The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, May 27, 2005


In April Carlisle School teachers go to China

The four of us (left to right) - Beth, Erin, Carolyn and Cynthia.
Carlisle School Technology specialist Cynthia McCann, middle school art teacher Beth Sherman, and sixth-grade teachers Erin Mc Auley and Carolyn Platt recently returned from an eye-opening two-week study tour of China. Their visit to Shanghai, Xian and Beijing was highlighted by home stays in Xian and teaching in two schools. Sponsored by Primary Source, an organization committed to teaching about underrepresented areas in the world, and funded by the Carlisle Education Foundation and The Freeman Foundation, these teachers joined 24 other Massachusetts educators on the study tour.

China is an important cultural and economic presence in the world, and has been underrepresented in school curricula. Superintendent Marie Doyle not only supports incorporating China into the Carlisle curriculum, but she wants teachers to develop and teach information based on primary sources. To this end the teachers not only participated in the study tour, but attended six all-day China seminars at Primary Source, took Mandarin and read widely in preparation for the trip.

In this article each teacher offers an overview of her stay with a Chinese family in the city of Xian.

My homestay with Xiaohua

In the ten-minute taxi ride from our hotel to the North Gate in Xian, I learned that 32-year-old Xiaohua taught high school English in a neighborhood school, supervised other teachers and was working on her master's degree. I also discovered she rued the entrance exam all students must take to get into university and onto successful lives, and I shared the challenges of MCAS. That was the beginning of many hours of professional and personal sharing and questioning.

The taxi dropped Xiaohua and me off on a wide Xian street with fancy restaurants and flashy stores. Around the corner we entered another world, a family neighborhood with small shops where the owners conducted much of their daily routine in full public view including eating on the sidewalk. Then around another corner and down an alley we entered a quiet courtyard surrounded by several nine-story apartments. Xiaohua and many of her colleagues own apartments in this complex, made possible because they teach at a local school. Up we climbed, nine stories in all, in a stairwell with lights activated by our movement.

The five-room, one-bath apartment was quiet, waiting for the arrival of Xiaohua's husband and 2 1/2 year-old son. Hints of the boy were evident: a few crayon marks on the wall at child level, words in Chinese and English posted all over the apartment. Guaiguai (nickname meaning lovely, not naughty) and his father arrived as Xiaohua and I were chatting over tea. I was the first Westerner the boy had ever seen. He was a ball of energy, went straight to his toy drawer and took out his action toys! He kept imitating a popular show called Black Cat Policeman, running around on the shiny granite floors with his hat and gun. Knowing I was soon to be a grandmother, Xiaohua asked if he could call me Nana. Both nights of my visit we were joined by family members at nearby restaurants. We ate in private rooms which allowed Guaiguai freedom to roam. Morning routines echoed American: rush to the shower and breakfast. The shower in this case was a "telephone" shower and the floor of the bathroom was the drainno shower stall. Breakfast, brought home by the husband, was deep fried dough, delicious noodle soup and pickled vegetables. When the baby woke up, he asked, "Where is my foreign Nana?" I felt very bonded to Xiaohua and her family as we shared the challenges of working, taking courses, raising children and finding time for relaxation.

Erin McAuley and her family in Xian

Beth Sherman gets lessons on how to make dumplings. (Courtesy photo)

As I walked through the front door of the apartment a young boy and his friend began singing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" to me and dancing around the living room. The whole experience was nothing like I had expected. In three days I learned more about the Chinese culture than I would have in any other environment. My experience was slightly different than others on the trip. My host father had his own design firm, which gave them enough financial security to have a car, a housekeeper, and a very large four-bedroom and two-bathroom apartment in a new development.

My host mother, an English teacher, had many questions about American schools and family life. We spent much of our time answering each other's questions. I was in awe of her house. Unlike some of the homes where other teachers stayed, my host family seemed to be highly influenced by western design. They had hardwood floors in all the rooms, two large sunrooms, a dining room, and a Jacuzzi in the master bedroom. I slept in the son's room that was covered in sports paraphernalia and housed a very large, very loud drum set. What I found the hardest to get used to was showering in the bathroom. There was no stall, just a showerhead in the middle of the bathroom.

I spent the majority of my time with their eight-year-old son Nicky. He went to a school where all students are taught English starting in pre-kindergarten. I taught him some English words and he tried to teach me Chinese; I was not a very good student. And even though our communication was simple we were still able to make up games together and play them, splash around at the Big Pagoda Garden, and share pictures of our families. It went by too fast but we have stayed in touch and I now have a family of friends in Xian.

