China and UK

The Willink School Project 2000

China and UK

Clare Gore reports on a school link project and the experiences of schoolchildren visiting China. It was first printed in SACU's China in Focus magazine 2000.

Following my university graduation in 1994 I lived in Changchun for two and a half years as one of China's many untrained foreign teachers. I'd accepted a job at Changchun Teacher Training College - a depressingly dilapidated establishment on the edge of Changchun's eastern industrial suburb. Surviving severe homesickness and culture shock, I somehow grew to love this land. I had stayed long enough to form friendships with many wonderful people and I'd picked up a fair amount of putonghua along the way. I'd learned that the more you think you understand China and the Chinese, the less you sometimes do. I'd also married a southern university student in Changchun who had grown up in the countryside just outside Nanchang.

Upon our return from China I trained to become an English teacher. In my first post at a predominantly white middle class school in Berkshire, The Willink, I set up a pen pal scheme with my husband's former school - a rural secondary school where pupils were eager to gain contact with English students. In my first term I also became acquainted with two teachers who were keen to run a 'Millennium Expedition' and the idea was hatched: we would organise a China expedition.

The students fundraised individually and as a team to help pay for the trip. They also attended lunchtime Mandarin classes; practised with chopsticks; sampled authentic Chinese cuisine and learned a little about Chinese history and culture. In March we held a well supported 'Taste of China' evening where we ran Tai Chi, Chinese Medicine, Chinese Cookery and Feng Shui workshops.

Though at times it had seemed like a shot in the dark, given the costs of such a trip, on April 19th we flew out for a twelve-day visit which was to take us to both northern and southern, urban and rural China. It was to be a unique opportunity for the thirteen students (aged between 12 - 17) and five staff who had overcome the challenge of funding the trip.

I'd been away from China for almost three years. Aware of the fact that time does not stand still, I was still amazed by the rapidity of the physical changes I saw as we travelled around Beijing on our first day. While the rest of the group marvelled over how strangely different China seemed, I was astonished at how altered Beijing seemed. Advertising was a case in point. Gone were the scores of handpainted advertisements for local products - China had gone global. Now, sophisticated glossy billboards advertising web sites and expensive consumer goods scattered the city. I was also surprised to see how much more visible English had become around town.

The highlight of the journey for us all was our visit to my husband's home in Jiangxi province. Upon our arrival at Nanchang railway station, officials told us that they had altered our plan: instead of taking us to our much-looked forward-to countryside accommodation with my husband's family, a city hotel had been arranged for 'our security'.

Rural market
© Sally & Richard Greenhill Photo Library

Our hearts sank - one of the most appealing aspects of our trip was the opportunity to live with ordinary Chinese families and to gain an authentic experience of the countryside. It was to emerge that the Provincial Foreign Affairs Office had ordered this last minute change, and nothing could be done to persuade them to reconsider.

My family in China were as disappointed as we were, but were under enormous pressure from the authorities to comply.

The students understood first-hand from this disappointment that in China, the government can and does hold immense control over its citizens. We were to be 'looked after' by a city official whose disdain of the countryside was clear. His agenda was simple: to ensure our safety, and to prevent us from experiencing anything that may show China in a negative light. Though we at times felt our visit had restrictions - instructions were given to us not to wander around outside unsupervised and we were offered only a lightning visit to the local market. They failed to prevent us from gaining anything more than a superficial impression. We promptly decided to politely flout the rules. Looking back, I think this official attempt at manipulation taught my students one of the most valuable lessons they could learn about China.

Despite the dramatic run of events, the British students appreciated their five days in the countryside. We were treated with the utmost respect at the two schools we visited and the kindness and sincerity of the people we met in the villages moved us all deeply. One lasting impression amongst our students was that our hosts were more willing to show kindness than British people often are. Showered with gifts representing tokens of friendship, our students realised how well their newly found friends treated them. When looking back, my students still comment shamefacedly on how generous their Chinese counterparts were in comparison to themselves.

Aside from the wonderful chance to make friends in the countryside (Chinese high school students and teachers accompanied our group wherever we went), we appreciated opportunities to understand rural life more fully with visits to temples, villages and schools. In my mother-in-law's childhood mountain village we were shown basket weaving and bamboo carving and each of us was given a small bamboo chair as a hand-made souvenir. Though cumbersome to carry, we all managed to bring them safely home! Another activity from which our students gained enormously was a Chinese calligraphy workshop, complete with brushes and ink. This was a valuable opportunity for our students to understand the complexities and aesthetics of the Chinese writing system.

In return for gaining insight into Jiangxi culture, our students donated English books to the schools they visited and gave presentations at one school on aspects of their own lives. Our students prepared demonstrations and information on such topics as their daily routines, family life and festivals. They also gave out typically English snacks for the students to try. This was a crucial opportunity for our students to give something back to our host community.

Five days may seem like an insufficient amount of time to form friendships, but the tears and emotion at the railway station as we said our goodbyes confirmed otherwise. It was an incredibly moving and upsetting scene, but one that demonstrated to me that the visit to China was already worthwhile. Now, looking back on the time we spent in Jiangxi's pretty mountainous countryside, it is clear that something very special did occur. I doubt that the students on either side will ever forget the fun they had playing football together on a dusty street as day turned to night or their chance to make and eat jiaozi together. Nor will they forget the muddy walk they took together to Hefang village huddled together under umbrellas in the rain. The students and teachers continue to correspond and build friendships based upon their few days together.

