As I uttered those two words while crammed in the back of a taxi in Nanjing, China, my friend Keri shot me a look askance. To this day, she cannot be reminded of this moment without annoyance. The question posed to us by our hosts, teachers at a local high school, was whether we would like hot pot or Pizza Hut for dinner. I was excited to try traditional hot pot. Keri, who had difficulty stomaching the food in China, not so much. But, at our meal that night, we heard a comment that would become humorous to us from then on. Constantly having to ask what food was, for me, usually asking if something was vegetable (vegan) or not, but this time we asked a woman to identify a pink, gelatinous mass. She responded, “Congealed blood. Very good for the human body.” Keri’s response – “Not this human body.”
Food in China is a wondrous experience. From live fish we watched our hosts down while they were still squirming, to baked chicken heads, to flaming drinks, to soup for breakfast, food was always an adventure. Keri and I were representing the high school at which we work, on a trip to connect with other teachers in both Beijing and Nanjing. In Beijing we were with a large group of teachers, but in Nanjing it was just us. Anthony was also in China, but since I was on a work trip, he had a very different experience staying in a hostel and finding his way around using public transportation. This was my first time traveling as part of a large group, though in Nanjing we were escorted with a driver. Used to making my own travel decisions and finding my way through new places, traveling like this was both frustrating and entertaining. At times, in Beijing, I felt stifled by the group. For instance, while wandering through the Forbidden City, I would have liked to spend more time peeking into buildings and exploring the less visited corners of the palace, but I was rushed along to get to our next planned event. Also, we only had a short amount of time to see the Great Wall, and it was a highly touristed area. I would’ve liked to hike some of the more remote areas, or at least spend more time wandering around, but we had a very busy schedule and had to rush on.
The upside of traveling with this group was that we were able to visit several high schools in Beijing in order to meet teachers and students, and observe some of the classes and the environment in which students learn. One such school was Beijing Royal School, where we watched students perform and were able to speak to students and teachers about educational differences and similarities between our two countries. Unfortunately, our program seemed to always schedule large assemblies for mid afternoon – when our bodies would normally be sleeping back home.
In Nanjing, we spent a day at a school and were able to teach a short lesson on American education. Students had lots of questions, about the ACT, college, and classes in America. They also wanted to perform for us – one sang a Miley Cyrus song to us! We also sat in on a panel discussion about project based learning, which many Chinese schools are trying to implement. Teachers wanted to know how we work with our students, since much of their education system is primarily, historically based in rote memorization and lecture. Students attend classes six days a week, from before breakfast to long after dinner. Though each student participates in physical education daily, and exercises where the whole school works out together, most schools do not have athletics after school. Social activities are limited to studying and lessons. Many students were wide eyed at our descriptions of football games and prom. Even the high level high schools we visited did not have heat or air conditioning, and furniture was spartan. Some students shared desks, and even seats. Students were both shy and fascinated to meet us, smiling bashfully at us from behind books and randomly handing us presents.
The most powerful moment of my trip to China was strolling through Tiananmen Square. Both sobering and breathtaking, I still associate this massive public space with the massacre in 1989, which I watched as a kid wide-eyed while it was broadcast on the news. As a teacher, explaining this massacre to students is staggering – they are too young to have experienced it, but even more difficult, amidst their world of Twitter and Wikipedia, they cannot fathom a culture in which freedoms are stifled and you cannot google “Tiananmen Square”, and if you tweet about the anniversary, it will be censored and you will be questioned. I teach them about Zhu Yufu, whose poem “It’s Time”, calling Chinese citizens to act and gather together to support their quest for freedom, earned him a prison sentence for subversion – in 2011. Standing in the footprints of history is always powerful, but this moment I will remember forever.
The Chinese people we met and spent time with were giving, understanding, and gracious. They always made sure I was taken care of with my vegan diet, and our tour guide in Beijing remained flexible with a large group of American teachers. Another hilarious moment in our experience came in Nanjing when Keri and I were shopping for coats. I found one I especially liked and was ready to accept the price I was told. Our host shook her head at me sternly, and uttered, “You think these clothes are beautiful? I think this price is not suitable. I will discuss.” Her bartering, which I never quite got the hang of, did bring the price down substantially. Also, after a breakfast meeting with the principal of a local high school, we were gifted a massive bag of fruit – they had quietly noticed that both Keri and I were munching on the prolific fresh fruit offered at the buffet. Arriving in the airport to meet up with the rest of our tour group, we could not explain the banana bunches without erupting into giggles. One last anecdote, when dining in China, be prepared for cries of “gam bei!” across the round table. It is considered polite to toast your hosts, and each other, between courses. Keri and I figured this one out pretty quickly, and I drank a lot of OJ during each meal – the drink of choice if one is not consuming alcohol. Our hosts were delighted each time we pointed our glasses at them and called out, “gam bei”! All smiles, we would then tuck back into our piles of vegetables.