By Bonnie Wang // Photography By Jessie Wang
In the last eight years, I have been back to China many times by myself. The 7,000-mile trip is just a number and does not tell you much about the distance. One time, it took me 29 hours to arrive home because of cancellations and delays of connecting flights. After waiting five hours at JFK and 12 hours at LAX, the distance between me and home, in my mind, became much wider. The world is just too big, and home is just too far.
I feel close to home when I teach, allowing me to deal with homesickness by connecting my personal memories with my professional life. This connection was strengthened by the two-week Durham Academy visit to Beijing, Xi’an and Shanghai in summer 2018. For each student and chaperone in this small group of seven, it was a phenomenal experience. It was also DA’s first Chinese exchange trip.
Beijing No. 8 High School is one of the most prestigious and historic schools in Beijing. It has many notable alumni, including nuclear physicist Deng Jiaxian and rocket scientist Liang Shoupan. Two years ago, seven Chinese students from Beijing No. 8 and their biology teacher visited DA and celebrated Chinese New Year with their host families. Two years later, that biology teacher became one of the host families welcoming us in Beijing.
One of the many meaningful components of this trip was to complete the exchange and officially establish a relationship between DA and Beijing No. 8 High School. We found many common understandings during the conversation when DA chaperone Jordan Babwah and I were meeting with the head of school, Principal Wang. We exchanged presents and had a productive conversation regarding the future goals of our exchange programs. The educational philosophy of Beijing No. 8 is built upon the liberal education that values 21st century skills and the comprehensive cultivation of individuals, which to some extent aligns with our school’s mission: enabling students to live happy, moral and productive lives.
During the first week in Beijing, DA students attended different classes with their host siblings before lunch and visited many tourist sites in the afternoon, including the Temple of Heaven (or, as I prefer to call it, the Temple of Sky), the Forbidden City, Tian’anmen Square, the Olympic Park and, of course, the Great Wall. Students experienced different levels of authentic materials that they would never have been exposed to in the Chinese language classroom. They rode sharing bikes, tasted unusual snacks, exercised at the senior community park, planned subway transportation and bargained with the vendors in the pearl market. Most of the time they challenged themselves in the discomfort zone — and that is exactly what we wanted them to feel! Progress often takes place in the discomfort zone, and sometimes we do not appreciate that.
Coach Babwah got a chance to observe a PE class at Beijing No. 8 and talk with the physical education teacher.
“Yang Lăoshī was welcoming and enthusiastic from the second I met him,” Babwah said. “It was a pleasure observing his class, and he even let me lead a few exercises. The students were fun to work with and very respectful. Shortly after class, Yang Lăoshī invited me up to his office to have tea and introduce me to the other PE teachers. Despite a language barrier, we managed to share a few laughs and discuss physical education at our respective schools.”
Students had these responses after the first day of class. “The classes were very interesting — we didn't move at all,” junior Ryan Morgan said. “It was the teacher that came to us. I think that is much more efficient. The whole system is very different. That is my first impression so far, everything is so different.”
“It seems like the students have a really high or deep level of respect for the teachers,” sophomore Pablo Ahmadi said. “Before the teachers came into the room, the students wiped off the blackboards. There were a lot of people. Everyone was paying attention. No one was on their phones. No one was allowed to have their phones in class.”
Sophomore Oliviero Zanalda said, “The Monday morning thing [raising the national flag], that I have never experienced in my life, was very cool. The chemistry of the class was also very good.”
Senior Justin Cobb said even though he didn’t understand what was happening most of the time, “it was so interesting to see how it worked and how the students were wiping the blackboards before the teacher came in. In fact, the class was shorter than the one we have in the United States.”
“I went to a politics class, a geography class, and, I believe, a Chinese language class, a math class,” junior Jack DeBree said. “I feel like [school] there is a lot more structured and just interesting.”
From Beijing we traveled to Xi’an, which is located in the geographic center of China and was the starting point of the Old Silk Road. It has one of the longest and richest culinary histories, and is famous for varieties of wheat products. We had lunch and dinner in several “Instafamous” restaurants that are quite popular among young people. Altogether, we tasted five different kinds of noodles, with one of them named after the most complicated Chinese character, “biáng,” with nearly 60 strokes as in “biáng biáng miàn.”
Beef and lamb are more common in Shaanxi Province because of the large Muslim population. Browsing the crowd-ed commercial street of the Muslim Quarter let the students observe China’s diversity, which is often underrepresented in Western media.
Compared to Beijing, Xi’an has a much longer history since it was the capital city for 13 ancient dynasties. Engraved in the Old City Wall is 3,000 years of peace and war. The downtown of Xi’an is not like any part of China we have traveled. Among the many reasons for visiting Xi’an is the Terracotta Army,* which had been discussed in western history classes at DA and is definitely the most striking experience, primarily due to the gigantic scale of the pits and the miraculous story behind the preservation of those excavation sites.
“Learning about the terracotta warriors in school is one thing, but when you actually get to see them in person it is another, incredible experience. You know that there are thousands of warriors, yet once you enter, you are instantly shocked by the vastness of the pits. It is literally impossible to see the other side of the building. When you are able to get closer to the warriors, the meticulous attention to detail becomes very apparent. Every warrior has his own expression, and no two are alike. And to think that if that farmer decided to dig his well just a few feet in the other direction, we probably would not have discovered this wonder.”
Justin Cobb '19
The Shanghai part of this trip was short, yet impressive to the students. I am sharing this from Pablo’s journal entry: “Prior to my arrival, I had not expected too much from my short stay in Shanghai. However, within only a few days, my eyes were opened to so much more. The city struck me as a center of modernization and globalization, or a place where tourists from all over the world would be blown away by the city’s ability to alter their perception of what ‘China’ was forever.
“Although I was thoroughly impressed by the colossal, world-renowned skyscrapers and peaceful alleys outside the Yu Garden, what was more eye-opening to me was the sheer balance brought about by these two drastically different monuments. One conveyed power and ingenuity, while the other, [the] historically rich gardens, showed the duality of innovation and culture which Shanghai brought about so beautifully. Despite all my efforts, no words of mine in either language can even begin to describe one percent of the pride, inclusion and development present in 21st century Shanghai.”
On the last night in Shanghai, Coach Babwah led a heart-to-heart group conversation, which proved for the 101st time that this trip was blessed to have him as a chaperone. We reflected on the life-changing moments in those two weeks. There were savory memories, awkward translations, panicked mistakes and hilarious behaviors that all of us will remember and tease each other about many years later.
I especially felt fortunate to come back to my home country with this wonderful group. They are bringing together my “fortune-land” and my “home-land.” The world is still too big, but I know they will continue exploring with gratitude, wonder and respect.