Tuesday, November 25, 2014

My Trip to China

This is the third in a series of blogs about my recent trip to China.

Friday, November 7, Hangzhou

Yesterday morning we visited and took a tour of the corporate headquarters of Alibaba and saw an introductory video from Jack Ma, CEO. Alibaba is China's version of Amazon, eBay and UPS all rolled into one. We watched a real-time electronic screen/map that showed actual sales on Alibaba--it looked like a fireworks display. Sixty Minutes recently did a feature on Ma and his company.

We lunched at a historic restaurant on the West Lake where Nixon and Kissinger dined when they came to China. The food in Hangzhou is milder than in the north and more to my taste. Afterwards we took a boat ride, powered by a Chinese paddler, on West Lake. The lake is a World Heritage site and beautiful--roughly nine square miles. Part of the lake is a series of waterways through wetlands teeming with wildlife. Gardens, paths and bridges dot the landscape. The mountains surround three sides of the lake and the city sits on the fourth side. There are several large pagodas overlooking the lake on the mountains. The whole scenery is stunning. 

Later in the afternoon, we went into an older section of Hangzhou. One of the ancient fortified gates to the city survives there. The winding, narrow streets were only for pedestrians, bicycles and scooters. Shops with upstairs living quarters lined the streets. We went into one of these for a tea tasting. They let us try green tea, black tea, and a flavor intermediate between the two while telling us the history of Chinese tea culture. It was both informative and delicious.

After tea, we shopped. This part of the city is a tourist trap in the richest and most entertaining sense of the word. The group had a ball haggling with street merchants. We ate dinner at McDonald's (doesn't taste the same) to save time. Back at the hotel, I Facetimed Sarah Park, which really is amazing technology. I slept the best yet until 6:45 am.

Saturday, November 8, Nanjing

Yesterday morning we visited the Lingyin Buddhist Temple in Hangzhou. It is an extraordinary complex of five temples on one side of a mountain with a large creek, rock cliff and caves on the other. The temples sit in an old growth forest. Monks are present. The temples contain gigantic Buddhas and statues of lesser deities. Chinese tourist burn incense and make wishes. There was also a grotto in the cliff that I suspect was an original religious shrine dating back to the Stone Age. Each temple sits higher up the mountain and, presumably, higher on the path of Enlightenment. 

After lunch, we visited the Hangzhou silk market where I bought scarves for Sarah Park. We drove back to our hotel to freshen up before going to dinner with a Chinese host family. The group split into three smaller groups. My group's host family live in a beautiful, five-bedroom condominium in a gated community. Four generations of the family under one roof: 94 year-old great-grandfather, 75 year-old grandmother, parents, and only son, fourteen year-old Ben. Ben attends a nearby boarding school and comes home on the weekends. He wants to attend an American school so he can have more free time outside school. He is a computer geek, fine pianist, tennis player, and a labor-saving device inventor. He can do none of these extracurricular activities because of the volume of homework he must do. Ben was likable, respectful and spoke good English.

Grandmother fixed a delicious dinner: pork dumplings, Peking duck and green salad. Both parents work. The mother teaches Chinese philosophy at Hangzhou University. The father designs smart buildings and roads. They are extremely successful. The home had a small porch where we had tea, a small fish pond and a small garden. The family gave each guest a beautiful pottery vase that was created by a relative who practices an ancient pottery tradition. Lovely people and a lovely evening. 

We packed last night and were on the bus at 5:45 am this morning. We drove to the Hangzhou train station which looks like an ultramodern airport to take the bullet train (200 mph) to Nanjing. Our car was luxuriously comfortable: each seat turned into a bed. The ride lasted an hour and we all slept. In Nanjing, we took a tour of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center, a graduate program for Chinese and foreign students established by the Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University in the early 1980s. Loren Fauchier, Director of the International Program at Providence Day School, is a graduate of the program. We had lunch at the Jinling Hotel and are now getting ready to interview Chinese students interested in studying in our schools.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Trip to China

This is the second in a series of blogs about my recent trip to China.

