2016 China Experience

Five faculty members and 23 ninth graders will travel to China from March 6 - 19. 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 ninth trip to China.

Colleen Murphy teaches Physical Education.

Jake Burt teaches Grade 5.

Jennifer Friedman is a librarian. 

Mike Golschneider teaches art.

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.


Skipping Stones in the South China Sea
Friday, March 18

It was a lovely last day in China. We traveled by subway and bus around Kowloon Peninsula and Hong Kong Island, learning from four different docents (Kiki at Wong Tai Sin, Danny at the Star Ferry, Richard at Stanley Village, and Neal with an overview of Hong Kong). We even fit in a few peaceful moments hanging out at the beach, skipping stones in the South China Sea. We ended the day with a warm and positive closing ceremony.

To wind up the blog, I asked each traveler to think back to a time when they felt they were most “in China.” Here are their responses: 

I was most “in China” when I was making dumplings. I felt as if I were a pro. —OA

I felt most “in China” being on the Great Wall and seeing the Hong Kong skyline. —RB

The moment I felt most “in China” was on the Great Wall because the mountains were layered beautifully and had wrinkles in them. I also felt “in China” in the train station when we were going on the overnight train. The waiting room was packed, and I’ve never seen so many people in one room. –IB

The moment I realized I was “in China” was upon walking that now familiar path from airplane to customs desk. It made me realize that homecomings can occur in any place one’s heart resides. —JB 

I was “in China” when we ate before hiking the Great Wall and the food tasted 100x better than the Chinese food in America. Also, when I was driving to karaoke with Lucy and the windows were rolled down, I saw all the colors and lights everywhere. It was beautiful. –BC

When I was riding my bike around the Xi’an Wall with my friends, I looked out over the city and sang songs. It was surprisingly calming and I could really appreciate being “in China.” –AC

I was “in China” when...I looked out from the Great Wall and saw the view; when we went home with our buddies and only Evan could speak English; and when I was bargaining for fake items in markets. –SC

The moment when I felt most “in China” was when I finished walking the Great Wall and sat down to rest. –AG

Waking up early in the morning on the overnight train to Xi’an and sitting in my bed watching the countryside roll by was when I felt most “in China.” –MG

Our afternoon on the Great Wall—sketching and walking and taking pictures was unforgettable. It was for me the perfect blend of having fun and being completely awed by my surroundings. –JF  

My time in the pedicab in Beijing and on the ferris wheel in Changsha were my “in China” moments. —RH

The moment I felt most “in China” was on the first day of the homestay. I felt very alone but it went well. –PJ

I was “in China” when…we were talking to the elderly woman about her life; whenever locals wanted pictures with us; when I was making dumplings with my host family; while riding bikes on the Xi’an Wall; and when we were in the pedicabs in the Hutongs and the drivers were making fun of us. —GK

I felt most “in China” when we were in the pedicabs and all of the drivers were mimicking our laughs. –KiM

Throughout this whole trip the one moment that stood out was walking the Wisdom Path in silence while keeping a distance between one another. I noticed the fog (the color of paper) and heard nature all around me. –KeM

I felt like I was “in China” when we were in the pedicabs and we felt the wind on the bike and took pictures of the amazing Hutongs. –MM

I think I felt “in China” on the first day in Changsha. We went to see our buddies, and I realized I was alone, but it was so much fun; I bonded closely with my host mom. —MMi

The Wisdom Path was breathtaking. I took time to listen, observe, and appreciate it. –MMu

I felt most “in China” while riding in the pedicabs through the Hutongs and while walking through the Beiyuanmen Muslim Street in Xi’an. –CM

The moment I really felt like I was “in China” was at the Great Goose Pagoda. There was an amazing sunset and looking at that and the skyline was truly breathtaking. –EP

I felt like I connected with my buddy’s mom because she always told my buddy I was a great girl and she didn’t want me to leave. Bargaining was also a big part, and it taught me the culture. —RP

The Muslim street in Xi’an felt like China. It was crowded, hazy, and everything was in Chinese, and I loved it. –LP

When we were at the Po Lin Monastery walkng the Wisdom Path I really was “in China.” The mist and high winds really made it seem like something foreign. –DSa

I was walking on the Wisdom Path and the beauty and the serenity overwhelmed me. I felt a sense of clam and spirituality I have not felt in a long time. –SS

The moment I felt most “in China” was driving in the bus moments away from Yali. –NS

My “in-China” moment was befriending the elderly Muslim women in the mosque in Xi’an and taking photos with them.  –IS

The most amazing part of China wasn’t any ancient monument or landmark. It was stepping out of the airport and realizing you were on the other side of the world. That was a more vivid and beautiful moment than any other on the whole trip. –DSw

Reminder regarding the trip home: The Foote group will depart Hong Kong via United Airllines flight 180 non-stop service to Newark. They will travel by bus to Loomis Place, and will call parents en route with an estimated time of arrival (about 5:30 p.m.)

