Beijing by Lauro (Tree)

Beijing is the capital of modern China, and of all the cities in the PRC, none (except maybe Shanghai) exemplify China’s leap into the new world quite like Beijing.  The city is a fusion of modern architectural leviathans, such as the 2008 olympic stadium the Bird’s Nest, with the equally striking hallmarks of traditional Chinese culture, the Forbidden City, and of course, the Great Wall of China.  

Tiananmen Square was addition to the elite sites of world history that we’ve visited, and like the others, it was special in its own way.  The Tiananmen square protest and the ensuing violence has earned its place among the significant events of the world.  Having learned about this event in class, and having seen pictures of the carnage, it was so much more meaningful when we saw the proud painting of Mao at the front of the square, and the total absence of acknowledgement of the events that had occured.  In Boston, we have landmarks that signal the site of the “Boston Massacre” a death of five in which the actions taken by the authority were more justified and the situation was more muddled.  According to the reporters present at the scene, estimates of casualties start at 200 and climb well into the thousands.  There is not a statue, a sign, a single acknowledgement of one of the most significant events in the history of the PRC since it was officially founded in 1949 – because it doesn’t reflect positively on the Chinese government.  For the first time, our tour guide clammed up.

“You know Tankman,” I began, “the man with the shopping bags?”

The smile faded from Kelly’s (our tour guide) face.  ‘The picture?” she asked, and I saw the recognition in her eyes.

“Yeah, exactly.” I said.   Then, gesturing to streets surrounding the vast square, “Where did that happen?”

“I don’t know anything,” Kelly, normally extremely cheerful, said abruptly.  She quickly moved on.

Believe it or not, this was the first time something like this happened on our trip.  I think it was important, because our trip consisted of the very best of China, but no country is without its problems.  This moment reminded us that China is not a country where freedom of speech is tolerated, at least not to the extent which it is in the United States.

The Great Wall was an incredible sight.  Everyone has seen a picture of it at some point, a marvel of human effort snaking through a sloping, beautiful landscape.  The wall was incredible to see in person, it was like suddenly zooming into the famous postcard view, seeing insects crawl across the stone, being able to reach out and touch the cracks in the thousand year old rock.  The climb was very steep in some places, and the hubbub of many languages, labored but excited breathing, clicking cameras, and Naomi Jaynes complaining (in this case promising threats of violence on the inventor of stairs) filled the air.  Ashira, Gabi and I trekked from tower to tower, enjoying the landscape and getting in some cardio.  We were in awe of what was accomplished without the use of modern machinery.

We saw the outside of the Bird’s Nest, and for me this was a really significant experience.  The first time in my life I heard the word “China” was in the context of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  First impressions being first impressions, in the future whenever I heard “China” what came to mind was the Bird’s Nest olympic stadium, the hulking but somehow elegant twisting mass of steel that I had seen on the television screen when I was just seven years old.  To say that I realized I was in China when seeing the stadium in person would be wrong. That I had realized attop the Shanghai tower, in front of the Terracotta Warriors, and on the Great Wall.  What standing before the Bird’s Nest reminded me was how far I had come. The human brain can adapt very easily, and sometimes that makes it harder to realize how much you have changed, how much you have learned, how much you have grown – in my case both physically and literally.  In front of the Bird’s Nest I remembered how little I had known about China, and how much I knew now. I realized how much I had learned about Chinese culture, the amazing people I had come to know through this experience, and realized that there was a time when I had not had them. I realized how much my Chinese had improved, and how much my horizons had been widened.  

I didn’t have a culturally sheltered upbringing (being Argentine-American, I was sure I had escaped a great deal of ethnocentrism) but even so China turned my principles upside down and helped me realize that morals, cultural concepts of good and bad are a matter of perspective and human construct.  This can be a frightening existential realization, and it was for me, at first. This makes sense. Humans are social creatures, and as such concepts of personal identity are built upon and supported by the society and norms that we live with. When one sees how unstable and malleable these concepts are, it becomes clear that it is actually the collective people, a body of individuals, that are the bedrock for the temporary and varying ideas that we see as permanent principles that existed before man, that which guides us.  It is a startling realization that it is us who guide it.  This can be terrifying. Concepts of God or gods, of equality, of morality, may outlive the death of one person, or one billion- but they cannot outlive the death of all people. However scary, this realization is accompanied by the knowledge of the effect you have on the world. You are free to live your life the way you want to, and no one can tell you they know better.  This is part of what I took away from my experience in China, and it really changed me as a person, and I can only guess at how differently I’ll live my life going forward because of it.  

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Guilin by Margo

Scenic, rainy, mesmerizing, and lively are all words I would use to describe Guilin. After a bumpy three hour plane ride we landed in Guilin and immediately noticed the intense heat and humidity, luckily our bus had air conditioning. Once we arrived at our quaint hotel we got to go out and explore. To the right of our hotel was a street market, we walked around for a while and looked at the paintings, embroidery, painted rocks, and more. On our second day in Guilin we visited a massive cave full of stalagmites, pools of water, and a lightshow. The cave, which seemed endless, had massive rock formations that towered over us. Some of the stalagmites hung low from the ceiling like gothic chandeliers and others grew from the ground and looked like mushrooms. After we visited the caves, we went to see a massive rock resembling an elephant that was located along the shore of a river. With the sun beating down on us, we went hiking up a mountain near the rock to see the city view (it’s important to keep in mind that in China hiking is really just walking upstairs). The view from the top showed us almost all of the city, it was quite beautiful. Following our hike we went to a pearl museum, where a fashion show was put on for us, displaying different style pearls. We were also taught how to tell the difference between real pearls and fake pearls. The trick is that when you rub two of the pearls together it should feel grainy if they’re real. The next morning, we enjoyed an American style breakfast in our hotel and then put on our rain jackets, bracing ourselves for the downpours going on outside. After a sprint to the bus, we drove to the river where we’d be taking a boat from Guilin to Yangshuo. Our boat ride was around 4 hours long and took us through the mountains. The rainy weather caused a lot of fog, looking at the mountain from the river was amazing because the fog seemed to roll down them. All of us went up to the roof of the boat at one point and returned soaking wet and in awe of the scenery.

When we arrived at our destination we were quick to notice that Yangshuo was a tourist city. Yangshuo was extremely rainy. We got to bike all around the area. On our second day, we biked to a rock climbing area, another cave, and a mountain. Ms. Kissel, Ling-li, and Tree were the professionals in this situation, showing all of us the ropes. Because of the rain it ended up being kind of slippery, but rock climbing was actually very fun! Afterwards we biked to a cave that was named the “Butterfly Cave” because there was a massive butterfly shaped rock in it. The cave ended up being very small compared to the first cave we went to and the butterfly rock looked man made. Tree was quick to point this out and promptly after insulting the cave, he tripped and fell into a puddle. That night we searched Yangshuo for a good looking Western restaurant. When we finally came across one that looked good to us, I got to eat the cheese burger I’d been dreaming of. Isabelle and Ashira got some very delicious Indian food and found Ms. Kissel at the India restaurant. The next day we hiked up (walking up more stairs) a local mountain. After a grueling trip to the summit, the view from the top was totally worth it! The mountains and trees and rivers seemed endless from where we were. It began to rain when we got to the bottom of the mountain and continued throughout bike ride to a nearby river. After pulling on our bright orange lifejackets we boarded a boat and took a ride down the river. When we got to the end there was a rock wall in the river that we could jump onto and look around on. Our boat ride was peaceful and full of laughter. That night we went to a show that was literally on a lake. There were 700 people in the show and it had a beautiful light display.

The next day were began a long bus ride to the rice terraces, which were located in Longsheng. We drove through the mountains to get there and got to see a lot of the countryside. Our hotel was located on top of a mountain and being there was such an amazing experience. We had a backpack full of necessities because we couldn’t take suitcases up the mountain and that was all. We spent the rest of our day exploring the rice terraces, taking the scenic route because the one that is used most of the time was closed. The paddies looked exactly like they do in photos. When we had climbed through all of them we were drenched in sweat and out of water. Strategically placed at the end of the terraces were several stores selling cold drinks for very high prices. We all had to succumb to the high prices and splurge for a soda. Gabi and Isabelle went to look at another area and we accidentally ditched them on top of the mountain. However, they found their way down and took some super cool pictures. We figured out that a group of French exchange students were staying in our hotel and we hung out with them that night. Tree and I played against the French students and were on a winning streak until they brought their best player into the game. Then we switched the teams up and kept playing. We all ended up having a really great time and we got to meet up with them again in Beijing, where they live.

Overall, our trip to Guilin was an amazing experience and I enjoyed every moment of it. We got to see lots of beautiful scenery, ethnic minorities, and meet some really amazing people. I am so glad we decided to go to Guilin and I definitely want to go back.

 

So, We’re​ Down to the Single Digits

Ever since we have gotten back from our amazing week-long trip to Guilin, it has finally hit me that we are in the last stretch of our China exchange trip. Honestly, I thought I would be a lot more excited when the final countdown started. Of course, I miss my family and friends back home in Brookline and I can’t wait to see them. However, as the days go by I feel the stomach-turning anxiety and sadness that comes along whenever something you love is coming to an end. 

So parents, guardians, administrators, and whoever else has been worrying back in Boston, I’m sure you have heard about the hardships some of us have encountered on this trip. But more importantly, we have also had many high points and life-changing experiences. Somehow we tended to forget to tell you about those. When we are a few miles and an ocean away we rely on people back home for emotional support. I can admit if I ever was feeling fed up with something, my mom was the first person I would call. From my own experience, I can say I didn’t share the low moments of this trip with the intention of making her worry but simply because I can count on her for the best advice or just to be a person to talk to. I think it was the same for all of us. Maybe it is too late to convince you all back home that we are actually getting along, don’t hate each other, and don’t hate this country.  But I have only just begun to think about how much this trip has meant to me and now I’ve started panicking about coming back to the USA.  I thought this could be an interesting and hopefully a meaningful post to explain our last bit in Xi’an, China. So here are my thoughts.

Earlier today during our history exam, I looked at the top right-hand corner of my screen which counts down the days till we arrive back in Boston. When I first set up this countdown, it was the first week with our host families. I missed my real family so badly and I couldn’t wait till the day that countdown read the single digits. As I write this blog post, it is just now changing from ten more days to nine more days, to those single digits I have been waiting for. As I write this I’m not nearly as happy as I thought I would be. I thought it was going to be a sigh of relief that I would be returning to my normal life in those few days. But I don’t think I can remember what I considered a normal day since this has become my new normal. My relationship with people back in the US hasn’t changed from then till now. I still have the same love for them and I’m still going to be ecstatic to see them again. The only thing that has changed my perspective on going home is the family we have built here. Now don’t get me wrong. While my host family is okay, they aren’t the family I am talking about. Our group of nine has been the only people I can speak to without difficulty, the only friends I can hang out with outside of school, and the only faces I see every day. We have become each other’s constant and that has made us close on so many levels. When I first was accepted on this trip, I recognized a few names on the list of people I would be stuck in China with for four months. But most of the names were new people I had never met before in my life. I was terrified of everyone when I first met them and I can admit I didn’t have high expectations for many friendships to form here.  I was completely wrong. I would never have expected we would all turn out so close. Not only do we get along but we are friends to a whole other level. Ms. Kissel even thinks we are a bit too close, but trust me, she gets her jokes in time and time and again. 

Thinking of going back to the US, to Brookline High School, and to everyone I left behind really frightens me. I’m scared of going back and not understanding anything that has been going on in my friends’ lives for the past four months. I’m scared of arriving and thinking of my own country and hometown as alien. But above of all, I’m terrified of having to socialize with other people outside of this strangely comfortable group of friends. As the time we have been living in Xi’an grows longer, our social skills have shrunk to the point where they can almost qualify as non-existent. The idea of going to a place where I have no excuse for trying to ignore someone, awkwardly smiling at them, and then proceeding to run away is pretty much my worst nightmare. Paired with my newly acquired social anxiety, next year we are going to be back in a school with two thousand students. I’m worried that I won’t see these same faces every day. It most likely will be once a week, or maybe every other day, if we get lucky. All eight of us became each other’s only classmates, friends, and family for four months. It’s a strange concept for me to be thrust back into the world without one of them on my arm.

In a recent meeting with the headmaster, superintendent and school committee, they asked us about how everything has been at the host homes and at school. As we lay it all down on the table I realized how much we have gone through together, good and also below average. The faces around the table seemed overwhelmed with emotion as we shared out stories. We sat silently for a moment and finally someone asked if we would recommend this trip in the future. I have had my fair share of low points on this trip, points where I was ready to get on the next plane home and I’m not the only one. As she asked, immediately all seven of us said yes. Since due to this opportunity, we have all changed so much as teenagers, as upcoming but still fake adults, and also as people. Everything was worth it.  

I can’t speak for everyone but I had a great trip and I’m still having fun. Things haven’t been easy but isn’t that why we are on this trip? To learn and grow? I wouldn’t trade this trip for a chance to go elsewhere, and I wouldn’t change any of the experiences that we have had on this trip since we wouldn’t have the same relationship and bond we have today. Hey, people back home. I hope you were reading that carefully. I wanted to let you know what we have all be discussing before we get back in only nine days. 

See you all soon,

Ashira Goldberg

CHINA: A TASTE

Like many countries in the world, China has its own unique cuisine and taste. Ranging from all different flavors, this cuisine feeds over a billion+ people keeping them happy and satisfied. Over the course of my stay in here, I have encountered many of China’s famous dishes and unusual delicacies.

I remember during the first month I was living in Xi’an, around the time of the spring festival, I walked into the laundry room, just off the kitchen, to wash my clothes for that week. On the washing machine was meat. To this day I want to say it was pork, but if I am being honest I’m still not entirely sure what meat it was. At first, I was just a little taken aback, I assumed they were preparing it for the evening’s dinner as the laundry room always seemed to have things pickling in jars and other random foods in the corner. Brushing off the initial confusion of the mystery meat, I turned to the hanging rack to take my dry clothes down. As I took my clothes down, I noticed a few hangers missing. I looked out the window, which wasn’t too hard as almost all four sides of the room were glass, and I noticed something lying on the outside window pane. It seemed that someone had strung a slab of mystery meat onto a hanger (somehow) and placed it on the outside of the window, seventeen floors up.

I ran back to the kitchen and quickly alarmed my host sister that there were slabs of meat hanging outside their window. She laughed and lead me back to the laundry room. She explained that is was a technique used by many villagers to dry meat. I found this very interesting. Even though we were far from the nearest village, old methods of cooking were still being used. Although I now understood the purpose of the window meat I was cautious not to eat it. That didn’t last long. It snuck into one of my host mom’s amazing fried rice dishes and I ate it. I can say without a doubt it was some of the best fried rice I have ever had.

Not only are traditional cooking methods still widely used throughout China but the idea of only eating local ingredients has also stuck for the most part. The cuisine in different parts of China ranges based on what food is local. For example, most southern regions of China use rice as their main staple ingredient as it is much easier to grow in their climate than wheat. When our group traveled to the Yunnan province and Guilin, we ate a lot of rice and rice noodles. The cuisine in Xi’an and the more northern regions of China is wheat based. Although rice if used, wheat is the main ingredient for most traditional dishes.

A big difference between restaurants in America and the restaurants in China is ordering. When you walk into a restaurant here one person is handed the menu to order for the whole group. Normally the menu will be given to the leader of the group, in my host family’s case that would be my host father. He asks for suggestions, but he makes the final decision. When the food comes it is placed on a giant Lazy Susan—basically a giant spinning plate in the middle of the table—and is shared amongst the group. For some people in our group this was a new concept as many Americans tend to order for themselves, not dishes to share.

Overall, I would have to say my experience with food in China has been quite a roller coaster. There have been great meals and meals that I regret. There have even been times where I was not sure what exactly was being but in front of me. As one of the more “adventurous” eaters of the group, I am always the first to try the weirdest dish on the table. One thing I can say for certain is that my trip to China has allowed me to expand my palette and try all sorts of weird and wonderful foods.

-Isabelle

Letter to my brother

Before reading this post, read this one from last year.

Dear Jake,

Let me tell you, I have been in for a wild ride. China has not only been the craziest thing I have ever done, but also the scariest. I applied for the program freshman year, knowing that you were having an amazing time in China. You inspired me to push the limits and discover who I am, by myself in a completely foreign country. China has forced me to think independently and open up my mind to the possibilities that surround me every day. I had the difficult task of repairing your damages; I had a lot to live up to. Being so independent has its advantages and disadvantages. I have learned so much about myself and others in the process, but I have also made some mistakes that I was able to learn from.

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My host family and I on our way to ShenZhen

My host family has been amazing. They make me feel loved and welcomed. After walking off the plane from Hangzhou, I was completely and utterly terrified. I had no idea what my host family was like, and I knew that that moment would define the next 4 months. They welcomed me into their home with opened arms. The busy family of six never ceases to amaze me. I have conversations with my host father about the education system and government. I enjoy playing soccer with my host brother and sister, and my younger infant twin sisters waddle around the house yelling “jie jie, jie jie!”. The dinner table is filled with laughter and smiles.

CHEX group in Yunnan
CHEX group in Yunnan

You were right, one of the hardest parts of being here is the American cravings. All I want is to eat some Starburst, and sink my teeth into a nice juicy burger. You told me not to try Burger King, but as soon as we landed in Shanghai, we decided to go because it was the closest western restaurant to our hotel. The burger tasted like cardboard and I would not wish that meal upon my worst enemy. We stuck to Chinese food for the next month. Longing for some American food, we decided to try McDonalds. It turned out to be a pleasant surprise. It is still nothing compared to the food at home, but it eased our cravings. The spontaneous decisions, I have learned can be the most rewarding. In Suzhou we decided to walk out the hotel and find the best food we could. We walked down a block, and had some of the best food I have had in China.

Four months is a long time, but it’s crazy to think that we only have two weeks left. I believe I have made the most of my stay here, and can easily say that China has been a life changing experience. Thank you for helping and guiding me.

Love,

Gabi

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Host mother and sisters

 

My experience as a Chinese adoptee

Coming to China has always been a goal of mine. Ever since I was young, I have been interested in my homeland’s language and culture. The thought of living here has always intrigued me and when I heard about the Chinese exchange program at Brookline High School, I applied immediately. My adoptive parents have always supported me and even tried to find my birth parents. However, I have always felt a bit out of place. Here in China, I feel like people are like me and accept me for who I am. When I first came to China, I didn’t feel like I was going into the complete unknown. It felt familiar.

Having a Chinese family has filled an emptiness that I have always felt deep down. I remember one night when my sister and I were very young, we woke up in the middle of the night and both began crying. When my parents came into our room and asked us what was wrong, we both replied by saying something along the lines of “I miss my birth parents.” Even though my host family isn’t my birth family, the fact that they are Chinese is enough for me. When I first arrived, I felt, of course, nervous, but at the same time, I felt like I was coming home. My family is so caring and I feel very loved.

China has made me feel all sorts of emotions. Sometimes I feel conflicted because I miss my family and friends back in America, but I really enjoy being in China. I love walking down the street, seeing all the faces that look like mine, staring into the same brown eyes and blending in. I feel like I totally belong and am at ease.

Two years ago, before I started learning Chinese, I always hated it when I had to tell people in Chinatown that I couldn’t speak Chinese and didn’t know what they were saying. It made me feel so out of place and ashamed. Now, I am able to communicate much more. It makes me so happy when people talk to me in Chinese and it amazes me how much I can now understand. It fills me with great satisfaction whenever I  have a conversation with someone and can follow most of what they are saying! 

Right now, I am sitting in my dining room, writing this blog post, and listening to my favorite Chinese song. I don’t regret being adopted and I actually prefer it, but now my heart is more at peace because now I have an idea of a life I could have had if I hadn’t been adopted.  

~ Ling-li Rotella/朱玲莉