Tuesday, November 4, Wuhan

Yesterday I went with Sean Chen, CEO of New Oasis, and Loren Fauchier, Director of Global Studies at Providence Day, to Wuhan Middle School (a large high school located in the "middle" of the city, hence the name) and discuss a partnership with Gaston Day School. Because I am head of school and they want to have a partnership, the administration at Wuhan Middle treated me like a visiting head of state. Huge, award-winning school with an enrollment of 2600 students. We discussed the prospects of a partnership for over an hour in the school conference room. Although Gaston Day would still like to forge such a partnership with the right Chinese school, neither Sean Chen or I are convinced that Wuhan Middle is the right partner. 

A group of Wuhan Middle school administrators took us to lunch afterwards in a really fine restaurant. They served me a spicy frog dish that is a local delicacy--it literally set my mouth on fire and nearly blew off the top of my head. My hosts ate it like it was candy. They also served another local fish dish that was absolutely delicious, like a combination of good fried calamari and sesame chicken. After lunch we said our good byes and went to visit another school. This one was a private, Pre-K through 12th grade school. Even the kindergartners board there!! We saw their dormitories with all their tiny clothes hanging out to dry. Chinese parents will make any sacrifice, including sending their small children to boarding school, to get them a quality education. As odd as it may seems, the children seemed very happy. They go home on the weekends. In general, the Chinese make many sacrifices to promote their children's success. They expect their children to work hard and commit themselves totally to getting ahead. Several of the high school student showed us where they hid in the closet after the mandatory lights out in the dormitories at 10:30 pm so they could continue to study. As individuals, families and a nation, the Chinese are determined to succeed. Their collective work ethic is superior.

I was asked to give a courtesy speech at this school and also introduce the topic of independent school education in the U.S. The whole group, both Chinese and American, joined the conversation after I got it started. Afterwards, the school principal took us to a luxury, planned residential community where many of his school parents live. The community is copy of one in Southern California. Then we had another exotic meal and exchanged gifts. We headed back to the hotel after supper. It was a full day and I was exhausted. 

Today our group returned to Wuhan Middle School for a visit. We toured, talked, exchanged gifts and had lunch in the student cafeteria. The students are so friendly and love talking to us. We left about 1:30 pm and drove to the airport for our hour flight to Hangzhou. We ate dinner at a hot pot restaurant and then went to a local nightclub, which might have been in any big city in America. 

Thursday, November 6, Hangzhou

Hangzhou is a beautiful city with a population of 10 million. Yesterday morning we drove to Hangzhou Two School, a high quality public boarding school. Students toured us for over an hour without any administrator present. This tour included lunch in the cafeteria. Each of us was paired with a student host. Mine was Alan, a bright, handsome, cheerful young man. He was delightful. The students were amazing, spoke great English, and were incredibly gifted. Among their many accomplishments, they demonstrated a drone, equipped with camera, that they had built. They flew it all around the soccer field and we could see ourselves and the entire campus on a monitor that they had set up to receive the video transmissions from the drone. 

We met the principal in a conference room afterwards. He used students to interpret although he had administrators present who had better translation skills. He had a great sense of humor and really is a remarkably progressive educator. His approach to education is holistic--very unusual in China--with no homework on the weekends. He said he wants his students to have a life first and an education second. It is the best school in Hangzhou and full of gifted students. But the spirit of the place was remarkably positive and encouraging, reflecting the temperament and vision of the principal. We were very impressed. We exchanged gifts and he gave us each a lovely porcelain tea set. 

We returned to the hotel about 3 pm and had a one-hour meeting to evaluate our trip thus far. Sean Chen and Kathy Freeman, his assistant, have done a fantastic job. They welcomed our constructive criticism out a desire for future improvement. Afterwards, we drove on the bus about an hour to attend a play in a local theme park. The park was built to look like a late medieval Chinese town (think Renaissance Festival on steroids), with scores of shops selling tourist junk. The play was four acts of traditional scenes, themes and legends, but the presentation was high tech and the costumes were elaborate. Think Las Vegas meet Broadway. The lights and special effects were fantastic. We sat on the second row of a 5,000 seat auditorium, and our section moved around on rails during the performance to give us a different and more dramatic perspective. I have never seen anything like it. At one point, the stage was completely flooded, rain poured from the ceiling, and two waterfalls cascaded into the stage!! The cast included about 40 women attired in fantastically colorful, traditional costumes. There was an equal number of males who were all acrobats. It really was some show and we left with our jaws dropped. 

