I spent the last week on what my school calls “China Studies”. I really like the idea. Basically, because we live in China my school has made a commitment to ensure that in each grade there is a certain amount of “China engagement”. I really like this. It is very very easy for international schools to be very isolated from their host nation and this is a way of staying connected to where we are. It isn’t perfect of course but acknowledging and trying to incorporate China in this way really positively impacts the schools overall culture. It also means that China engagement can be seen both in the curriculum and spilling over into a variety of week-long field trips. Every year (after grade 6) the students have the opportunity (and by opportunity I mean that they have no choice) to experience a different part of China. For mea that means that I spent that last week with 15 adults and 110 13-year olds. Who’s excited!
Of course the best way to ensure that all 110 13 year olds and their teachers are super ready to start their trip is to of course have a 4 am wake up time. I compounded the joy by making sure that I went to bed at least an hour and a half after I normally would. I stood there on the weirdly pollution fogged street waiting for my ride and noticing the very strange people that only seem to be around at 4am. This was the last chance for quiet contemplation for awhile…
The students were all supposed to be dropped off at school by 5:30 and thus began the counting. There are 22 kids in my homeroom but only 21 of them were coming. We were coming out of a long weekend and so we had to collect passports at this point. When you travel in China you have to have your passport to check into a hotel. You also have to make sure that the passport that you are travelling with is the passport that you arranged the hotel with. This is an important note if like some of my students you have 4 different passports (not even an exaggeration). Line up and count again and we are off to the train station.
Where we exit the bus and count the children again. The paranoia of being in charge of other people’s children in this context cannot be overstated. Must, Not. Lose. Child. Spoiler: we didn’t. I don’t know why but the trip leaders are very attached to holding up a flag and being followed. It is the general Chinese way of tour groups. We arrived at the train station at 7 for the 9:09 (“very auspicious”) train to Kaifeng. The children were very subdued until we got to the waiting room and they found out that they could buy candy. General chaos reigned. We lined them up and got them to their places on the train and then quietly passed the next three hours. Exiting the train was actually the tricky part. When we got to Kaifeng the train would only stop for 2 ½ minutes. Think about that. 2 ½ minutes to get 110 students, 20 adults, and all of our crap off of the train. We started getting them ready 20 minutes before arrival and at out stop pretty much yelled, “Go, go, go! Faster! Get out of the way!” until they were all out. Very exciting. We herded the group through the huge train station and onto a bus where we sat in the comfort of 18 degrees for another 2 hours.
Now all of this travel was to get to a marshal arts school in Dengfeng County, in Henan Province. Why this school and why here you may ask? DengFeng is a tiny county at the foot of Mount Song which is one of the most sacred mountains in China. It is also the home of the Shaolin Monetary. You may have heard of it. They are quite well known for Wushu, a style of Marshall arts and in the county there are over a hundred academies. For two days the students from our school were taught and trained by students of this school. It was actually pretty remarkable to watch. Not all of the students were into it of course. Some were uncomfortable, others weren’t confident in their body movements, and some were just too cool for it. But the transformation… There is something to be said for focused sustained practice. Every student was engaged. They were perfect but 110 engaged grade 7 students is always an event worth watching. By the end of the second day our students had 5 two hour sessions with their student masters.
One of the sessions was supposed to be on the steps of the Shaolin temple. Unfortunately, we were not told that the steps are owned by a rival kung fu school and so practicing with our masters there wasn’t possible. We also almost didn’t visit the Monastery at all. We practiced in the waiting area before you enter the “park’ and then walked the kids to a Kung Fu show (impressive!). After that we simply walked by the Monastery with our guides until all of the teachers had a collective hissy fit and we finally got to go in. It is as if we took the kids to the national mall in Washington DC and then just walked them but it.
There are trees that have holes in them from the monks jabbing them with their fingers. Gingko trees a thousand years old and larger than any I have ever seen. I sent a couple of students out with a camera to take pictures of as many different stone animals as they could find. I think they came back with 22. The monastery itself has been destroyed and rebuilt many times but the current building is still about 500 years old although the building was set fire to as recently as 1928.
It was really cool to see the relationships develop. Not all of our students speak Mandarin and the EPO students spoke little to no English. It is amazing how little that can matter. There were times that the student masters were able to show off their skills (after all they have been working pretty much day and night on them for the last decade or so) and at times we allowed them opportunities for general silliness. We staged a Newspaper Fashion show one evening. Students were given a pile of newspapers and some packing tape and told to make themselves into an animal, a bride, or a beak costume. Hilarity ensued. One girl was being packed into a “wedding dress” and I asked her who she was marrying. “Myself. Because it is my day.” I fully support you kid. I pulled random kung fu students into the madness whenever they were bold enough to stop and see what we were doing. A could of girls joined one group, a five-year-old boy wanted to sit on everyone’s lap, and about 15 other boys ended up being out judges. I cannot imagine the letters home to their parents. “Dear Mom and Dad, the weirdest thing happened at school today… So many foreigners...” Cultural exchange at it’s finest.