One Foot in China, One Foot at Home
Thursday, March 17

The mood has definitely shifted a bit, as it does toward the end of most trips. It’s just natural. We’ve said our tearful goodbyes to our Yali friends. We’re no longer “on” every single moment. We’ve started to look toward home. Hong Kong, with its cultural mix of East and West, is a good place to be in this halfway-here-halfway-there state. 

Our send-off at Yali—from students, parents, faculty and administration—was bittersweet. We felt so happy about the connections we made during our stay in Changsha, and we felt so sad to be leaving our friends. There were plenty of tears among the Yali students who chased the bus to the campus gate and some on our bus as well. Check-in was easy at the airport, and we successfully retrieved the camera Belle left on our flight to Changsha, but the bumpy landing in Hong Kong was a bit scary—the worst ever for Colleen, who always projects calm even when she herself is terrified. It was cloudy and almost drizzling when we landed, and our drive up to the Po Lin Monastery took us right into the clouds. We could not even see the outline of the giant Buddha statue until midway up the steps. Even at the base of the statue, we would never have known that the Buddha was smiling without the helpful discussion of symbolism in Matthew’s presentation. The tall wooden pillars that define the infinity shape of the Wisdom Path were also shrouded in fog. It is our tradition to walk the path alone in meditative silence; this year the soughing of the wind kept us company. This reflective walk is usually listed among the favorite experiences of the trip, but no one has ever asked for time to walk it again, as Parker did today. Rich’s college roommate met us at the Kimberley Hotel and took Richard off to dinner. The rest of us fared for ourselves at a low-key restaurant across the street from the hotel. We met up again at the Temple Street Night Market, where we shopped mainly for small tokens for the individual group member whose positive attitudes and actions we have been secretly observing since our bus ride to Newark. Tomorrow we’ll each share what we have noticed at a closing ceremony.

Tomorrow: Hong Kong Overview, Wong Tai Sin Daoist Temple, Star Ferry, Victoria Peak, Stanley Village, Closing Ceremony, Packing for HOME 


Overheard on Our Last Day in Changsha
Wednesday, March 16

At our morning meeting about the interviews students conducted with older members of their host families:

  • He loved swimming in the river when he was younger, and he is so sad that his daughter cannot have the same experience.
  • There was only one bicycle in her village and she still remembers the day she learned how to ride.
  • He said his life has turned out so much better than he expected—like a fairy tale.

After our walk around the farmers market:

  • Can you buy goose eggs in America?
  • I just don’t want to know the chicken I’m eating.
  • Were those mushrooms?
  • I already knew that the way we get food in the U.S. is not real. I mean, our food is delivered by PeaPod.

At Nanya Middle School, where students arranged flowers, made paper crafts, played a soccer match against the Nanya girls’ soccer team, the reigning provincial champions (4-3, Nanya), and ate lunch in the cafeteria:

  • The teacher came over and smiled at me. Then she took out a few flowers, cut them shorter, and put them back in.  The whole thing looked 10 times better.
  • It seems all American students know how to play soccer. That is not true in China.
  • Can I go up for seconds?

 At the Hunan Embroidery Institute, which students toured with students from Beiya Middle School:

  • It’s the same on both sides. Where do they hide the knots?
  • She said it would take one person two years to make. I don’t know how they have the patience.
  • I thought it was a painting.
  • Can I go back to the bus to get my money? 

At the closing banquet, held in a banquet room at Nanfeng Hotel, across the street from Yali:

  • (Singing led by Hannah) Happy Birthday dear Yali and Foote. Happy Birthday to you!
  • It feels like we just arrived and we already have to go.
  • This may be the last time I ever get to see my epal.
  • On behalf of all the students, we want to say Xie xie Principal Liu. We’ve loved our time at Yali.

Tomorrow: Goodbye Yali, Hello Hong Kong

Our Kids are Shining
Tuesday, March 15

We keep telling the kids how proud we are. We can’t help it. They have stepped up in so many ways on this trip, especially during these days of intense interaction at Yali. When you visit a school, you just never know when you’ll have to give a speech, recite a poem, sing a song, or juggle tennis balls. Our kids are shining, and we are proud. 

Everyone arrived back at Yali in good spirits this morning. We started the day by telling funny stories about cross-cultural miscommunications we’ve experienced at our homestays. (Ask Sebastian about ice water sometime.) We spent the morning at Yiya Middle School and the afternoon at several important cultural sites. Parker introduced the 1,000-year-old Yuelu Confucian Academy, where we explored the peaceful courtyards in our family groups before listening to a performance of traditional music. (Did you know that the gaokao, China’s current high-stakes college entrance exam, grew out of an ancient civil service examination system?) Belle gave her presentation at the Du Fu Pavilion, and, since Du Fu was one of China’s most revered Tang Dynasty poets, she read a few of his poems too. (Did you know that Du Fu failed the ancient civil service exam? He was so depressed that he started writing poetry!) When we got back to Yali, the students went home, happily, with their host families.

