Teacher finds satisfaction in Chinese town

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Don't be embarrassed if you've never heard of Kashgar. Twenty-three year-old Amanda Gatewood never had until she signed up to teach English there last year.

I caught up with Gatewood between her part-time jobs at a bookstore and a restaurant in Lexington while she is home for two months before her next assignment on the far side of the world.

She told of being led into a class of 80 students two days after arriving in the remote western China province of Xinjiang. Kashgar, which is near the borders of Kyrgyszstan, Tajikistan and Afghanistan, was a hub of the ancient Silk Road trade route.

Gatewood grew up in the Fern Creek neighborhood of Louisville and graduated from Mercy Academy and the University of Kentucky. She shocked her parents last year by signing up with a non-government organization to work seven months as an English teacher in the city, which seemed to her about the size of Lexington.

"You're always worried about your kids, but she does have a plan," said Gatewood's father, Phil Gatewood, a teacher in Jefferson County. "And for someone to be that independent, you've got to feel good about it."

As an English tutor in Refugee Ministries while at UK, Amanda Gatewood had become fascinated with foreign cultures and religions. She'd had some Chinese language training, but not nearly enough. Suddenly, her Chinese middle school and high school students, who had been studying English since fifth grade, were teaching Chinese to their English teacher.

"Kashgar is half-Uyghur -- Muslim minority people who look more Afghan than Chinese -- and it is half-Chinese," Gatewood said. "The Chinese began pouring into Kashgar after a rail line was built. Ethnic tensions are high in the region."

In the streets there were more donkeys pulling carts than there were cars. Butchers slaughtered sheep on the streets, and merchants offered their goods on every corner.

There were too many people and too few jobs. The mosques were crumbling, and earthen homes leaned uncertainly. But Gatewood found the place beautiful.

"My students had huge vocabularies but poor pronunciation," she said. "They also had trouble listening and speaking, since they had no one to practice with. I've never had a job that was more high energy, more punishing, and had more at stake than teaching 80 Chinese kids to put their tongues between their teeth and go, 'thhhh.' "

There always were a few students whose desire to learn motivated Gatewood to worker harder. When she announced that her time was up and that she would be leaving, many of her seventh-graders cried, and the older students -- knowing Gatewood's love of basketball -- brought her a basketball they all had signed. Two of her classes surprised her with songs sung to her in English.

"When I first went there, they said, 'Everyone in America is rich.' At first I kind of argued that, 'Well, no, not everyone in America is rich,' " said Gatewood. "But by the end -- when I looked at our living standards and our opportunities and choices that we're allowed to make -- I think I could understand that we really are rich."

Gatewood has applied for a public health graduate program and plans to leave again in November to work in Cambodia, helping to teach villagers to build water filters and use other environmental and sanitation practices.

Reach Byron Crawford at (502) 582-4791 or bcrawford@courier-journal.com. Comment on this column, and read previous columns, at www.courier-journal.com/byron.