan would place bookshelves in her apartment and keep them open to students once a week.

Eventually, Joan was hired by Yunnan Normal University (YNU). “No one can imagine the joy I felt.” Joan said in an excited tone. She came to Kunming with 155 boxes of books and magazines, about 5,000 volumes in all. She finally realized the dream of working in Kunming and having a reading room at YNU.

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Joan’s Reading Room SU WENQIAN/InKunming

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Posters on the wall SU WENQIAN/InKunming

“I know the power of a teacher to see a student’s life changed for good” Joan always said, “I hope students can realize that they are unique.”

English posters and slogans are plastered all over Joan’s reading room. There are a few words for each student at the door: When you enter this library, you are scientists, you are authors, you are important...

The library circulation desk is on the left side of the room as you enter. Besides the four metal booksheves provided by the school, Joan purchased many wooden ones and placed them in the corners. Some tourist souvenirs, including bags and shoes with ethnic features, are placed on the bookshelves.

The most special thing is an American flag that is folded into a triangle. Each U.S. service member given such a flag upon their death, and Joan’s father was one of them, having served during the Second World War. She brought it from the United States to the reading room last year.

There is a saying behind the flag, “Life is a daring adventure.”

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Joan’s reading room SU WENQIAN/InKunming

Joan likes to go around with her camera, and often posts some photos on Wechat which were taken at Cuihu park and on the YNU campus. Once she gets some good photos, she can’t wait to go back the room and invite colleagues to enjoy them.

It gets dark quickly in winter. English class begins as the sun goes down. Students trickle into the room ten minutes before the class and take a book from the shelf. The Chinese traditional teacher-student relationship seems to be changed here with the addition of more freedom and equality.

Zhang Shuangyu is one of the few boys who major in English. Having had Joan’s class for two years, he felt that his English writing and oral skills have been greatly improved. “In Joan’s opinion, good grades are only a by-product of good English studying. She treats her students like own children, and often selflessly contributes her spare time to answer students’ questions.” Zhang said.

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Motto of week SU WENQIAN/InKunming

Joan writes this week’s motto on the blackboard, “Words are free. It’s how you use them that may cost you.” She teaches students a saying every week, and prints these words on a beautiful paper and hangs them on the left side of the door.

Students hold their hands high in order to borrow the books recommended by Joan. Joan notices that many students and teachers still choose doing practice exercises because of the pressure of the postgraduate entrance examination and CET-4 or CET-6. Reading English books is an underappreciated learning method at present.

“I see myself fading away, in front of the blackboard with a piece of chalk in my hand”

Joan’s reading room in YNU already has more than 13,000 books. Although the small space is limited, Joan still insists on buying books. In 2011, she bought all the books from a foreigner who had run a school in Kunming. The first thing she does after getting her monthly salary is to buy books on Amazon. Warm-hearted colleagues and friends also got involved in donating and mailing books. “What matters is how many students these books can help, not how much money we spent.” Joan said, word for word.

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There are many kinds of English books SU WENQIAN/InKunming

In 2013, a truck with over 1,700 English books drove into Huaning No.1 Middle School in Yuxi city. This signified that the first English library in a middle school was officially established. Students who were being exposed to the original English books for the first time shyly hid outside and looked through the door to see the foreign teacher.

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The students in Huaning No.1 Middle School are reading English books [Photo/ Joan]

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Interesting English books SU WENQIAN/InKunming

These carefully selected reading materials cover many subjects, such as astronomy, geography, history, science, etc., as well as many novels and encyclopedias with simple vocabularies but exquisite paintings. These cater to students with different English levels and interests. “Everyone should be able to find a book they can understand and have a comfortable reading environment.” Joan said. She bought cozy sofas and beautiful posters for the library at her own expense.

Joan stood in the corner and recorded every smiling face with her camera. She was drawing a map on which English libraries would be built, and her dream would come true as the map is completed in the future.

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Students in Huaning No.1 Middle School are interested in English books [Photo/Joan]

Unfortunately, many English books are not well used due to the pressure of curriculum and exams. Joan knows that promoting English reading has a long way to go, but no matter how hard it will be, she will insist on it as long as it is moving forward. She keeps buying books and getting more people involved in the project together.

Everything comes to him who waits. 500 books were donated to the Ethnic Boarding School in Lianghe county, Dehong prefecture. 60 students in Dali’s Jianchuan got an English book of their own. Chen Dongmei, a former student of Joan’s, promoted English reading during her classes in Luxi, which improved the whole class’ scores significantly.

In addition, Joan visited five students in Luxi to learn about the situation of their family and her assistant, Li Jingyuan, taught them to read English word by word. Rugged and muddy paths dirtied her shoes, but she had no complaint but enjoyed the scenery along the road. Beautiful countryside views were recorded by her camera, such as lush trees, willing ox, farmers and so on.

Although this teaching method still needs a long time to prove its value with results, Joan thinks it is worth it, because she loves students, loves teaching and loves Yunnan even more.

Joan particularly cherishes the embroidered apron given by a student. Every time she returned to the United States, she would buy many scarves with Yunnan characteristics and give them to friends. “She does not like being called ‘foreigner’ because she is already a Yunnan native in her mind,” said her friend Li Jingyuan.

In 2015, Joan won the Yunnan Friendship Award which is a special award set up by Yunnan provincial government to honor foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to Yunnan’s economic and social development. Joan gave a speech, “I am living a dream...My long-cherished hope is to continue teaching until I have run out of strength to continue. I see myself just fading away, in front of the blackboard with a piece of chalk in my hand.”

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Joan is giving a English writing class SU WENQIAN/InKunming

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Students are eager to borrow books SU WENQIAN/InKunming

Now, Joan still lives in the apartment provided by YNU, with no savings or car. She may return to the U.S. in a few years and still have to live in a rented house. However, she does not want to worry about the future. All she wants to do every day is expand the library, and increase the number of books, getting more students into the habit of reading.

Although the days in Yunnan are only a few years in Joan’s education career, they are the period that she is most concerned about. She is making her dream come true here, and is also helping many Yunnan students to realize their dreams.

On October 18, Li posted a moment on her WeChat, “we have been looking forward to this for a long time. Joan’s reading room can finally be expanded now! Many thanks!” In a video, Joan danced happily in the room with a bright smile on her face.

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(Editors: Christine,Rachel)


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