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Guest's blog

Trip to China: Guest Blog by Kirby "Lark" Thwing

Why would two retired people decide to go to China?

For my wife Beth, it was a “bucket list” item—wanting to walk on China’s Great Wall. She has MS, uses a walker and still found the notion most tantalizing. Could she do it? We weren’t sure but decided to give it a shot.  For me, an engineer during my working years, the Three Gorges Dam and locks loomed large on my own list. It was hard to wrap my mind around its massive design complexities, its mile and a quarter long dam, the challenges of its construction, its controversial issues—and its final result as the largest producer of hydro-electric power into the world. I wanted to see it with my own eyes.

The rest of our amazing China adventure came together serendipitously. I think it was meant to be.

I’m vice-chair of the Mohawk Trail District’s School Committee and have a finger on the pulse of new and different things that happen. A year ago, our high school/middle school principal, Lynn Dole, traveled to China with Fox Intercultural Consulting and established sister-school relationships with Danghu High School in Pinghu and QingHe Middle School in Hangzhou. This past summer, Dole’s school hosted a group of students and teachers from Danghu and  from QingHe. Each came for a five-day visit as they toured the eastern seaboard’s ivy class colleges and other important sites. Interaction between the Mohawk and Chinese students was stimulating for both kids and staff. My wife Beth and I hosted a student from each school during their time here.

From then on, new connections kept emerging. Dole learned of Beth’s Great Wall wish and put her in touch with a former Mohawk graduate, Julie, who married a Chinese man and now lives in Mutianyu, a village of about 300 at the base of the Great Wall. In answer to Beth’s question about Mutianyu having no schools of its own, Julie created a bridge to that area’s rural, regional middle school, in Bohai. Beth had many email conversations with “Fiona”, that school’s lead teacher (of five teachers of English)  which resulted in our first school presentation that compared and contrasted education in China and the U.S. 

At Bohai Middle School, uniformed kids acted like middle-schoolers everywhere, laughing and goofing around, but very attentive in their Chinese classrooms. Like so many students in China, these kids wore brightly-colored, athletic-looking uniforms. Bohai Middle School was amazing. Rebuilt from the ground up just three years ago, the government had stocked it with state-of-the-art equipment that would make most American schools green with envy. This rural, agricultural area was not a wealthy area, but in China, the government decides and subsidizes what schools it feels need attention, and this occurs without regard to the ability of the community to pay for the improvements, as is the case in the U.S.

After visiting the wonders of Beijing and Shanghai, Beth and I traveled to our two sister schools, Danghu High School and QingHe Middle School, each about one and a half hours outside Shanghai but in different cities. At Danghu High School we viewed classroom buildings and an artfully designed campus for about 3,000 students, including its dormitories. Most students live at the school, regarding commuting time as “lost time” from their studies.

At each, the principal, staff and students greeted us warmly, showed us around their respective well-appointed schools and filled us in on pertinent background and current details. For instance, at QingHe Middle School, we learned the school had recently been in another building across the street. It’s present home is a new larger building that accommodates a bigger student population. What left us open-mouthed was learning QingHe will move again in just three years, this time to a yet larger building that will serve even more students! 

How exciting it was for us to see and talk again with teachers from both schools, whom we’d met last summer at Mohawk. We also met the principals and reconnected with the two boys who stayed with us last summer. Everyone was so warm and welcoming, making us feel like important people.

Beth and I gave our compare-and-contrast presentation, in one case to students and the other to teachers. Like many kids in this age range, being self-conscious makes speaking before a group challenging. At the start, they were reticent with their questions for us—until the first brave soul ventured that first question. Then others followed, which was gratifying to us. At the other school, we loved the professional perspective of the teachers’ questions, as they delved into more detail about how things worked in the U.S. I think we all agreed that each system has its strengths, and that we can also each benefit from the other as well.

Chinese kids arrive at school at 6:30am and can’t leave till 5:00pm!  Eighth graders study twelve subjects a day versus seven subjects for eight graders in the U.S. With our shorter class day, there simply isn’t room for more.

Exercise is another big issue. We saw no overweight Chinese students during our time there. In China, all middle/high school kids run for 15 minutes before their class day begins, then… again later to stimulate alertness after so much intense study. The kids also have sports teams (basketball is very big in China.) The clincher to the exercise issue is that no one can enter high school if he/she doesn’t pass the PE exam! 

Who studies what in languages in high school? Everyone studies the native language, Chinese, just as everyone studies English in the U.S. The only foreign language Chinese kids generally study is English (and they begin in elementary school.) Why? English is more universal. The Chinese  know, wherever they go, they may not speak the language of the country they’re in, but it’s highly likely they can find someone who speaks English. 

