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Columbus Man Spreads Knowledge, Goodwill in Remote China

More and more Americans are traveling to China these days. Investors see an infinite market and a land of cheap labor. Tourists are drawn to its ancient wonders. One Ohioan, however, trekked to a place no American had ever been. The classroom is not air-conditioned. Only one ceiling fan slowly stirs the air. The teacher and three dozen students are bouncing and running around.

Their faces are dripping with sweat.

It's in a rural village called Guozhuang in Shandong province. About a hundred families, mostly peasants, live here. The village can be reached by a five hour train ride from Beijing followed by an hour on a bus. The teacher, twenty six year old Mike Hemmerly, traveled all the way from Columbus, Ohio.

The dark-haired Caucasian graduated from Ohio State University two years ago. Before arriving in China, he worked for Columbus Christian Assembly. As an atheist turned devout Christian, he also wants to find out if Christianity can spread in rural China.

But his current mission has nothing to do with religion. He came as one of seven volunteers from the Rural China Education Foundation, a US based NGO.

They are in a two week pilot program developing methods to improve education in rural China. Hemmerly's English teaching approach involves barking, meowing and chirping. It impressed Du Shaolin, a local English teacher.

"He can apply all his body and mind to teach the students. It's so great that he's able to mobilize students by jumping and moving with them. I don't think I am able to do that", said Du Shaolin.

Du said as a teacher, he's struggling to understand the government's English textbooks, let alone organizing games like Hemmerly does.

Yet, Hemmerly had his own challenge. Most Chinese students are trained to sit still and keep quiet in classes. So when an American teacher pranced like a horse or twisted his body to imitate a snake, the kids stared at him curiously. But they were not willing to follow. Hemmerly had to assure them it's ok to play.

"I was able to smile a lot. I would go up and I would patch them on the back or reward them by saying "you are doing a very good job. Do you know that?" And they are more eager to jump all over you and joke around and stuff," said Hemmerly.

And they ARE all over him, literally.

"When I am not looking, they are always kind of feeling my face or rubbing my hair or spanking my butt and running away," Hemmerly said.

The students all love their Mr. Mike, and each has a different reason. Most say, "He's cute."

After two weeks of classes, the kids were eager to showcase what they learned from their foreign teacher.

Hemmerly admits that the song was all he could teach during his short stay at Guozhuang. Even so, the presence of an American brought excitement to the entire village. Sixty-year-old Li Wujian grinned broadly at the mentioning of Mr. Mike.

"The key is he doesn't charge anything. Mike could have charged fifty to a hundred Kuai a class in the city. Rural kids would not have enjoyed this opportunity without him coming here," said Li.

On Hemmerly's last day in Guozhuang, the villagers gave him a notebook as a farewell gift. On the first page, they wrote: "Guozhuang is forever your home." Hemmerly promised to come back to teach English for a longer term once he finds the opportunity. But for now, he is heading for the bustling city of Shanghai, where he hopes to find students as open to his special way of teaching English.