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Virginia Journal of Education


Study Abroad

A Chesterfield teacher explores the sights and schools of the Middle Kingdom

by Donald Wilms

“You might not meet up with anyone else until you get to Beijing,” said Alex, our Education First (EF) tour guide, during a trip orientation meeting. The travel arrangements EF had made took me to Newark, NJ, and then on an almost 14-hour flight to the Chinese capital. It was a daunting prospect: hours worrying about arriving alone in a foreign land, equipped with two phrases and not able read a lick of Mandarin! EF assured me, however, that someone would be there to meet me.

Last summer’s journey to China actually began in 2010. After receiving the VEA Award for Teaching Excellence (ATE), I was chosen as a semi-finalist for the NEA Foundation ATE, and shortly thereafter invited to join other state ATE winners on an educators’ tour of China. I said yes and that was it: I was going to the other side of Planet Earth.

So I found myself in Washington, D.C. last February, meeting with the 25 other state ATE winners who were making the trip. For a day and a half we absorbed a crash course on history, culture, economy—essentially everything Chinese that could fit into the schedule. I also took a three-week online course to prepare for the trip.

Back to meeting my colleagues in Beijing: As it turned out, all the East Coast ATE recipients, a few of the Midwest winners, and the NEA Foundation leaders were all flying with me from Newark. What a relief!

As I approached the window of the immigration official in Beijing, I became aware of how inadequate my Ni hao (hello) might be, but he smiled at me—my first Chinese experience was one of welcome. Beyond customs waited Alex, along with our representative from the Pearson Foundation, the major financial supporter of the trip. Here I was, in the Chinese capital.  This place was not different: I was.

So what does one do when one arrives in China? Eat, of course. Being a vegetarian and neither speaking nor reading the language, I was wary of my first dining experience. As it turned out, most of our meals were ordered by our Chinese guide, “Simon” (Chinese who speak English take an English name for those occasions when they get to practice their second language), and served family style. Not only was there plenty for me to eat, but everything was delicious. It was similar to Chinese food in America, only less greasy. Each meal began with jasmine tea and ended with…watermelon! (Who knew?) There were no separate courses. Soup was never brought first, and other than the watermelon, there was no dessert. Adjusting to unchilled water, soda, and beer was an easy task, especially when I learned that Tsingtao, the best Chinese beer, is about 70 cents American—for a liter.

On my first full day we visited a vocational school for students preparing to work in the tourism industry. While the building itself seemed a bit shabby, the students were great, coming out to greet us as soon as our bus pulled up. Shy at first, they soon relaxed, practiced their English on us, and tried to teach us a few Chinese words. After the kids were dismissed for recess, we spoke to the teachers. We had many questions and they were eager to oblige us. A small group of us gathered around an English teacher, who told us how much she loved working there, but since it was a private school and received no funding from the government, she was unsure how much longer it would remain open. When asked what type of student comes to her school, she answered frankly that these were the kids who did not do homework or study and couldn’t get into an academic high school. 

China has public education through grade 9; then students must take a test to get into a good academic senior school. The purpose there is to prepare to get into a good university. Not only do these schools compete for the best students, they also compete to get the most students into the best universities.

After leaving the school, we toured the Summer Palace. The architecture was stunning, and the tourist season was in full swing: the Chinese flock to the capital during the summer to see historic sites. At each location we got a guided tour and time to explore on our own. One of the interesting details of the Summer Palace is that the emperor kept a marble boat, built at the dock on his lake. It couldn’t float, nor could it be sunk (treachery was a concern).

After lunch we visited the Temple of Heaven. As marvelous as the ancient structures were, the best aspects of this day were the people. Earlier I listened to a man playing musical instruments—like someone in a metro station—and of course I slipped him a dollar. Now, as I walked through the park that separated the Temple of Heaven from the parking lot, I passed numerous groups of folks playing cards and checkers. It was here that I attempted my first bargaining. A woman wanted to sell me a fan for $5. She came down to $2, but I held out for $1.  I got it for $1, and my wife was most pleased with it.

We finished sightseeing for the day at Tiananmen Square. Unlike Times or Trafalgar Square, this place is enormous. Dominated by Chairman Mao’s tomb, it takes up several city blocks. The tomb itself, with the preserved leader inside, is as big as an auditorium, an interesting edifice for a communist. We didn’t go inside: the Chinese wait on line for over an hour for a five-minute viewing. Two enormous screens played patriotic propaganda for the edification of all. At the far end is the impressive picture of Mao that decks the main entrance to the Forbidden City, which was the next day’s destination.

The Forbidden City is almost too big to be appreciated. Some of the courtyards are so expansive that folks on the other end look like ants, but the living quarters of the emperor and his family are tightly grouped and interwoven with gardens. Here the crowds so pressed upon each other that taking pictures of such rooms as the concubine quarters was problematic. It was difficult to imagine that all this was built for the comfort of one person.