This trip has been transformative for me. I understand our Chinese students so much better than before. They sacrifice personal security to come to our school in hopes that it well lead to a better life. In China, everything--literally your future prospects in life--hinges on how well you score on the national exam in your senior year in high school. Our Chinese students are taking a huge chance in coming to Gaston Day. They don't take the national exam. They are breaking away from their culture although they plan to return to China once they have graduated from an American college or university. If successful, they have extraordinary opportunities for advancement, wealth and success. So the goal is the same as those students who stay in China. But the Chinese students who come to the United States are extraordinarily brave. They abandon the familiar path of Chinese education in hopes that an American education will rocket them to success. If they fail in America, for any reason, they cannot go back to China and start over. The Chinese system neither gives second chances, nor allows students to return to it once they have gone abroad. For Chinese students who come to the US, it is all or nothing. Knowing all that they are risking, I admire them so much more than I did before, and I am more deeply committed to helping them succeed at Gaston Day.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

My Trip to China

This is the first in a series of journal entries that I kept on my recent trip to China.

Saturday, November 1, Beijing

Yesterday we visited the Study Year Abroad School for American students who want to learn Chinese and experience Chinese culture in an American-style educational setting. We sat in on a Chinese language class. The students were so welcoming and friendly. 

From there we drove to the National Museum just off Tiananmen Square. Each member of the group was paired with a Chinese student. Mine was a fourteen-year old boy named Toby. He was a typical teenager. Hopes to play in the NBA some day. He is about 5'6", very bright and spoke great English. He wants to go to high school and college in the U.S.

We had lunch at a noodle restaurant near Tiananmen. Then back on the bus for a 2 hour drive to the Great Wall. This section of the Wall is in the mountains and we took a chair lift to the top. The Wall is truly spectacular. Toby had been there twice previously. It was the second time for me. You can't help but be impressed with the Great Wall. 

Our trip back was in awful traffic--the worst I have ever experienced in my life, and we did not arrive at our restaurant until 9 pm. Their specialty was Peking duck, which was delicious. I am getting better with chopsticks. 

The air pollution in Beijing yesterday was awful. Some in our party chose to wear air masks. I didn't because I am not convinced it really helps very much.

Today we are leaving the Crowne Plaza Hotel to visit New Oriental headquarters. They are a huge educational consulting firm and traded on the New York Stock Exchange. They help Chinese students prepare for tests in their country and, also, find schools for those interested in study abroad. Last year they placed 20,000 Chinese students in international schools. 

[Later the same day] We held our student interviews at the Peninsula Hotel, Beijing, all afternoon. Some of the students spoke great English. Others were weak. We are looking for the best students to come to our schools. Other schools involved in the fair were Charlotte Country Day, Providence Day, Ravenscroft, Westminster Academy, St. David's (Raleigh), Augusta Prep (Georgia), and Greensboro Day. One of the Beijing newspapers interviewed me after the fair. We drove to the airport for our flight to Wuhan, later that night. 

Beijing has a population of twenty million. The scale and pace of Chinese life and enterprise is startling. The economic transformation even since I was here 10 years ago is remarkable. 

Monday, November 3, Wuhan

Wuhan is a city of 7 million people about 500 miles (my estimate) southwest of Beijing. After an early lunch yesterday, we travelled to a local conference center for more student interviews. These students' English was generally not as good as those in Beijing. We met with parents afterwards and answered questions. Our 5-mile bus ride to the restaurant took 2 hours. The volume of traffic is unbelievable. The roads are bursting with vehicles. The restaurant was worth the wait. It was built on stilts in a lotus-filled wetland. There were boardwalks between different parts of the restaurant. It is known for its regional cuisine, particularly a local fish dish. It was delicious. Afterwards back to the Wanda Realm Hotel. I caught up on messages and was asleep by 10:30 pm.