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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.