As wonderful as the trip had been so far, the emotional apex of the trip for me was the Great Wall. To reach it, we walked up a steep cobblestone alley through street vendors hawking their trinkets: “one dollah.” It was just like Chinatown in New York City. At the top of the alley were steep stairs, and at the top of these was the cable car to take us the rest of the way. When I finally stood on the Wall, I felt as if I were on top of the world. On one side the valley sits far below, its buildings smaller than a model train village; on the other side the mountains in all their natural wildness awed me. As I trekked from guard tower to guard tower, I realized that this was not like a stroll along a sea wall. It dips and curves and about half of it is stairs—up then down, then up, then down again. And it was hot—breathtaking, but hot. 

On my way back to the cable car, a small boy wanted to take my picture. I stopped walking so he could focus, then took his picture as his sister ran and hid. Back by the cable car, my roommate snapped a picture of me with both the boy and his sister.

The next morning, we learned tai chi from a professional in a small square in the center of one of Beijing’s oldest hutongs (traditional neighborhoods). People ignored us, intent on their games of mahjongg. After our lesson, we rode rickshaws through the labyrinthine streets to visit a private home and meet a professional trainer of fighting crickets (a spectator sport in China). I was surprised to see so many pet dogs in Beijing:  this homeowner had four.

Beijing, for all its historical sites, is not a pretty city—boxy, Orwellian. Shanghai, on the other hand, is a stunner. Modern skyscrapers of the financial district tower above high-rise apartments, public squares and local markets. As we gathered in a park for instructions before being set free in the market, a local lady watched us. She was beautiful in that way the elderly get when they possess serenity. I had lunch in “Shanghai’s Oldest Vegetarian Restaurant.” Unable to read from the menu, I pointed (thank goodness for English translations). It was delicious, and the Tsingtao complemented it perfectly.

From the Shanghai World Financial Center’s 100th-floor observation deck—with a glass floor, I looked out at the smog, which impeded my vista beyond several hundred feet. Currently the tallest building in Shanghai, it will be surpassed in 2014 by the partially built structure across the street. At night the city is breathtaking, the streets lit up as if electricity were free, like Fifth Avenue at Christmas. The view from a river cruise on the Huangpu is an experience unto itself.

The Western Shanghai Experimental School, a magnet middle school, was a treat, with students who came back from summer break just to meet us. If you ever wondered what it would feel like to be treated as a professional, set a spell in their faculty lounge. The hallways are open air, and though covered, it was very hot. I’ll bet the students hurry along from class to class if for no other reason than to get out of the heat.

Ever travel at 430 km/hour (about 300 mi/hr)? That’s how we left Shanghai, taking the Maglev to the airport.

Next stop: Hong Kong, which is pretty, but subtropical and rainy—like Miami in the summer. Somehow you realize you’re no longer really in China. The whole atmosphere is different. Prices are lower and the vendors don’t bargain. They’re proud of their Cantonese and don’t speak Mandarin. Going from the mainland to Hong Kong, you must go through customs as if you’re leaving the country. Mainland Chinese must wait for visas to visit Hong Kong and cannot live or work there, yet the residents of Hong Kong can visit the mainland as often as they like.

From events in China over the past 20 years, we see a repressive government that squelches peaceful protests and has no regard for its citizens’ safety and well-being. But everyday life seems normal: people go to work, to the grocery story, to the mall, and travel in cars, on bikes, by foot. You can get up every morning and go to any public park and do pick-up tai chi. Teenage boys play basketball in multi-colored t-shirts, cargo shorts and designer sneakers. And do they love their country! These are not people clamoring to come to the United States.

Going to China has brought me another level of respect—from my students, many of whom have never been to New York or Florida, some not even to D.C., and from my colleagues, who think it’s very cool. My principal believes it makes me a better teacher and Manchester High a better school. In October, I joined four others from the trip to help make a presentation to the NEA Executive Committee on the value of teachers having global experiences. This month, I’ll travel to Washington to help the upcoming class of global travelers prepare for their journey next summer.

I teach a course called Ethics and Culture in Film. My students will explore China through video. China has a rich history that spans many dynasties. We’ll tackle the Tang and the Qing (the last dynasty) and examine modern China in a film called Shower, about a young successful businessman whose father runs a traditional men’s bath house in an old hutong. He can’t save the business because the government is tearing down the neighborhood to make way for progress. I witnessed this process of tearing down for the sake of progress; I’ve visited a hutong. How much richer am I who can bring personal experience to this unit, more than just what comes from books! The pictures I show will be my pictures.

Every day, teachers search for common ground. We promote it among ourselves and our students, and among those students. Why not build common ground between our kids and another culture? And who’s more important at this moment than China?

Wilms, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association and a former CEA president, teaches English at Manchester High School.


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