Betsy Harvin could have vacationed in Hawaii.
Instead, this week will find the Morristown mom and nine hand-picked young companions in a remote Chinese village.
For the next month, they will engage in “Go Fish Diplomacy,” using playing cards and props ranging from foam baseball bats and footballs to ukuleles to teach basic English to the populace. That’s the morning itinerary; the teaching is supposed to work in reverse during the afternoons.
“I like spare capacity plays. I’m entrepreneurial. I like frontiers. I saw an opportunity,” Betsy said on the eve of the group’s departure.
She has time, a good grasp of Chinese from years spent working there and in Taiwan, and a desire to spread grassroots goodwill. She hopes the notion catches on.
“The idea is the simple part. Why not do this across the world?” Betsy says on her website, Teaching English Through Play.
For most of the trip, her group will be based in Tangkou, a village in Anhui province that is about a five-hour drive from Shanghai. Its claim to fame: Being the southern portal to Huangshan Mountain, a tourist wonder sometimes compared to Yosemite.
Betsy’s team is looking forward to experiencing that. But members sounded just as enthused by the prospect of living amongst the Chinese people.
“I wanted to travel outside America,” said Caleb Septoff, who will be a sophomore at Morristown High this fall. “I went to Mexico at a resort once. I want to see the actual culture.”
Betsy’s son, Jake Anderson, who will be a senior at Brewster Academy in New Hampshire, will be visiting China for the third time. Betsy’s nieces, Eva and Sylvia Harvin of Illinois are seasoned travelers who have been to India and Europe, among other places.
Virginia Rodgers is a family friend who teachers first graders in Virginia; she has backpacked through South America and taught English in Ecuador. Maddie and Marybrett Campbell, also family friends, are on board. Rounding out the group: Will Hall, a 2010 Morristown High School graduate, and Richard Davisson, a rising senior at Randolph High.
“They were all chosen for their resilience and good humor,” said Betsy, who is underwriting the expedition.
Fostering good international relations is especially important now, she said, acknowledging high friction between China and the U.S. because of a Chinese dispute with Japan over the Senkaku Islands. President Obama has vowed to honor America’s defense treaty with Japan if hostilities break out.
Betsy discounts most of the saber-rattling, which is good enough for her charges.
“I have a lot of faith in my aunt. She’d be sure we’re not making any bad decisions,” said Sylvia, an eighth-grader.
The new teammates got acquainted around Betsy’s kitchen table, strumming ukuleles and learning folk songs such as Won’t You Come On In, and its Chinese equivalent. Music will be one of their teaching tools.
Betsy, a minister’s daughter, briefly taught English in China after college. Theodore White’s book,
Thunder Out of China, In Search of History, captivated her.
In the 1980s, she ran a business selling silk boxer shorts; it meant dealing with China’s silk trade.
“I studied Chinese in college, and it didn’t do me a damned bit of good,” said Betsy, who learned the language through immersion. Seeds for this trip were sown during a China visit last year. She brought a deck of cards and taught “Go Fish” to anybody who was interested.
“I spoke only simple English while I taught the game, and we only spoke in English while we played,” Betsy says on her website.
“Around that simple game, simple conversations started. When I played with the same students a few days in a row, their English improved dramatically day to day. I used a simple ball to teach Spud to a few groups of Chinese children, and again, we only spoke simple English.
“We laughed, we played, I acted out the simple instructions while I said them, and the Chinese children eventually started speaking back to me in English. Imagine what would happen if these people got to play for an hour or so daily for a few weeks with native speakers of English? Off to Tangkou we go for three weeks to play and find out.”