Middle School #2 in China

BEIJING – After a 16-hour flight from New York City, seventeen fellow Phillips Academy students and I walked out of customs at the Beijing International Airport and into what seemed to be a sea of smog that filled the Beijing air. What looked to most of us as an overcast day was actually the pollution from all of the factories, businesses and 16 million people living in the Beijing area. Although Beijing is an international city, we first noticed the poverty that affects many of the Chinese people when locals tried to take our bags and carry them onto our bus for just one yuan (approximately 13 cents). As we drove from the airport, we observed all of the work being done to manicure the sidewalks and clean the streets in preparation for the 2008 Olympics. It was obvious that the Chinese government was making a great effort to present Beijing as an affluent international city to the rest of the world. When we arrived at the School Year Abroad campus, we were greeted by our host families and sent home with them for the evening. The following day, we returned to the SYA campus, which was located on the sixth floor of Middle School #2 in downtown Beijing, directly across from Beijing Normal University, and began our adventure. For the next four weeks, Middle School #2 served as our home base in Beijing, from where we took intensive Mandarin, martial arts and Chinese painting classes. Following classes on weekday afternoons and on Saturdays, our teachers took us to various sights around the city, including Lama and Confucius temples, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, Jingshan Park, the Great Wall, a migrant worker’s children’s school, Hutongs and various markets. We were also very lucky to have had three SYA China graduates come speak to us about how their years abroad in China during high school affected who they are today. At night and on the weekends, we would spend time exploring the city on our own and learning traditional Chinese customs from our host families. When we were on our own, we did our best to learn as much about the local people as possible. Students like to go to Xiushui, or Silk Market, street vendors and small boutiques to buy everything from silk robes to chopsticks to counterfeit Nike sneakers. Even though we all found food to be nothing like the lo mein and egg rolls we call Chinese food in America, we tried our best to frequent smaller restaurants for local authentic local cuisine. Our host families were generous enough to take us on their own excursions as well. My host mother and sister took me out to see Summer Palace and eat Beijing duck at the most famous restaurant in the city. After I would come home every evening, my host mother would bring me a large plate of fruit and occasionally a small gift, like magazines or lemon-flavored marshmallows. At dinner, my family would always serve me first and insist that I was the first to eat, as they anxiously waited for my reaction to whether I liked their food or not. At the end of the four weeks, we packed our bags, said goodbye to our host families and headed off on a weeklong excursion of Xi’an, Suzhou, Zhouzhuang and Shanghai, four other Chinese cities. We spent one night in each city, traveling in between by overnight train. In Xi’an, we saw the Terracotta Army, a collection of over 8,000 terracotta soldiers and horses that was created and buried by the Emperor of Qin in 246 B.C. to help rule his empire in the afterlife. In the 1970’s, local farmers discovered the army while working in the fields. Although they are still excavating for more soldiers, thousands are lined up for display. We also spent some time visiting a porcelain factory. We arrived in Shanghai late in the afternoon and had to leave early the next morning, so we did not have a lot of time to explore the city. However, we have time to see and acrobatics show and to explore Nanjing Lu, the main shopping street next to the Bund, the famous Shanghai skyline. A lot like Times Square in New York City, Nanjing Lu is definitely a large tourist attraction in the city. With American hoteliers like Howard Johnson and restaurants like Haagen-Dazs, there is obviously a growing Western influence. Staying in Zhouzhuang was our most authentic Chinese experience of our trip. The part of the city where we stayed was entirely traditional Chinese architecture. Our hotel was originally a family’s home, so it had all of the original furniture and amenities. Among the homes that lined the cobbled streets were small shops, selling paintings, sculptures, tourist photographs, jewelry and other souvenirs. The city was built around a canal, so after dinner, many of us chose to go on a boat ride to see all of the shops, homes and restaurants lit up at night. In Suzhou, we toured an old silk factory, where we got to see how silk is made from the cocoon of a silk worm to the finished product. We also had the opportunity to go to the embroidery institute. Our last night in China, SYA hosted a banquet dinner back in Beijing and invited our host families to join us in celebrating our visit. We spent one last night with our host families to thank them for all of their generosity. After five long weeks, four overnight trains, walking or biking more than a mile to and from school everyday, the following morning, we bid our host families farewell, boarded our bus one last time from Middle School #2 and headed to Beijing International Airport.