As guests at Gaoxin No. 1 School, we are often invited to participate in extracurricular activities. Most of the time, we have no idea what we are getting ourselves into.
For example, Kevin, our host at the middle school, told me we would hold a “Knowledge Competition.” My students would form teams with middle school students to answer questions about Chinese and western culture and to compete in various games. It sounded like a lot of fun, and I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what it would entail.
But as the event began to take shape last week, I realized I had no idea. The first sign was when Kevin told me that my students would need to come to the middle school twice to prepare, the first time to meet their teams and receive an introduction to the games, and the second time to hold a full rehearsal. Before I knew it, we were part of a full-scale production. There were two student hosts in formal attire, a welcome speech by the vice principal, and dramatic music. Kevin invited multiple press outlets, including a woman who live-streamed the event via a popular Chinese app. Our Chinese teachers spent hours preparing. We performed a dance while the judges calculated the results. It was a great time, but not at all what I expected.
Through experiences like this, we have learned that while we’re in China, we just have to go with the flow and be open to whatever comes our way. With that attitude, we have been able to enjoy many unexpected opportunities.
For instance, this week we joined the eleventh grade on their field trip to the Guanzhong Folk Art Museum and to Bailuyuan Studios. The first surprise came when I realized the scale of the trip. Gaoxin hired a tour company to organize the over one thousand students on the field and load them into dozens of green coach buses. At the museum, each class had a guide, who herded the students in a carefully orchestrated schedule to avoid crowding in any one place. What is more, this ambitious undertaking seemed totally unremarkable to everyone else involved.
At the museum, we saw many historic Shaanxi buildings and cultural artifacts and saw a performance of Huayin Laoqiang, a type of folk music from this region of China. Next, we went to a place called Bailuyuan. It took me a while to figure out what this place was, but here’s what I understand now: Bailuyuan (White Deer Plain), is the title of a novel by a famous local writer, Chen Zhongshi. In order to film the movie of this book, they built a reproduction of Chen’s hometown, which they have now converted into a tourist attraction, where you can eat local Shaanxi snacks and visit the writer’s old house. Upon seeing it, I realized why I could not picture it in advance: it is not like anything we have in the states, somewhere between a theme park and a monument to local culture.
The most fun part of the trip for me was the “drama” we saw at Bailuyuan based on the book, which included an actor zip-lining over the audience, motorcycles doing wheelies, loud explosions, kung fu, and some funny audience participation. On this trip, we were able to see a side of Shaanxi culture that most tourists would never get to see, and we were able to appreciate another aspect of Chinese students’ school experience.
But the most rewarding of these unexpected opportunities came a few weeks ago, when a teacher at the high school invited us to visit the kindergarten his son attends. At first, I did not understand who he was and why he wanted us to visit a kindergarten, but since our contact at the high school introduced him to me, I said yes, and we set a date. Though I received a printed agenda for the visit, outlining our activities minute-by-minute, I still had no idea what to expect.
When we got out of the van at the entrance to the kindergarten, none of that mattered. A group of small children waved enthusiastically as we came in the gate, and the most outgoing of them ran up and introduced themselves to us in English. At the sight of these adorable kids, we immediately broke out into huge smiles, which would not fade for the rest of the morning. First, we saw the school’s outdoor playground, and my students climbed up a large rope net with the five-year-olds. Then, we split up into four classrooms, where we observed a lesson, attempted to teach some English words to a semi-circle of fifty excited kindergarteners, then joined in playing and painting.
The centerpiece of the day was the basketball tournament, complete with a choreographed cheerleading routine. After the kindergarteners played, my students showcased their skills, dunking on the miniature hoops while the kids cheered. A few of my students even got to play with the school’s basketball team. Finally, we ate some delicious noodles in the classrooms before going to a conference room to talk about our experiences with the teachers.
Though this activity was unexpected, it was one of the most fun and most meaningful of our trip. We got to see what early education looks like in China, and we were able to form connections with the children, many of whom had never had an interaction with a foreigner before.
When we embrace the unexpected, we can have experiences like this that remind us of the purpose of the exchange. We are here to form connections across cultural boundaries, to increase our own understanding of the people here and to help them understand us. We are here to let go of our preconceived notions and personal hang-ups and enjoy each other’s company.
This weekend, my host family invited me to “go to the mountain” with them. I have no idea what that means, but I said yes.