Bridging the Gap:
A Reflection on China Exchange’s Qingdao Delegation Visit

More by Barbara Bell - 11/12

 

Fall means a lot of things to different people:  the start of football, warmer layers, leaves changing color, and even the first Pumpkin Spice latte of the season.  But for the Darien High School China Exchange, it means a visit from their sister school in China. This year, on September 29, DHS welcomed the delegation of teachers and students from the Qingdao Number 58 School in Qingdao, China.

In their mere eight day visit, the group covered ground from New York City to Yale University, and I got the chance to sit down with four of the group members, Li Lishuo (Letitia), Zhao Zhongqian (Qan), Pei Lite (Kevin), and Dong Shuai (Dorris). We talked about the highlights of their visit and what they’ve gained from the exchange.

The Halloween party, a tradition started by China Exchange two years ago, is the topic that the Chinese are most eager to talk about.  Senior Sarah Colon’s neighborhood celebrated the outing a little early this year, putting out decorations and stocking up on goodies to give out for trick-or-treat. At night, the Qingdao students (even teachers) dressed up in costumes from vampires to princesses and went door-to-door collecting candy.

The event has always been a huge success, and not just because of the candy or the fun costumes. “The idea of it is such a great concept,” Letitia said. Continued Qan,

everyone in China is so busy that they don’t take the time to organize fun and silly things like Halloween. Homework and studying are considered more important.”

That doesn’t go to say that Chinese teenagers don’t like to have fun, a huge misconception that Americans have. “Of course we enjoy hanging out with friends after school,” Letitia said. Shopping and karaoke bars are two of the most popular activities. “It’s just that sometimes, our school days don’t allow it.” Some students will attend classes from 7 in the morning to 6 or 8 at night (I’ll be the first to vouch for that- my school days with my host sister last spring in Shanghai easily ran from dawn to dusk).

The reason school days are so long? Chinese students have a lot riding on their academic success, more than we Americans may realize. The standardized tests (equivalent to SATs) determine where a student goes to university, period. Knowing that, it’s much easier to understand why studying would be so crucial: its effects are potentially life changing.  

Besides the length of the school day, there are other differences between Chinese and American schools, one of those things, being the amount of freedom we have as students, like how we change classes (In China, students stay in the same classroom all day while the teachers rotate). We might hardly notice ourselves, but for other cultures, it’s more obvious.  Dorris, an English teacher, sat next to me during a seminar in AP US History, and kept telling me how shocked she was by the atmosphere of the class. Even the way students sit was a culture shock for her.

In Qingdao there is a heavy emphasis on posture and how to sit straight: students can’t slouch or lean over, even move their heads or rest them on the desk,” she explained.
These fundamental cultural differences are why the exchange is such a valuable experience. It’s the best way to “learn about America” and experience the culture “outside of a tour group,” Letitia said. “Plus it’s a great way to improve our oral English.”

The fact that the Qingdao students can speak almost as perfect English as I can is what continues to impress me the most.  Chinese teenagers have become so “Americanized” in this new modern age.  They flock to the Apple store just as much as we do (some of the students were even going that same afternoon after I spoke with them) Kevin said that, “Justin Bieber is the most popular singer in China.” Meanwhile, I can barely speak one sentence in Mandarin, let alone understand their favorite songs.

I think it says a lot that the Chinese people are so much more in tune to our culture than we are to theirs. Thankfully,  the exchange helps students understand Chinese customs and values, and appreciate them for their differences, not criticize them for being “weird” or not what we’re accustomed too.  They might speak a different language, and live in a different city, but at the end of the day, Chinese teenagers are looking for the same things as we are: to have a balanced life, with success, friendships, and family, and most importantly, to be happy.

Fall will come and go, and so will the Qingdao delegation, but the impressions they leave us with will carry on. DHS and Qingdao No. 58 have built a friendship that has last over a decade, a pretty impressive accomplishment considering the 6,000 mile distance.

Check out the blog from DHS’ first trip to Qingdao back in 2007: http://www.darienps.org/uschinaexchange/trip07.htm