2015 China Experience

Four faculty and staff members and 18 ninth graders will travel to China from March 1 - 14. This blog will document their experience.

Deb Riding is coordinator of the Foote China program, co-chair of the Humanities Department, and a sixth grade humanities teacher and advisor. She also teaches the ninth grade Comparative Cultures class, a social studies/history course that prepares ninth graders for their experiences in China.This will be her eighth trip to China.

Brad McGuire is chair of the Physical Education Department and Athletics Director. He is making his fourth trip to China.

MaryBeth Calderoni works in the Business Office and is making her first trip to China.

Hilary Pearson is a Mixed Age Group teacher who was traveled in Europe, Canada and Mexico, and is making her first trip to China.

Note to parents: If you are hoping to contact the faculty via email, please use debra.riding@yahoo.com, as their Gmail accounts are blocked.

March 13, 2015
Last Adventures and an Emotional Closing Ceremony

We had an incredible final day, from our adventures on the MTR and our peaceful visits to Wong Tai Sin and Sai Kung, to our outstanding meals arranged by Foote families and our emotional closing ceremony. Over the last two weeks, the group has coalesced in such beautiful ways. We’re heading home as a close-knit family.

Our mantra for the experience was BE IN CHINA.  For our final blog, each traveler has shared a time he or she felt most IN CHINA.

I was in China when…

…we were driving through Changsha just minutes away from Yali. -EHZ

…we danced at the Temple of Heaven. –HV

…I conquered the Great Wall.  –JO

…I explored the hutongs in Beijing on a rickshaw.  –ZSY

...I heard the sigh of relief from everyone after we got off the 14-hour plane ride.  –VKDB

...we toured the Forbidden City. The sheer size even felt foreign.  –JM

…I spent time with my buddy’s grandparents.  –JH

…I saw Dylan, the legend, barter for the Russian-style hat.  –CS

…I was finally able to use my long-awaited Chinese phrase and was made fun of soon after.  –AIG

...I bargained with Elsa Rose.  –AR

...I was walking to Yali through the city.  –HG

…I was walking through the Forbidden City after seeing the movie a few weeks ago.   –EK

…I got laughed at for my chopstick “skills.”  --TF

...there were no utensils on the table except for wooden sticks.   –WW

…my buddy’s parents interviewed Vincent and me. –ZPM

…I was biking slowly through food stalls on the Xi’an city walls. –ERF

…I heard the birds sing in the Great Mosque.  –DLR

…I was sketching in my journal at the Sumer Palace while Anli was playing hacky sac with local people in the square.  –MBC

…I had my first success bargaining.  –LD

…I was playing games with Li Hong’s son. A warm smile and a friendly wave act as a common language no matter where you are in the world.  –BM

…I visited Yan Ke’s son’s Kindergarten. The large room had 30 mini beds all lined up and 30 curious students reading books in small chairs ready to greet a foreign visitor. – HGP

…I had a full conversation with a man at the Summer Palace without saying a word. –DS 

March 12, 2015
Farewell, Changsha. Hello, Hong Kong!

Our heads were in the clouds all day today. A gray sky hung over us as we said goodbye to our friends from Yali — first in the conference room, then again on the sidewalk outside the administration building, and finally on the bus, where we waved wildly out the window as they ran alongside us, down the busy sidewalk.

We were met in Hong Kong by fog so thick that we could barely see the outline of the giant Buddha at the Po Lin Monastery. Elsa Rose gave an engaging presentation about the history of the site. Then the group walked the Wisdom Path in silence, and somehow the clouds made the walk more reflective. We debated skipping the Peak because we knew the fog would obscure the view, but we decided to go ahead with our original plan so Erin could set foot on the location she had researched. She improvised smoothly to accommodate the unexpected situation (the view was an important hook for her introduction), and she did a good job of explaining the Opium Wars that led to the British takeover of Hong Kong.

We came out of the clouds to ride the Star Ferry across Victoria Harbor, after which Will told us all about the history of the company and, perhaps more importantly, the role the harbor plays in the economy of Hong Kong. After Will’s presentation we walked up Nathan Road to the hotel, settled in, and had a noodle supper. The students are dreaming of soft clouds or clear skies. We’ll see which one we get tomorrow. Adventures: Wang Tai Sin, Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Ladies’ Market, closing ceremony.

March 11, 2015
A Quick Update From Yali

Just a quick note to say that everyone is great. We are all at the banquet and will be here for quite some time. We will update tomorrow night (with photos) from Hong Kong.

March 10, 2015
Exploring Nanya, and a Hands-On Pottery Lesson

The kids were fully engaged and positive again today. We walked through a farmer’s market first thing this morning to see how most people in China shop for daily groceries. Then we headed to Nanya, where we participated in flower arranging, coiled paper art, calligraphy and break dancing - all before lunch. Our students ended the visit to Nanya conversing with kids at the English Corner near the beautiful campus lake. We spent the afternoon at Tongguan Yao, an ancient Tang-era pottery kiln and production center. We visited the museum, which, like the Terra Cotta Warriors, is built over an archeological site. Then we made some clay pots at a nearby workshop before heading home to spend the evening with our host families. Tomorrow’s adventures: Yiya (another Yali-affiliated school), Yuelu Academy, Orange Island, and a closing banquet.

March 9, 2015
Gladly Will I Learn, and Gladly Dunk

As I write, the students are playing a hard-fought basketball game in the Yali gymnasium. Yali is leading 12 to 8 at the end of the first quarter, but we seem to be making a comeback with a coast-to-coast basket by Emily. The students have stepped up in so many ways today, from their enthusiastic response to the first night of their homestays, to the assembly performance without any stage rehearsal, to their interviews with elderly people at the local community center, to their interactions with Yali students. We divided into three groups for activities in English classes this afternoon, and the group I accompanied played a game that put our kids up front and on the spot. Before 60 or so Yali students, Jack recited a poem in the local Changsha dialect, Liza and Tess sang a popular song, and Dylan, Zach and Will sampled a local favorite: stinky tofu. They are definitely stretching beyond their comfort zones and loving it. At lunch, Jared reported that our time at Yali has been all he had ever hoped for, and more. After the basketball game, the students will head home with their hosts. Rumor has it that the group may meet up for karaoke or some shopping at the mall.  We’ll see. Tomorrow’s adventures: Visiting Nanya, another Yali school; traveling to Tongguan, the Tang Dynasty Kiln; spending another night with the host families.

P.S.  Final Score: Yali 32, Foote 31

March 8, 2015
Arrival at Yali

This is just a quick note to say that all of the students are safe and sound in the good hands of their host families. My own host, Hannah, our guest teacher from 2013, has given me leave to write a sentence or two before what I expect will be a very late evening. A sentence or two: Even though they got very little sleep last night (we had breakfast at 5 a.m.) and spent a full day interacting with students from Yiya (one of the Yali-affiliated schools) in the Shaoshan (the birthplace of Mao Zedong, where Dylan delivered a rousing speech), as soon as they saw their epals our students had a burst of energy and headed home with their hosts in high spirits. Tomorrow’s adventure: Spending the day at YALI!


March 7, 2015
Exploring Ancient History - and an Ancient City - by Bicycle

If you travel toward the center of Xi’an, a city of 8.2 million, from any of the four main gates in the Ancient City Wall, you will reach Bell Tower Square. It looks like China, but it feels and sounds like Times Square. This morning, we walked a short couple of blocks away to the Great Mosque, and the sounds of traffic were replaced by the songs of birds. Anli gave a thorough presentation about Islam in China and about a particular Chinese Muslim, Zheng He, China’s most famous explorer. Then the group spent a peaceful half hour wandering through the courtyards and sketching.

After lunch, Jack drew the largest tourist crowd yet as he recounted Xuanzang’s 16-year journey to India to collect original Buddhist texts and introduced the group to the architectural features of pagodas. Then group climbed the Great Goose Pagoda, which was built as a place to store and translate the sutras Xuanzang brought back. It turns out that this is the only intact Tang-era building in Xi’an.

Biking nine miles around the Ancient City Wall was the highlight of the day for most of us. Vincent wins The Multitasking Award for sketching during the bike ride. Don’t worry—he was on the back seat of a tandem. After the ride Zach gave a detailed presentation about the structure of the wall and its role in ancient China.

Weifang went all out for our last supper with her, arranging the best private room with the best view at Xi’an’s best Muslim restaurant. We devoured the local delicacies, including yangrou paomo (a lamb stew that was also served in beef and vegetable varieties), and each shared our best memory from the first half of the trip.

After the phone calls home, we packed our bags, rehearsed for the assembly at Yali, and met to prepare for tomorrow night’s home stays. As our families in Connecticut turn the clocks forward, we turn to the other side of our itinerary and shift from tourists to guests. Tomorrow’s adventures: Visit Shaoshan, the hometown of Mao Zedong; travel to Changsha to meet our host families at Yali. Here we go!

March 6, 2015
Exploring Xi'an

We woke up this morning to the sun shining through a thin haze, the whistle of the overnight train, and calls of Zao Shanghao! We were thrilled to find our rooms ready after breakfast at the hotel, so we could shower before meeting to reflect upon our experiences in Beijing. We then headed off to the Shaanxi History Museum, where the students pioneered a new scavenger hunt activity. Everyone located fascinating artifacts, but Brad’s group had the most success, mainly because they used a strategy of clustering around Jack, whose signature red hat was visible from anywhere in the exhibit.

Here in Xi’an, we have a tour guide named Xiao Yan. She spent the day developing a nice relationship with the group, asking them to count off in Mandarin, praising Adelyn for her exceptionally poised presentation at the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum, and taking a photo for her 13-year-old son of Emily’s detailed sketch of one of the warriors. We spent the evening at a Tang Dynasty dinner show and returned to the hotel for the good news and the bad news: We can have a late morning tomorrow but have to head out by 5:20 a.m. on Sunday. Tomorrow’s Adventures: The Great Mosque, The Great Goose Pagoda, The City Wall of Xi’an, and Phone Calls Home.

Note to parents about the calls between 8 and 10 on Saturday morning: Please keep them very short (3 minutes max) and upbeat. The kids are in a good place right now and we want them to be strong for their upcoming home stays. 

March 5, 2015
A Marathon of Beijing Attractions

It’s an interesting time to BE IN CHINA. The country is decked out for the Spring Festival, which ended today with a blaze of fireworks. The red flags were flying from the Great Hall of the People signaling that the Congress is in session. This morning the sky was blue; tonight the moon is full. 

Hannah started our marathon of Beijing attractions with an in-depth overview of the Dowager Empress Cixi and her connections to the Summer Palace. Hannah has her own particular connection to this location; she built a model of the park for her sixth grade Festival of the World project on China. This year, after a decade of fruitless searching, the group finally located a scene of the Monkey King among the hundreds of thousands of painted panels in the long corridor, and found another after climbing to the tower of the Buddhist Incense. 

After a dumpling lunch, the group went through an unusually thorough security line to enter Tiananmen Square, where Charlie gave an outstanding presentation about Chairman Mao's speech as he founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and the basic structure of the country’s governing party. Charlie earned an honor rarely bestowed: The Best Speaker Award from Weifang. Zev and Tess also gave engaging presentations about politics and life in the Forbidden City, and they both maintained their composure despite an ever-widening audience of mostly Chinese tourists. This year, after a decade of fruitless searching, we finally located the nine-dragon screen, a beautiful tiled treasure that will probably serve as the backdrop for next year’s docent speakers.

Finally we rode pedi-cabs and walked through the Drum Tower Hutongs, stopping in one to hear from Hagan about the long history and the tenuous future of these traditional neighborhoods. Hagan’s challenge was not a wide audience, but a narrow lane. He was interrupted at least three times by passing pedestrians and also by a motor scooter, but he too took it all in stride. We are now on the overnight train to Xi’an. Tomorrow’s big adventure: the terra cotta warriors.

March 4, 2015
Tai Chi, a Temple and Bargaining in Beijing

The girls dominated this morning’s Tai Chi contest, with Erin and Elsa Rose especially selected by our Tai Chi Master (a 70-year-old, kick-boxing granny) to lead the group’s final exercise. The lesson was set to begin at 6:45, but by the time the faculty arrived (at the appointed time, mind you) the lesson had already begun; the students were all downstairs by 6:30. Our first stop after breakfast was the Temple of Heaven, where Liza explained the history and the symbolism of the complex and described the rituals performed there by the emperor on the winter solstice. Besides touring the temple grounds, we sketched, danced with a group of retirees, participated in a tea ceremony, and played a friendly game of feathered hacky sack.

After lunch (which was, Adelyn reported to Weifang, the best meal so far), Emily explained the process of sericulture, the archeological evidence of early silk production, and the importance of silk in the economy of both ancient and modern China. Then the group spent the afternoon at the market, bargaining for silk and other treasures. For many this was a new experience, and a few were a bit nervous. Tess, for example, started out with some trepidation, but midway through the afternoon she pronounced, “Bargaining is my new hobby!” (Her shopping-mates confirmed that she was a tough negotiator.) Everyone seemed completely caught up in the experience, and the adults expected to have to round the group up. But by the time the faculty arrived at the appointed place, the students had already checked to see if all their family group members were there and done a final sweep of the premises.

Most of us had to cover our eyes at some point during the intense and dynamic acrobatics show that followed our shopping spree—during the impossible moves of the contortionist, perhaps, or as the acrobat added another chair to the stack that took him clear up into the theater lighting, or when the fifth motorcyclist entered the steel globe. No one fell asleep during tonight’s Peking roast duck dinner, but our room keys had expired for some reason during the day, and by the time the faculty arrived upstairs after sorting it out, most of the students were curled up in the hallway, fast asleep in front of their rooms. Jet lag has nearly run its course and so has our time in Beijing. Tomorrow’s adventures: Beijing Mainstays (Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Drum Tower Hutongs) followed by the overnight train to Xi’an.

March 3, 2015
A Great Time on the Great Wall

Raucous laughter spread from one table to the other at lunch today, but at dinner, most of the students were asleep in their seats. Even without the jetlag, our teenagers may have gone to bed before 9 without a word of complaint; we spent a lot of energy on the Great Wall. Five miles might not sound very far, but there’s no flat part of the Jinshanling section. It’s stairs all the way, going straight up in both directions (I swear). Jared gave an enthusiastic docent presentation in a watchtower at the halfway point, and then the group recorded an important message for their mothers. (Don’t miss it!)

This year's Climbing the Great Wall Superlatives go to Elsa Rose and Jackson, for the Hermes Award (they raced the final staircase in under 1 minute), and to Vincent and Zev, for the Eagle Scout Award (they helped this old lady from start to finish). On the way back to the bus, Dylan led an impromptu bargaining lesson. He skillfully displayed three important strategies—outrage at the asking price, disdain for the inferior quality of the product, and increasing the number to reduce the price—to save his peers a pretty penny.

We switched our dinner venue, by the way, to a Uighur (“Wee-goor”) restaurant serving hearty stew, savory tofu, and lamb kebabs. This was a fortuitous change in the itinerary, as we recently read a New York Times article and talked about the Uighurs in Comparative Cultures. They are one of 55 minority ethnic groups in China. The Uighurs traditionally live in the Xinjiang Province in Northwestern China, speak a Turkic language, and practice Islam. (Wait! Do you think my reminding the students of these details contributed to their drowsiness at dinner?) Tomorrow’s adventures: The Temple of Heaven, The Silk Market, More Bargaining, Peking Duck, and Acrobatics.


March 2, 2015
Delays, Dentistry and Touchdown in Beijing

The group landed safely in Beijing this morning and is en route to meet the group's Beijing host, Zhu Weifeng. The flight was delayed twice, but once in the air, the students had the good fortune of witnessing the northern lights from the airplane. It's already been an adventure. Check back for more updates soon.

Update: Sometimes the adventure arrives before the plane does. That’s how this trip started, anyway. As eager as we were to finally BE IN CHINA, the group cheerfully waited through two separate delays, walking laps around terminal C, playing games—hearts, backgammon, psychiatrist—and trying out multiple tools to trim a broken wire from Will’s braces. (Jackson’s nail clippers worked in the end, carefully cleaned with alcohol wipes, of course, and Brad is considering a new career in orthodontics.) The flight was a smooth one, with plenty of time for sleep (except for Zach, who stuck with his plan to avoid jetlag by staying awake), movies (Anli watched five, an all-time trip record), and sightseeing (Zev got a picture of the Northern Lights that we’ll share at some point if we can). Our good friend Zhu Weifang met us at the airport. Because we were about six hours late, we had to forgo our dinner with Weifang’s college students. Instead we came directly to the Beijing Foreign Studies University Hotel, had fruit and instant noodles for supper, exchanged money, and headed off to bed. Tomorrow’s adventure: The Great Wall of China.