We also observed how the Chinese method of teaching depends heavily on memorization and recitation, particularly so in English. Kids come to read and understand English much better than they can speak it. For instance, a child can say, “Hello, how are you?” and he can say, “I am fine, how are you?”  But to carry on a conversation is most difficult.

Going forward, the English thread continues. Many Chinese parents want their kids to go to high school in the U.S. Canada, and the UK. Why? It provides the opportunity for young people to perfect their conversational English and adapt to Western culture, which in turn, prepares them to apply to colleges here if they choose—and many do.

There’s so much more to say about education in China and the U.S. We could add  more, but this blog entry is long enough.

Our three and a half weeks in China were most gratifying in so many ways. We experienced a new country, its culture, its friendly people, encountered eye-popping colors and sights, and absorbed enough information for a college semester—at least. And yes, Beth was euphoric when she succeeded in walking on the Great Wall of China, and I reveled in the amazing engineering feat that comprises the Three Gorges Dam.

Kirby "Lark" Thwing is the Vice-Chair of the Mohawk Trails Distrcit Schools Committee. Beth Thwing is the author of the book, Amazing Amusing Emus. Now retired, they live in Hawley, MA and like to travel.

Halloween In China - Guest Blog by Deborah Enright

I arrived in China last December to begin my English teaching post in a private high school in Fujian Province. Having missed the opportunity to celebrate Halloween with my students last year, I was even more determined to share with my Grade 8, 10 and 11 students the fun and wacky things Americans do to celebrate this holiday.

After combing through YouTube videos for an entire weekend, I found several ranging from a dog/owner costume parade in Central Park, New York, to a 1930's Disney, black and white cartoon entitled, The Skeleton Dance. I couldn't remember ever seeing this one but I have to say, my students were absolutely enthralled with it, as they 'oohed' and 'ahhed' throughout. That's one of the great rewards of digging up these treasures. It doesn't matter what age these kids are because Disney cartoons haven't been shown in China, so for everyone viewing them it feels like a brand new experience, which made it brand new for me all over again. Now all I had to find was Michael Jackson's infamous Thriller video and I'd be good to go.

Next, it was time to think about pumpkin carving because as everyone in the U.S. knows pumpkin 'sculpting' is a high art this time of year. First of all, I couldn't believe the examples of pumpkin carving on the Internet. There's the good old, 'two eyes, a nose and the toothy grin pumpkin' we all grew up with... and then there's everything from pumpkin coaches to drilled hole pumpkins with twinkly lights, to the infinite number of relief carved pumpkins. I found a pumpkin with smoke coming out of its mouth (dry ice) to make the pumpkin's smile even more creepy and cool. After viewing a variety of demonstration videos with students and staff, two of the teachers in Grade 11 went off to purchase pumpkins, candles and carving tools.

Pumpkins in China are not like pumpkins in the U.S. They are more like thick, hard squashes. At first I was disappointed because I couldn't imagine how the students were going to manage it. But everyone was so excited about doing this activity that it just didn't matter. They dove in with childlike abandon and in the course of two hours, each had carved a pumpkin worthy of a spot in the Guggenheim. To say they loved and enjoyed doing this is an understatement. And that evening, as I watched them light the candles and march upstairs to the second floor to show the 10th graders their handiwork with all lights clicked off and spooky sounds echoing down the hall, I thought I was going to cry for joy.

No one got out of control in the ensuing darkness, and amid the screams of delight, no one had to be spoken to for misbehaving. Big shock there because, after all, these are teenagers. But the Chinese have shown me over and over again that they have an endless reserve of self-restraint in situations such as this and one never has to worry too much about anyone going off the deep end. They are so grateful to break out of their typical routines that they embrace every new experience with complete and utter 'being in the moment' joy.

After leaving the classrooms, much to the disappointment of the remaining students, the revelers held up their pumpkins against the white walls, playfully raising and lowering them to watch the shadows they cast in the darkness. In their wake was a bevy of off-duty teachers, clicking Nikons and camera phones. I heard that the very next day, pictures were posted on the school's website. I don't think the Sino American school will forget Halloween for a long, long time.

We eventually made it back to our classroom, pumpkins still alight, and proceeded to watch a classic American horror movie (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), a 1990's remake from an earlier black and white film. We indulged ourselves in candy and organic bananas that a teacher/interpreter had just picked in a local village plantation and huddled together enjoying each spooky moment.

Halloween had come to Fujian Province... and it was a very good thing indeed.