Connecting with a family and a culture thousands of miles away

From the moment I met Meijun Gao, my host, in the lobby of our hotel in Xian, I knew that I was about to embark on an adventure unlike any other in my life, thus far. The coordinator of the Chinese hosts informed me that Meijun and her husband did not speak much English and I soon learned that they spoke almost none. On the taxi ride through Xi'an to my host family's home in Chang'an University, we smiled often and watched the sights of Xian pass by. We arrived at a very modest apartment building inside the gates of the University where my hostess, her husband, and their sixteen-year-old daughter live. Meijun is the assistant principal of the primary school at the University and her husband teaches mathematics at the secondary school. When we entered the small first-floor apartment, I met a friend of the family, Young Young, who told me that I could call him Young Squared. He is a senior in high school who just returned from a year studying in Singapore. Much to my excitement, he spoke English extremely well and was particularly interested in discussing NBA basketball, video games, and some of his favorite American movies.

Soon after I arrived at their home, Meng Meng, the daughter of my hostess, came home and we headed to a nearby restaurant to experience local Muslim food. At dinner, I spoke with the two teenagers as the parents sat quietly smiling and encouraging me to try all of the local flavors. We discussed the similarities and differences between American and Chinese teenagers. The teenagers told me of their hobbies, interests, and hopes to attend University and travel abroad in the future. They were very curious about my students and the way that they spend their free time. After enjoying one of the best dinners I had experienced while visiting China, I went on a walk through the University's new park with the two teenagers. The park was a local hangout for University students and I noticed that there were a number of young couples courting. My hosts told me that young adults in China are not allowed to date until they reach college age. We also met many young children who all wanted to practice their newly acquired English phrases on me. I too tested out the few Chinese words we had been learning on our long bus rides.

The following evening, after a day visiting a school in Pangliu village, I arrived at their apartment and was immediately put to work. Neither Young Squared nor Meng Meng were home so I had to communicate for myself with Meijun, her husband, and another couple they had invited over for the night. Our task was to prepare the dumplings for the evening meal. Each of the adults showed me their own method for stuffing the round flat dough with a meat and vegetable concoction. At first I was given some disapproving looks and a little redirection, but soon, I was on a roll and making platefuls of the neatly pinched dumplings. During dinner with the two families, I was encouraged to eat as many of my creations as humanly possible. By the end of the evening, the language barrier between my hosts and me had faded away. We shared pictures, taught each other new phrases, and most of all laughed and enjoyed each other's company. The following morning I found it difficult to say goodbye, one of the few Chinese words I did know, because in such a small segment of time I had become connected to a family and a culture that only two weeks earlier seemed a world away.

Making dumplings with Chen Xin

It was the day we were to meet our host for the home stay in Xian. I was anxious about the meeting. Most of the other teachers had heard from their host families and knew something about them. Since I had not heard, I didn't know who was in the family and, more importantly, if the gifts I brought would be appropriate for the family members. However, my fears turned out to be totally unnecessary. Chen Xin could not have been more gracious and welcoming.

She drove us to her house in her new car. It was unusual to have your own car as the government limits the number of cars on the road by restricting the availability of license plates. She lives on the fifth floor of her apartment building, so we had a nice workout to get to her floor. She shares the apartment with her husband, who works in another province and is only home one week each month, and her fourteen year-old son, Ju Chen. It consisted of a living room, two bedrooms, a kitchen and bathroom. Kitchens generally have windows that span the length of the room.

At first it was somewhat awkward, but we were soon chatting about the differences between our countries, daily life, schools and education, among many other topics. Carlisle students in grades four and six had given us a list of questions six pages long and we tackled answering as many as we could.

The next night, Chen Xin had a surprise for me. She had invited another teacher from her school over and we all made dumplings. Chen Xin's helper had made the dough and she was rolling them out with a little dowel. She was so fast, she could roll out about one every ten seconds! Chen Xin showed me how to assemble them, folding so they had little pleats across the top. It was a bit tricky, but I was able to make a few clumsy ones before they suggested I rest. After dinner we visited the Music Fountain in Xicheng Square and were treated to a wonderful display of waterworks set to music.

While it was sad to say goodbye to Chen Xin, we are fortunate in that she will be coming to Bedford this October with nine other teachers. I hope to have her to our school and reciprocate the warm hospitality she showed me in Xian.

2005 The Carlisle Mosquito