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.