Once back on the twenty-hour train journey to Beijing, we took stock of what we had gained during our time in the countryside. Chinese passengers we conversed with failed to understand how a trip to an impoverished province such as Jiangxi could be of interest, yet it was the part of the journey that was to have lasting influence over our group. In the next few days of our trip which were spent in Beijing as 'tourists' rather than 'travellers', our students often commented on how unbelievably amazing their time in Jiangxi had been. Though Beijing was impressive (and gave our students the welcome opportunity to eat in McDonalds), most students agreed that they would have preferred to spend longer in the countryside. Some have even made promises to return when they are older.

As I reflect now upon the trip, I realise that reality far exceeded my expectations. If nothing more, our students learned (most for the first time) to enter and make friends within another culture very different to their own. That in itself made the journey a success.

An amazing experience

Naomi Tomkins - 15 year old student at The Willink School

The trip to China was an unforgettable experience. Life is very different to life here in England. It was like suddenly being plunged into an entirely new world. The very way people acted. How they moved and spoke, what they valued and thought all was alien to my westernised mind.

The thing that hit me most was how kind and generous our hosts were. They made us feel incredibly important and did everything they could to ensure our comfort and happiness. Their generosity was overwhelming in comparison to the way we in England treat foreign guests. The fact that they, comparatively speaking, have less to give made me realise how selfish we can be. This was humbling to me and changed my attitude towards others.

Whilst in the village we had a government official 'protecting' us the whole time. This made us feel crowded, yet when we escaped his gaze we saw much more of village life. We were able, for example, to see the markets thronging with people buying and selling fresh produce. Meat carcasses hanging unrefrigerated in the open made me wish for the safely wrapped, chilled meats of the hygienic British supermarket.

However, shopping in China was far more fun than in England! The challenge of bartering over everything we bought made us feel awkward at first. We often felt that the starting price was reasonable and didn't want to be a scrooge. Nevertheless, we soon learnt that we were laughed at if we didn't haggle and that a stall holder would never sell produce for less than its predetermined value. This helped me to feel more determined to 'play the game' and when I was successful in getting a good price I grew in confidence.

The streets of Beijing were alive with people from dawn until dusk. The city was vibrant. In the mornings people were up early before work. There was always something happening - people never seemed to stop. It made me think about the fact that we in England spend so much time doing nothing. We watch so much TV when there are much better ways to spend our time.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to China as it made me think about many different issues and helped me to improve myself as well. Although we were very busy there was also a lot of time to sit and think, to escape from the bustle and to meditate on what we had seen. The experience in China whetted my appetite for exploring foreign cultures. Given the opportunity, I wouldn't hesitate to go back.

Notes from the communal journal



Cheryl Butcher

Arriving in the village we were greeted with enormous firecrackers. Many of us mistook the sound for gunfire. As we stepped out of our special bus. We were greeted with open-mouthed stares. It felt incredible. Inside our first village house we faced our first Chinese breakfast: sweet bread with sausage inside, rice soup, steamed bread, doughnuts and bottled water.

Charlotte Jefferies

After breakfast today we set off for another local village about 2 miles away. The Chinese official who was in charge of us didn't want us to go there - it was spitting with rain. He insisted that if we went, we must use umbrellas. As we walked we saw buffalo ploughing, a steam train and endless amounts of paddy fields. Before we entered the village we could hear the firecrackers exploding and people welcoming us! We visited a small temple where people pay respect to their ancestors. I feel this is a good way to find out about a new way of life.

Gemma Winder

Our first stop in Jiangxi was for a lunch in Nanchang. It was huge and consisted of special Chinese dishes.

We tried turtle soup: a whole turtle complete with shell in a soup, many vegetable dishes: cabbage, spinach, delicious green vegetables, pork ribs (these were a real hit), pigeon soup and spicy duck tongues. The meal was enjoyed by all, with the addition of beer and the friendliness of the Chinese hosts, it was perfect.

Hannah St Paul

Today was an earlier start. We were all bundled into the bus and set off for a very poor village about thirty minutes away from Lehua. Upon arriving, everyone was pleased as it was a very bumpy ride and the singing at the back was awful! The people seemed very welcoming and as we walked round the villagers greeted us with firecrackers and gongs. This village had a very different feel and atmosphere to the others. We watched a man making small bamboo chairs and others weaving baskets. It was amazing to watch how skilled they were. We handed out sweets and they were gratefully accepted by even the adults!

We then went by foot up towards the mountains to a reservoir. It was very beautiful. Beside the reservoir was a small temple which we went inside. Some people prayed and others had their fortunes told.

We later had our farewell dinner with Ms Gore's relatives. The normal cheers and drinking took place. We finally left and boarded our bus for the station, but we were not alone. It became a village outing: people clambered into buses, cars and trucks and followed in a convoy. Everyone was sad to leave and firecrackers made emotions worse.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2001, reprinted from SACU's magazine China in Focus, Issue 9, 2000

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