Deborah Enright (En Di)
English Teacher/Coordinator

Guest Blog: A Tangshan Adventure

Two weeks ago, I was lucky enough to venture to the booming industrial city of Tangshan in northeastern China. I had the pleasure of presenting to a group of more than 30 high school students about my approach for getting accepted into top-tier U.S. colleges and universities.

Upon my arrival at Hebei Tangshan Foreign Language School, I mistook it for a massive, international business complex. Imagine my surprise to learn that more than 8,000 students make it their home. Introductions with the school director were fairly brief and I was soon moved to a classroom, an environment I assumed I would be more accustomed to.

As I walked into the room, a nervous shiver shot up my spine. Fairly new to public speaking, there I was – exposed – the “Lao Wai” (foreigner) in the room. To my surprise however, I found myself soon relaxing into the talk as I noticed how amazingly engaged my audience was. With each question I asked, hands fired up. Every student was ready and attentive; a few brave souls even dared to ask me direct questions in English.

The drive I saw in these students was humbling. The more time I spent engaging the class, the more clearly their sheer work ethic became apparent. Many of these students, living hundreds of miles away from home spend six days a week, from dawn to well beyond dusk, pouring over their books. As our conversation progressed from “academic rigor” to the newly desired “well-rounded individual,” questions began popping up left and right.

As the worried expressions on their tired faces grew more and more apparent, it started to dawn on me how lucky I have been to have received a well-rounded, Maine state education. The stereotype of the brilliant, book-smart Chinese student is not far off from what I’ve seen in my experiences here in China. Yet I’ve been left to question whether or not this full-proof, tried and true method of remote memorization leads to great accomplishments beyond the “Gao Kao” (Chinese National College Entrance Exam).

The differences between ‘individualized’ American culture and the ‘collective’ thinking of the East have of course been well-documented and are clearly visible in both culture’s education systems. In my travels in China I’ve found that support in making one’s own choices, pursuing one’s own individual interests and carving out a niche for oneself early on are nurturing practices for personal growth rarely witnessed in China.

My experiences lead me to believe the lack of personal development is simply the combined result of centuries of tradition and recently growing competition. With a population of over 1.3 billion, it is no wonder China’s focus on individual growth beyond academics is seldom observed, particularly in a system where the college applicant pool has become so vast and high test scores so crucial.  Yet given the aforementioned stereotype of the “brainy” Chinese students, clearly centuries of tradition and competition does produce its own unique results. In these students I’ve witnessed a rigorous work ethic – each with a drive to better themselves and their families. With this in mind I believe there is still much we in the U.S. can learn from the degree of discipline exhibited in these students.

It is unfortunate that many of these students will struggle with their international college application process due to a lack of opportunity for extra curricular activities, and perhaps an overbearing concentration on academic rigor alone. When I advised them to get involved as much as possible, one student replied, “But we have no time for activities. How will colleges look at this?”

While I tried to console them that colleges and universities take such considerations into account, at the end of the day when all the applications have been read, the school will choose the most qualified applicant. Unfortunately, these students are stuck. Highly selective schools will not change their behavior simply because they do not have to; the supply of elite U.S. schools is much too small to satisfy an ever-growing demand, as shown by recent year’s Ivy league acceptance rates of less than 20%; some less than 10%. But having seen Chinese ambassadors visiting Bowdoin College in the past few years, I believe the wave of changes witnessed since China’s opening in the 70’s has yet to reach its peak.

The value of a liberal arts education is slowly but surely being acknowledged and adopted. Given the market for education in China, I predict as China’s economy continues to grow, more privatized schools focusing on foreign language and extra-curricular activities in addition to their school work (much like private high schools in the U.S.) will continue to quickly develop and spread to second tier cities, breeding the next generation of elite study abroad students and in the long run, globally bridging these two nation’s college applicant pools. This trend has thus far been witnessed in major eastern cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. As second tier cities like Tangshan continue to develop, student like those I met at Hebei Tangshan Foreign Language School may finally get a fair shot at a U.S. education.

To the great minds I met in Tangshan, know I was greatly impressed by your drive and motivation to succeed. I wish you all the best in your applications.-- Eric Ramsay


Eric Ramsay will be a senior at Bowdoin College this fall majoring in Economics with a minor in Chinese. He is proud to call himself a Mainer, raised in Aroostook County, ME where he attended the Maine School of Science and Mathematics (MSSM). He is currently working part time as a recruiting associate/product manager at Red Pagoda Resources, an executive search startup in Beijing. He is also acting as a Maine College Ambassador for the Center for New England China Exchange on behalf of Fox Intercultural Consulting.