Saturday, May 2, 2009

Experiencing China.... With Fifth Graders!

When I was first hired by IAB to come and teach in China, I was so excited to learn about enrichment week. This is basically a week of the school year that is set aside each year for the students to learn about and experience Chinese culture and history. Due to my complete lack of knowledge about most places available for the students to experience, I decided that we should just go with the same general itinerary last year's class used.

I was blissfully enjoying a generally stress free year until about a month before the scheduled week. My principal (who is also new this year) and most of the staff were led to believe that a great deal of scheduling and planning had been done by other staff members. 3 weeks before the trip it became clear that the only planning done had been a schedule on paper of where each class would go each day. We had no hotel reservations for our two day overnight trip, we had no idea what any of the places we were supposed to go cost or anything. Suddenly what had seemed like a great adventure became a nightmare. Each grade was assigned an extra teacher and one Chinese speaking staff member to help with the trip. Thankfully both of our extra helpers were extremely helpful. Nikki, an ESL teacher has lived in China for several years and speaks quite a bit of Chinese. Lisa, the receptionist is willing to do anything we asked. We had to plan a budget for each day, figure out where we could get meals (not always easy when traveling in China) and where we could find a reasonably priced hotel that would take 35 5th graders. After 3 weeks straight of planning, calling, and dealing with a travel agent, everything was set.... sort of. I wrote earlier about the phrase "This is China!" Well if I have learned one thing it is that the best laid plans will fall apart, so don't rely to heavily on them. Plan on being flexible!

Day One- Lama Temple and Confucius University and Temple

In fifth grade we study ancient civilizations and cultures. In each unit I have enjoyed looking at the religion and comparing to Christianity. It has really generated great classroom discussion as we learned about the many different religions that developed. I had several parents who were very concerned about us going to the particular temple, but the former classes had gone so we decided to go through with it. I spent a lot of time preparing my students for viewing Buddhism as a false religion and seeing the worship of idols for what it was. I think even though there are Buddhist temples and shrines all over the place in China, for many of my students, it was the first time they saw it for what it was- lost people worshiping false gods. I really felt like God used the opportunity to reach my kids hearts with truth.

Following the Lama Temple, we visited the Confucius Temple and University. When we arrived the workers decided to charge our students even though we had been told that students were free. Unfortunately this is quite common especially in Beijing. They see an International school and decide we are rich and can afford to pay more than Chinese school students. After arguing for quite some time they finally let the students in for 10rmb each and adults for 15rmb each. The cost is normally 20 for adults and free for students. Here it was great to discuss with the students how people took a normal man and turned him into a god, through ancestor worship. There was a huge temple that was built specifically for the emperor to come and worship Confucius. It was very sad to see how prevalent this worship is still today.

Day Two- Service project and team building games

This day was the one I was most concerned about as far as planning. We were taking 35 kids to a foster home for children who were waiting for or recovering from some type of surgery. It turned out to be the best day of the week. A British couple opened this home to rescue orphan babies who would die without treatment. They had three nurseries and split the kids into three groups. The kids each spent some time playing with the babies, and some time learning about stories of kids who had been rescued and are now healthy and living in adopted homes. My students were really touched by the experience and were so sweet in their interactions with the babies. It was a really sweet time.

After leaving the home we went to a park near school. We had lunch and then spent some time playing team building games and activities. The day that I was most worried about ended up being the sweetest time of growing together.

Wednesday- Friday -Qinhuangdao
We left for our overnight trip Wed. at 9:00. We drove 4 hours stopping once at a reasonably decent bathroom. I could actually breath inside and it appeared to be cleaned on a regular basis. This is unusual for public bathrooms in China. We arrived at "The Dragon's Head", our first stop of the day. This is where the Great Wall goes into the sea. The highlight there was a replica of a maze that would have been used to confuse the enemies trying to get to the wall. The kids were finished with the Wall part in about ten minutes and mostly just wanted to climb on the rocks on the beach. Next we went to some old city walls. Again we had a difficult time purchasing tickets, but eventually they did give us the student price. I was actually quite disappointed with this place. Most of the walls were closed off and we were only able to walk on a small portion. We ate Chinese food at a restaurant near the city and finally headed for our hotel.

