The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 13, 2005


CCHS Chinese class uses language skills in China
So it began with a two-hour flight from Logan Airport to O'Hare, and a twelve-hour encore flight to Beijing. To China we went, a fledging group of 17 students from Concord-Carlisle Regional High School, Ms. Hai-Ming Wu, our Chinese teacher and Ms. Lara Antkowiak and her husband, Dr. Cabrera, as chaperones. The flight became our first introduction to China. The flight attendants poured boiling water into our cups of noodles at 30,000 feet. We wondered where the peanuts were. Every announcement was first given in English and then in Chinese.

Once in Beijing, we headed straight to Wang Fu Jing marketplace. Ms. Wu deemed it a safe place to release her jet-lagged, bedraggled group of students. We found a candy shop but our brains were still scrambled from the flight and it took us a long while to work out the conversion rate; fourteen yuan is a good deal for anything. Remember that.

As our group bartered its way through the markets of Beijing, Xi'an and Shanghai, we were met with astonished expressions. After negotiating down the price, the vendors broke their game faces and out of curiosity wanted to know where we were from, how long we had studied Chinese, where we were staying, what we were seeing. Our Chinese impressed them. Our Chinese impressed us as well. After four years of character practice, sentences, and grammar, we found we could haggle for pearls, thwart pushy vendors, read maps and signs, and of course survive the meals.

The Chinese language today is a combination of traditional characters and the modern simplified characters established under its Communist rule. Knowing the language helped meld the modern and ancient worlds of China. We were standing by the city gate of Xi'an, craning our necks back and squinting against the high sun to read an aged black plaque with gold embossed characters on it. We could recognize the characters but there was something different about it. We quickly realized that not only were the characters written in traditional font but also they were written right to left, in the ancient Chinese fashion. Apparently we had learned more than we thought.

Traveling in China and speaking the language helped as we toured through the cities of Beijing, Xi'an, Suzhou, and Shanghai. Our itinerary was brimming with sites, events, shows, and special meals that most people will never experience.

The Great Wall forms the raised spine of the mountain range, its turreted edges skirted by pale cherry-blossom trees. Postcards belie its steep and treacherous slope. Hiking up reminded us all that the Great Wall is not just a feat of human engineering, but a defense fortification. It is peaceful now but its heavy-handed stonewalls and archer slits make it easy to imagine less peaceful periods in the country's history.

Stark red walls encompass the Forbidden City. Perched high above the common grounds, the buildings sit, ornately decorated with ribbed and curved roofs. We were disappointed to find many of the buildings inside the Forbidden City under construction for the Olympic games of 2008, but it was good to see they were being restored.

No other image could be more appropriate for the Summer Palace than leaning against a cool, intricately carved marble railing, overlooking still waters with three lacy willow trees dipping their branches down. The Summer Palace is so large that it is easy to find a place to be alone and simply enjoy the tranquility of the gardens. I wish we had been able to spend a full day strolling through the Summer Palace. None of us could fathom a life where such scenery would be for one family and one family alone.

Documentaries can never do justice to the grandeur of the Terra Cotta Soldiers. These clay figures form a commanding army to accompany the Qin Emperor into the afterlife. They were discovered accidentally by farmers trying to dig a well. Walking into the first pit, the sheer magnitude of the exhibit is overwhelming. As we wandered along the sides of the pit, we were amazed to see how visibly different each soldier was from the man on his left or right. Even the horses had distinct details. Instead of looking at clay figures, we were looking at clay ghosts.

In Shang Hai, as our trip began to wind down, we shopped more, ate less and our energy began to fail. Long bus rides became quiet nap times. Nanking Road was probably the highlight of our shopping ventures in Shanghai. By then we had every confidence in our bartering skills and, judging by the number of students who checked two suitcases instead of one on the return flight, we were successful. We quickly learned that the dollar goes a long way in Chinese markets. We bought pictures, wall hangings, swords and daggers, candy, and shirtsif they sold it, chances are one of us bought it.

One of the highlights of our trip was visiting the Sunshine Middle School in Xi'an. The students were really high school aged, but the Chinese educational system operates differently. As a welcome tribute, they provided an extravagant banquet and performed traditional Chinese dances. As a surprise to all of us, they presented Steve Vicharelli with a cake to celebrate his birthday. This amazing display of hospitality made us feel like friends. We look forward to hosting them at CCHS.

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito