Yunnan Trip


This past week in Yunnan provided a much needed nature and culture detox for me and many of my American friends. I, for one, was frankly quite tired of the eternal white cloak of smog hanging over the horizon, flat terrain, and increasingly scorching days in Xi’an. I was more than thrilled when I heard that the weather in Yunnan would be temperate, and even brisk in Shangri La. I didn’t know what to expect culturally from the province, but I was hoping to see a change of scenery in that regard as well, and I was not disappointed.

During our journey through Yunnan I was constantly stricken by the beauty of our surroundings, whether manmade or natural. We went to the stone forest outside Kunming to see ancient natural rock formations, the leaping tiger gorge and it’s surrounded mountains and sheer cliff faces, the three pagodas in Dali, and the second largest prayer wheel in Asia in Shangri La. Better yet, the bus ride between these places was constantly breathtaking, lending us views of the jagged edge of the himalayas and clear, blue skies which are rarely seen in Xi’an. While all the places we visited were beautiful, the Songzanlin monastery took the cake for most memorable sight.

By far the most unusual place we visited, both geographically and culturally (from my perspective, was Shangri La, the city where the Songzanlin monastery was located. Along the six-hour ride from Dali to Shangri La, the temperature and landscape changed drastically. The temperature dropped from a pleasant 70 degrees to a chilly 50, and while there were mountains surrounding us in Dali, we were below them, whereas in Shangri La we were sitting amongst them. As we approached the city, yaks and black pigs began to appear on the side of the road. Linda, our consensus favorite tour guide, explained that in the yellow sect of buddhism practiced by most of the tibetans living in Shangri La, people should live in harmony with wildlife, hence the wildlife roaming the roads.

Our first destination after dropping our bags off at the hotel was a buddhist temple coupled with the second largest prayer wheel in Asia. While the site, settled on the top of a hill with cherry blossom trees sprinkled about, was beautiful, I didn’t really appreciate it to the fullest because I didn’t have sufficient historical or cultural context. We’ve seen plenty of beautiful historical sites in China, and they’re all essentially the same to me without the story behind them. We can see beautiful things in the United States. What made the monastery we would see the next day so special wasn’t how it looked, but the almost supernatural curiosity of it and the people living there. I’d never heard of let alone seen anything like it.

I had no background information on the monastery before our arrival at the scenic lake in front of it. The monastery wasn’t the most gorgeous thing from afar (it was pretty, don’t get me wrong), but as Linda reeled off interesting religious stories and facts about the site, it’s intrigue grew exponentially. I quickly became tired of walking around the grey swamp-like lake as my eagerness to step foot inside the monastery walls grew. Walking up the steps to the meeting building at placed atop the monastery, Linda took each frequent break we needed to catch our breaths to tell us more about the yellow sect of buddhism and the building complex itself. One piece of information I remember especially vividly is that when one of the monks from the monastery dies, the other monks cut it into 108 pieces. After doing so, they burning a piece of two of the flesh to attract birds, and if birds devour th corpse, the person was pure, and if not, they were not. Cultural tidbits like this contributed to the overall otherworldly aura of the place.

As we entered the main meeting hall, Linda told us that we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, and we all obliged, glad to be able to experience the monastery first hand. Almost immediately after walking in and seeing hundred of monks in matching red garb and walls painted ceiling to floor with elaborate religious scenes, the urge to pull out my phone and document the experience flushed over me. I soon saw that I wasn’t alone in feeling that way as a lone westerner with a camcorder walked briskly through the hall, taking video or photographs as he went. I fully understand wanting to document the experience in such a concrete way as videography, but looking back and reading my attempts at describing the scene, I see that the almost supernatural effect of the cultural relic can’t be transmitted through any medium; you have to experience it yourself.

– Nicholas Slayton


Studies, spring, a special day, and special guests

The past couple of weeks have been spent doing quite a bit of homework and studying. Chinese classes move at a very fast pace, and the first major exam is this Thursday. Some of us have been hanging out and doing work at a large cafe with lots of seating options, good snacks (even quinoa salad!!), and plenty of power outlets.

Last week brought us some breaks from our routine in the form of visitors from Brookline. (Stacy was especially happy, having spoken to exactly zero non-Chinese adults between February 1 and March 17.) Our first guest was Alaina Heidelberger, BHS class of 1999. She is one of Steve’s former students, and she teaches English in Changzhou. She was in Xi’an for a couple of days and visited our class to talk about her experience working with Chinese students in a vocational school. Our next guests were Nick’s mom (Beth) and younger sibling (Oliver). They spent several days in Xi’an and celebrated Tree’s birthday with us.

Spring has arrived in Xi’an, and the park is full of flowering trees. The days are warm, but the nights are still cool. We are very much looking forward to our upcoming trip to Yunnan, where the weather will be even warmer and we’ll get to see amazing scenery. And now that we all know each other well (and won’t be suffering from jet lag), we’re excited for the opportunity to travel together again as a group.


Our first week of classes

During the past month, we celebrated Chinese New Year with our families and visited historical sites in Xi’an. Last week we finally began classes at the Gao Xin No. 1 High School.

Each of the eight students is scheduled in a different immersion class for the first two periods of the day. Unlike in American schools, Chinese students stay in the same classroom all day, and the teachers come to them. Because the schedule rotates, the BHS students get to observe all of the different subjects (even English!) during the week.

IMG_2681After morning exercise, students have intensive Chinese lessons. Based the results of a placement test, they were divided into three groups for the lessons. Two university students who are studying to be teachers are responsible for teaching each group. Because the BHS students get so much individual attention (and a good bit of homework), they are already noticing how much Chinese they are learning.

Students study English and Chinese History with Ms. Kissel. They have already read Wild Swans, a memoir about three generations of Chinese women, and are starting to work on independent research papers and history presentations.

Our schedule is rounded out with a variety of electives. The schedule last week was a bit different, so we only had calligraphy, Kung Fu (very fun!), and pottery. We’ll also be learning Chinese crafts, painting, and cooking.

In addition to all of our classes, this week we all had to speak in front of the entire grade (400 students) not once, but twice, AND we had to do a dance. There was a good deal of nervous energy before we went on stage, but everyone did a great job when the time came. Click here to see the school’s posting about the welcome ceremony.




Learning About Xi’an’s History

We spent the past week going to historical sites around Xi’an with Kevin from the middle school (our equivalent of Steve at BHS) as our knowledgeable guide. We started with a visit to the Drum Tower and Bell Tower in the center of the city. The towers were built in the late 14th century, and the bell and drums served as a means of communication with residents living within the city walls. The bell was rung each morning alerting people that the city gates were about to open; people could then exit to conduct trade and to tend to the fields. The drums were used to summon residents back to the city before the gates closed at night. We went inside the towers, which house small museums with various displays. We also saw a performance in the Drum Tower.

The Muslim Market, named for the community of Muslim Hui people who live in the area, is the place to find incredible and inexpensive food in Xi’an. Some of us had already visited the market with our families, but we were happy to return. What is sold there is very unlike what one finds in a Chinese restaurant in the US; we were eager to sample as many of the local foods as possible.

Xi’an’s city walls, the best preserved city walls in China, enclose the central section of the city and are entered by passing through gates designed to trap invaders. We walked along the top of the walls, which are 12-14 meters wide at the top. It’s possible to rent bicycles and ride all the way around the circumference (13.7 km); hopefully we’ll return to do that on a warm day.

We’ve all passed by the two warriors in the atrium of BHS countless times, but now we can say we have seen the REAL 2200-year-old specimens with our own eyes.  The Terracotta Army contains 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and 670 horses in military formation.  All are unique, and all are life size. The army was built during a nearly 40-year period by 700,000 workers directed by the first emperor of China. Its purpose was to protect the emperor in the afterlife. Most of the warriors were originally holding various types of bronze weapons. The weapons are remarkable in their own right. Swords were coated with a thin layer of chromium dioxide and stayed sharp and free from rust for over 2,000 years. The weapons were all removed from the excavated pits and some were on display for us to see in the museum.

Many of the warriors remain buried. This is not due to a lack of desire to unearth them, but rather to protect the figures. They were all originally painted with bright colors, but the paint quickly fades when exposed to air. Until technology is developed to preserve them, the warriors will remain buried.







Chinese New Year

The calendar was very much in our favor, as we arrived in Xi’an right before the Chinese New Year (Lunar New Year) celebrations began. The New Year is followed by the Spring Festival, which lasts for 15 days. Most people have off of work for a week, and students have a long vacation. The holiday is all about seeing family, especially for those who have moved away from their hometowns. The holiday is also about eating. Lots of eating.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We all had very different experiences. Some of us stayed at home. Others spent time at the homes of grandparents and other relatives. And a few of us went on vacation for sightseeing and swimming at the beach.

Here’s a glimpse at what some of us did during the holiday:

To celebrate the holiday, my family and I went to the house of my grandmother’s sister. Since all of our grandparents are dead, we went to visit their graves and preformed some rituals to honor them.  – Ling-li

Chinese New Year was so much fun! We spent most of the day setting up posters around our house with the word lucky in Chinese on them. If you put the symbol upside down it meant that you had a lucky year and if you had it right side up it meant that you are going to have a lucky year. Later on I helped my host mother and sister make some delicious dumplings. We made so many! Before dinner we all got dressed up and gathered together in the living room. My host father and his father burned some type of paper and prayed to their ancestors by bowing. I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to join in or not, but I did anyway. They all started laughing at me… so after that we had a delicious dinner and they passed out red envelopes with money inside. Everyone was very excited and happy. As the dinner ended we all moved to the living room to watch the famous Chinese New Years show to conclude the night. It was such a cool experience!  – Gabi

For the Chinese New Year my whole family drove 8 hours out of the city to the countryside. We first went to the grandmothers house on my mothers side and ate lunch. After lunch we immediately drove another hour or so to my fathers mothers house and we ate more food. At this house there were over 30 people. They had the Chinese TV special on. The next few days have been the same thing however each day we add at least 5-10 more people. It is a very large family with lots of little kids and many old people telling me to eat more.  – Ashira

My family had a huge breakfast and huge dinner. We lit really big firecrackers three times. Then we watched tv and at night we lit a lot of sparklers and fireworks. – Naomi

We traveled to stay with grandparents just outside of Xi’an for two nights. Of course there was a ton of eating involved, including noodles for breakfast on New Year’s Day. We watched the gala on TV, an extravaganza that is watched by over 800 million (!) people. I was most impressed by the acrobatics acts; one of my handbalancing teachers trained in Xi’an and often talks about Chinese acrobats. I learned how to play mahjong (so fun), ping pong, and two other games. We also set off fireworks in the alley; the sound of fireworks went on all night long. – Stacy

To celebrate the Chinese New Year I traveled with my family to various family members’ homes around Xi’an. We had meals as a family, but time that wasn’t occupied consuming exorbitant amounts of food was spent alone. My host brother and I went out when we weren’t busy with the family and bought a variety of firecrackers and fireworks to play with. This isn’t really common practice in America, at least not for me, so I was thrilled to blow some things up. We did this for three days. I wouldn’t mind continuing to play with fire instead of going to school on March 5th, but there’s a time and place for everything I guess.  – Nick

I spent the new year at the houses of different family members. I ate so much food and watched as people near by set off fireworks. As soon as the new year was over my family and I travelled to Yunnan. We’ve been riding horses, strawberry picking, and kayaking. It’s been a blast!  – Margo





Starting life in Xi’an

Our six days of being tourists ended when our plane touched down in Xi’an. As we were about to exit the security area of the airport, everyone was feeling nervous. What did we sign up for? Are we crazy? What is waiting for us on the other side of that wall? How will we know how to act? Will our families speak any English?

As we emerged, a huge energetic group was waiting, holding signs decorated with our names. The scene was chaotic as we all made introductions and then assembled to pose for the sea of phone cameras aimed at us. Then off we went in different directions, ready to begin life with our Chinese families!

The next day we assembled at the middle school for a wonderful lunch with the principal and some of the school staff who will be helping us. We got sweatshirts to celebrate the year of the dog, and we learned about the achievements of the school’s students. Then Kevin, our contact who is the equivalent of Steve at BHS, took us to the high school to meet the principal there. We saw our classroom and students received their uniforms and lunch cards.

It is now vacation for the Spring Festival (Lunar New Year), so we are all spending time getting to know our families. Some of us are away visiting relatives in various parts of the country, while others are staying in Xi’an. We are all learning about Chinese hospitality and are eating WAY too much delicious food. In keeping with the Chinese tradition, students DO have homework over the holiday, but much less than their Chinese classmates.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We’ve been surprised by many aspects of Chinese life:

“Everything is so clean! I rode the subway the other day and it was absolutely spotless. However I think one of the most surprising things about China is that, to some extent, living here feels normal. I was expecting more of a culture shock, but honestly the only shock was fact that all the buildings light up at night. That being said, there is actually one thing that really stuck with me. When we go out as a group, everyone stares. It is rare to see a non East Asian person in China, believe it or not, and the amount of looks and pictures we get is defiantly surprising.”  – Isabelle

“I’ve been surprised by the seeming ease of political projects in China.  It’s been interesting to see the practical differences between a socialist and capitalist system, and there are certainly positives and negatives for both of them.  In socialism, the heightened levels of control really jump out at you, but so does the benefits of the different system.  In the US we practically take for granted that our government is at war with itself, and we don’t think of it as a single entity.  Having one party in China really changes the entire idea of government, and the scope of what it can accomplish.  I was really blown away by the level of infrastructure, particularly in transportation, that exists in China.”  – Tree

“The technology involved in daily life is way beyond that in the US. Paying with a mobile phone is much more common than using cash. Even the smallest street vendor can be paid by scanning a QR code at his or her stall. The parking garage at the mall scans your license plate when you enter and exit. You scan a QR code with your phone, tell it your plate number, and it charges you. The doors to many of our apartments open by scanning a fingerprint. It makes me feel like the US is so behind.”  – Stacy

“Something that surprises me about China is the greenery. When I came to China, I was expecting large buildings and many people-I wasn’t expecting to see trees scattered throughout the city….It’s a nice surprise and makes it feel more like home :)”  – Ling-li

Getting to know our host families:

“My host family is very nice. At the  beginning, however, they talked really fast and that made it very hard to communicate. Over the last couple of days I’ve been able to pick up bits and pieces of conversations, especially ones that are about me. I pretty sure they think I can’t understand any of what they say, to my surprise I actually can. And for some reason my host family thinks I don’t like the food they give me. Which is unfortunate as it is really good, maybe it’s because I don’t eat very much. Xin Ru, the daughter, has been a great help translating and she is a very sweet girl.”  – Isabelle

“Everyone is kind and patient with me, which I appreciate very much. They always make sure I have what I need and am comfortable.”  – Ling-li

“Getting to know my host family is a roller coaster. When everyone is together we all struggle to understand each other which is the fun part. One thing that’s hard is knowing how to say you don’t like something. I mean obviously I know how to say it in Chinese but getting the courage to say it and trying not to hurt feelings is hard. Also trying to talk to little kids is another struggle, sometimes they don’t understand that you can’t speak well and they just look at you like you’re an idiot.”  – Naomi

“So far things with my family have gone really long well! I have had a lot of fun with my siblings. Of course there has been a language barrier and I can’t say a lot  of what I want to. However I find it easier and easier to speak Chinese and I’m having a really good time.”  – Margo

Communicating in Chinese:

“While I’m living with this family, I have found that my Chinese listening skills are a lot better than I originally thought. While there are some times that I can be listening and understanding perfectly there are also times where people place a lot of pressure on me and I just don’t listen. Recently, in a store my host mother was asking me for an opinion on an outfit and all of the salesmen were crowding around me and waiting to hear what I had to say. It was terrifying. At moments like that communication is hard for me since there are a lot of eyes on me.”  – Ashira

“I’ve surprised myself with how much I can actually pick up in a conversation. Even if I can reciprocate, it feels good to be able to at least understand what they are saying. The other day, my host aunt was over and started up a conversation with me. I was really nervous at first, but after a couple sentences in I felt more comfortable. It’s only been a few days with my host family and I have already learned so much!”  – Isabelle

“Getting to know my host family has been a pretty hard, yet enjoyable experience. I can communicate with my family and ask questions for the most part, but talking to my mom is always a tough task. She doesn’t really speak any English at all, and I don’t speak much Chinese, so we often get stuck repeating phrases with slight variations until the other understands or we are pushed to the point where we have to call our life line, google translate. She really likes to practice her english on me which can be frustrating at times, because I’m really just trying to improve, and she would be the one person most suited to help me do that in my opinion.”  – Nick

“I know my numbers up to 10, as well as how to say teacher, noodles, cat, beer, apple, mango, water, tea, sweet, and sour. I’m pretty much as fluent as a native speaker.” – Stacy

Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou

The past few days have been spent visiting sites in Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou. We saw silk being made, took two boat rides, visited a tea plantation, toured temples and museums, navigated crowded train stations with luggage in tow, learned about China’s history and present-day life from our guides, and ate too much food during the family-style meals. We’ve also laughed an awful lot! Tomorrow we’ll have the morning to visit Hangzhou’s West lake. We will then fly to Xi’an to finally meet our host families!!!