Jul 8, 2017

That Time I Arrived in Beijing to Begin a Six City Tour of China

I feel relieved and at peace today.

It's been four days since we landed in La Guardia after a twenty-one day, six city tour of China.

Coming home on the Sunday before the Fourth of July, we first landed in Detroit, went through immigration, retrieved our luggage, and grabbed our connecting flight home.

Monday was Fourth of July. You'd think I would've been journey-weary; but, I scooped up whatever energy I had left and watched Macy's fireworks on the East River with my age-old buddy Anthony Charles who was in town for work.

I hadn't sorted through all the photographs we'd taken, ticket stubs, leftover RMB notes, and select totchkes bought and packed, but sitting in the park before the fireworks started, I told Tony about our trip.

I'm a Teacher of High School-aged English Language Learners

I am a teacher. It's the reason I went to China. A vast majority of my students are Chinese citizens. Our school accepts a new crop of about a dozen international students every year. I teach this new cohort and usher them into their first year of high school. Families in China - mostly the emerging profitable middle and upper middle classes - who hope to give their children a leg up - send their children abroad to live with host families and study in an American private high school.

My job is a bit impossible because I teach everything: History, Reading Comprehension, Listening Skills, Speaking, Writing, and other odds and ends, to a mixed-age group and diversified skill set. I have students who can write essays in English without a translator in the same classroom with kids who struggle to form comprehensible sentences.

The impossibility of the job is made up for the fact that everyday in Room 21 at Garden School in Jackson Heights (Queens!) is a shared adventure of communicating across culture and language. I kinda love it.

Why Did I Go to China?

In February, right after third quarter exams, our class was doing some preliminary map work to gear up for a unit I had planned to teach on the Cold War. I was reminiscing with two kids, both from Huangzhou, about my traveling experience. I asked, "Have you ever been to Rome?" They said no, but Xuanbo shot back, "Why haven't you been to Asia?"

So I guess that's the genesis of my first trip to Asia. I took Xuanbo's question to heart. The furthest West I'd been was Corvallis, Oregon and the furthest East was the Palestinian and Israeli coastline of the Mediterranean Sea.

The school offers international trips to interested students and our veteran English Teacher James Pigman has headed up these trips for decades. He encouraged me to join this year's Summer trip because he said I'd get to see my students, meet teachers, and witness, first-hand, life in Beijing, Xi'ian, Nanjing, Suzhou, Wuxi, and Shanghai.

In China, I Met My Students

In every city, we visited a school campus or we met up with one of our students and their families. We also hung out with teachers who had taught Mandarin at Garden School in the past. We met Yuanyuan from Nanjing who heads up the Foreign Language Department at the city's superb foreign language high school. We also met a Middle School teacher in Suzhou. Her name is Youping. We met these awesome teachers because James Pigman had kept in touch with these Chinese teachers - and thus intercontinental friendship was kept alive.

Our Arrival

When we arrived in Beijing, Robin and Minje, 2017 Garden School graduates, met us at the airport with flowers.

Robin drove us to our hotel and I couldn't help but think there's something cliché about traveling. Especially in the Summer. Get on a flight. Go somewhere. Stay in a room that's not your own. Take photos. Probably post those pictures on the Internet. Go home. A million other details too, are so familiar, that in a way, I couldn't help but think I was following a well-traveled route. 

Our English teacher colleague and friend Amira Booth Soifer was already waiting for us in Beijing.

The hotel we stayed in was oriental kitsch (according to my friend Patrick who lives in the city) but comfortable. It's tucked inside an alley, one of many in Beijing that branch out from the main bustling arteries to reveal quieter spaces nestled within a sprawling low line city. The streets are called hutongs and it's easy to spot a family having dinner or a few Beijing bros out for a smoke.

We Spent RMB

RMB was an acronym I learned early on (i.e., The People's Money). The people's money is usually just called Yuan when referring to the actual paper and coin currency. Seven yuan equals roughly one U.S. dollar. However, China is quickly becoming a cashless society - especially in the urban areas. For example, I tried to buy a milk tea but the cafe owner informed me that he only accepts WeChat. I learned that in China everyone has WeChat. It's a social networking app on your mobile phone. You can load money into your account online and when you want to purchase something from a shop you show a QR code to the vender - and voíla you just paid for something.

Mobile apps are essential. It's easy to get around in the city if you know how to use DiDi, the Chinese Uber. When traveling alone, we didn't have access to DiDi. So waiting for a cab without DiDi meant watching people who had the app getting in cabs while we were left waiting to hail a DiDi-less cab.

I felt disoriented in China when we first arrived because even though I had a mobile phone it was only useful when connected to Wi-Fi. I - nor anyone in our group - didn't set up our phones for international calling or data plans. And because Google apps like Maps and Translate are censored in China, I could only use those apps when I loaded up my VPN (Virtual Private Network). So suffice it to say it was a cumbersome process to get what we needed online.

A fun way to communicate in China - and an alternative to Google Translate- was to draw pictures on a notepad to say what I wanted. I felt silly doing it but - for example - I wanted stamps to mail postcards to the United States. Showing a quickly drawn sketch to the hotel concierge did the trick (it was a crude drawing of a rectangle with a stamp in the upper left hand corner and an arrow pointing to the word "U.S.A."

Our first night was simple. The girls - two of our students who travelled with us - were entombed in their suite which left us teachers to recharge in the hotel restaurant. Jim said, "Isn't this great? Doesn't New York City feel so far away?"

He was right. When you're right you're right.

In my next post, I'll write about our visit to the Great Wall of China.

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