Reflections on Trip to China
In June, I was afforded a unique opportunity to travel to China as a member of the Chinese Bridge Delegation sponsored by Hanban/Confucius Headquarters in partnership with the College Board. This trip represented a rare opportunity for me to experience China first-hand, learn about the language, history and culture of one of the world's oldest civilizations, visit schools, speak with educational leaders, and to see the dramatic pace of change underway in the world's most populated nation. This was my first trip to a country whose language I could not begin to comprehend, and whose cultural perspectives were distinctly different than those that I had encountered during my past travels to Europe and Latin America, leaving me quite unsure of what to expect.
Upon arrival in Beijing, my nervous trepidation immediately dissipated as I found myself entrenched in a world of vivid color. From the vibrant store signs, to the striking building facades, to the unique but intriguing designs of the ancient temples in the Forbidden City, all in various hues of blues, greens and reds, to the plethora of pastel-colored parasols that seemed to hover above everyone's heads, Beijing was indeed a city bathed in color, with a very distinctive look and feel that distinguished it from other international capitals I have visited. While there was obvious evidence of international and American influence (noted by the sporadically placed McDonald's, KFC, Starbucks, and large modern shopping malls), other, more typical sights captivated my attention, such as the food kiosks offering selections of fried grasshoppers, starfish, scorpions and other delicacies. I was particularly amazed by the hundreds of bicycles that wove precariously in and out of the heavy flow of traffic that congested the main streets, often holding my breath as I witnessed several close calls where cyclists amazingly escaped unharmed. I also looked on in awe at some who were toting on the back of their bicycles, enough goods to easily fill the bed of a pick-up truck, while peddling effortlessly uphill in 95 degree heat.
The international flair of Beijing quickly dissipated as we traveled from the capital to Zhangjiakou in the Hebei Province, offering me a glimpse of a very typical Chinese city. The bus ride to the province presented some interesting sights - a huge coal-operated power plant, hills dotted with energy-producing windmills reminiscent of those I had seen in the foothills of California, contrasted by farmers working vast expanses of land by hand, with the help of horses and donkeys in lieu of modern machinery. Zhangjiakou was a poorer, much more rural area than what we encountered in Beijing, yet evidence of growth and change existed in every corner. Huge cranes towered everywhere, hoisting enormous new housing complexes. Numerous older buildings were marked for demolition, as it was explained to us that the area has a three-year plan to relocate its people into new the housing units. Yet, with all the construction going on, I couldn't help but notice the manual laborers near our hotel, who began their tasks by 6 a.m. each day, and were still working diligently when we returned to the hotel in the early evening.Our presence in Zhangjiakou was a novelty, as I readily noted by the countless stares I received from the locals who were obviously unaccustomed to seeing a "Westerner" among them. Yet, as strange as my presence might have been, I was quickly embraced and cordially greeted by everyone I encountered, especially during my visit to the local park, where I intruded on numerous choir, instrumental and dance groups, and others practicing various forms of Tai Chi, to politely request a picture. I am embarrassed to admit that, were the situation reversed, and a stranger approached me during my morning walk here, I would not likely extend him the same courtesy, which made me appreciate and treasure the cordiality of these local Chinese citizens even more.
Our visit to the primary school was the highlight of my trip. The students were delightful, and quite excited about the opportunity to meet and speak with us. They thrilled us with their stunning and quite accomplished vocal and instrumental performances, and were proud to show off their communication skills in English. Today in China, all students begin to study English in primary school. The emphasis on learning English was evident, as the large school sign displayed in the courtyard as well as signs and information throughout the classrooms and hallways, were depicted both in Chinese as well as English. The educators I spoke with were clearly interested in establishing connections and creating partnerships with American schools while also hoping to promote a greater understanding and appreciation of the Chinese language and culture worldwide.
I have come away from this unique experience with many understandings and realizations. As different as our cultures are, the similarities are just as pronounced. In China, teenagers walk down the street chatting on cell phones and listening to iPods. Young children run around the store chasing and teasing each other while their mothers shop. Students have great aspirations to live a better life, and teachers are anxious to learn better, more effective instructional strategies that will spark their students' creativity and ability to interact in global societies. In spite of the cultural differences, we have much in common, and much to learn from each other.