I have stayed at several hotels in China that have all been very "Western" and quite comfortable outside of the rock hard beds. Well, I and my students were in for a very rude awakening. It was dark when we arrived at our hotel. The weather had been very cold all day and with sun down it was just miserable. None of us were really prepared for that cold as it had been quite warm in recent days. From the outside the buildings looked like a really nice modern resort. There was a main lobby and then many separate buildings. On arrival we were told that we were the first guests of the season!!! Let me just say that we did not have to worry about the kids destroying things or taking things. The rooms were just bare. No decoration of any kind. There were beds and a dresser and that was it. The bathroom was separated with a glass partition. Inside the shower head stuck out of the wall right beside the toilet (Thankfully there was a toilet and not just a squatty potty!!!!) We had to move the toilet paper out of the bathroom in order to take a shower! My mantra became... I am a spoiled American, I am a spoiled American, I am a spoiled American! Everything was badly stained and mildewed. Several kids had to be moved to different rooms due to water problems and broken locks. But finally we settled down. I am still torn between how uncomfortable it was for me and how good it was for my students to see a different side to life in China.

The next day it was frigid and raining as we went for a very Chinese breakfast of congee (a kind of rice and bean soup) and rolls. Thankfully they did provide some fried eggs when we told them that the kids would not eat the congee. Our plan for this morning was hiking outdoors. Since the weather was so yucky we found an aquarium in town and were able to get reasonably priced tickets. The kids really enjoyed the aquarium, especially the seal show! We had lunch at McDonald's (my first time eating McDonald's in China!) and then went to the beach. Even though it was freezing, the kids played on the beach for hours and had a great time.

The town we were in does not have many foreigners, so the people were very interested in our kids. The older people especially would come up to them and talk to them. The blond haired kids are the favorites, and they would reach out and touch their hair. An old guy who worked at this beach saw the kids digging in the sand, so he went to the tool shed and got out about 8 shovels for them to use. Not little kids sand shovels. No, these were big adult sized work shovels. It was hilarious. If we had let them keep going, there would have been another Great Wall of China, right there on the beach. The boys especially had a major construction project going on with the use of the shovels.

One highlight for me was playing Frisbee. I was playing with some kids for awhile, but then everyone wandered away and left the Frisbee lying in the sand. A group of Chinese men had been working on a construction project on the beach. I noticed one guy was really interested in the Frisbee. After awhile he walked over and picked it up. He tried throwing it. It wobbled through the air a short distance. Another guy came over and they were both laughing away. He picked it up and tried again. I noticed that he was turning his hand backwards, So I picked it up and showed him how to throw it correctly. He tried a couple more time and finally started getting it. By now all the workers had stopped working and were surrounding him. We threw the Frisbee back and forth several times while the crowd looked on in apparent fascination. Finally they went back to work. It was fun for me to see this old guy completely enjoy a new experience.

After the beach we went back to the beach and everyone got cleaned up. After dinner and some more games we went to sleep for a few short hours. Breakfast was at 6:30 the next morning with departure at 7:00. We drove about 4 hours to the Eastern Qing tombs. It was very interesting to see the tombs of the Emperors and Empresses of the Qing dynasty. Unfortunately the bathrooms here were just foul. The smell was so bad I could not go inside without gagging. I ended up holding it all the way back to school (another 2 hours)

And that was the end of the week. This has become very long and I applaud you if you actually read the whole thing. For me it was definitely experiencing a new level of China. Beijing has so much foreign influence and we have most of the comforts of home. Outside of Beijing it is quite different. A much truer picture of China. While to a degree it took me out of my comfort zone, it also makes me embarrassed at how much I have and how high my expectations are for my comfort. It is a humbling thing to realize a little more how really spoiled I am. Hopefully the lesson will stick and cause me to be more grateful for the blessings I have in my life.

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