Tomorrow: Nanya Middle School, Hunan Embroidery Institute, Closing Banquet

Monday, March 14

Although Jennifer doesn’t like to use the word, she could only describe our first day at Yali as epic. We started with a meeting to hear about the first night at our host families'. The students’ reactions were unanimously positive. (“I can’t believe I was nervous!”  “The food was awesome.” “They were so nice I felt like I was home.”)

These high spirits transferred to a terrific performance in the welcome assembly. This was the first year that every single student had a turn on the stage. Maddie Mulligan and Sam did a great job as MCs, and all the kids looked so happy as they performed, especially with the Yali students clapping and singing along. The girls’ song sounded quite different in the small room of an elderly woman they visited later in the morning as a community service activity. The girls asked her questions about her life, and she shared some poignant stories. She cried, we cried, and then the girls sang. Who would have thought that a Taylor Swift mash-up could be so beautiful, so intimate, so moving? (The boys visited someone too; it was fine but nothing to write home about.) After lunch Sam gave the group an overview of Changsha. (Did you know that the farmers in the rural areas surrounding Changsha exercise their pigs by having them dive into the water? This fact was confirmed by Hannah, who was surprised that the practice seemed unconventional to us.) The students visited art, music and English classes at Yali, and then walked across the street to visit a primary school, where Evie and Matthew gave a presentation about life at Foote. Back on campus, our kids participated in martial arts and fencing lessons. Then, with just enough time to spare before host families arrived, we ended the day on the basketball court. Foote gave a valiant effort to no avail. Yali plays a mean game of basketball. But they are awfully nice hosts.

Tomorrow: Yiya Middle School, Yuelu Academy, Orange Island, Du Fu Pavilion

Safe and Sound
Sunday, March 13, 11:45 p.m.

Spring comes earlier in Changsha than it does in New Haven. Trees and shrubs are in bloom, and the roadway through the rural outskirts of the city is lined with fields of yellow flowers. After an easy flight from Xi’an, we spent the day in Shaoshan, the hometown of Mao Zedong, an hour west of downtown Changsha. We were accompanied by 30 seventh and eighth graders from Yiya, a Yali-affiliated school. At Mao’s childhood home, Sebastian presented a speech highlighting the leader’s accomplishments. (Did you know that Mao Zedong’s rural upbringing allowed him to connect closely with peasant farmers who provided the base of the party and allowed the Communists to defeat the Nationalists?)

The students sang most of the way from Shaoshan to Yali in rehearsal for tomorrow’s assembly. But their songs turned to shrieks of joy as the bus pulled onto the Yali campus this evening, and any lingering trepidation about the homestays disappeared. Our students rushed off the bus and into the arms of their waiting epals, and, after chaperone check-ins and family photos, headed home with their host families. The students are safe and sound.

Tomorrow: Yali!    

Looking Back, Looking Forward
Saturday, March 12, 11:45 p.m.


Today marks the end of our time as tourists in mainland China; tomorrow we transform into guests. We ended this phase of our trip with a little writing and talking, looking back on our time in Xi’an and forward to our stay in Changsha. There were plenty of moments to celebrate, of course, and a fair bit of trepidation about the week ahead, mainly about the homestay. It will be hard, we all agreed, and that’s why it will be a powerful experience. The kids are ready. They can do it.


Today ended on an incredibly positive note, but it started off-key. We were a bit grumpy and the skies were a heavy gray. We consulted an air quality chart and ended up wearing masks for a couple hours before the haze lifted. But the haze did lift and so did our spirits. Here are some highlights:

  • Watching Ida maintain her composure through some serious disruptions during her overview of Xi’an in the lobby of the hotel. (Did you know that the rich diversity of Xi’an’s population stretches all the way back to the days when the city, then Chang’an, was the starting point of the Silk Road and the largest city in the world?)
  • Taking pictures with a group of Muslims from another province in China who were on a pilgrimage to the Great Mosque after Maddie Milazzo’s presentation. (Did you know that Xi’an’s Great Mosque is one of the oldest in China? It was built in 742, during the Tang Dynasty, just over a century after the founding of Islam.)
  • Shopping in the Muslim market
  • Riding bicycles 9 miles around the Ancient City Wall—through some pretty bizarre lantern shapes—after Omid taught us about the site. (Did you know that the wall is one of the world’s best-preserved military defense systems?)
  • Catching both the musical fountain and the monks chanting at the Da Cien Buddhist Temple after listening to Raysa explain the history behind the temple’s Great Goose Pagoda. (Did you know that the pagoda was built to store texts brought back from India by the seventh century monk Xuanzang?)
  • Celebrating Andrew’s 15th birthday with singing, cake (ice cream instead for a few), a friendly speech by Omid (his second of the day), and a round of congratulations from the other people in the restaurant.

It’s been a wonderfully positive first half; we’re looking forward to the next stage of our trip.

Tomorrow: Early Flight to Changsha (5:30 wake-up call!), Reunion with Luo Jingbo ("Jasmine"), Visit to Shaoshan (the hometown of Mao Zedong), Yali, HOMESTAYS. We can do it!


A Whole Lotta Terracotta
Friday, March 11, 11:45 p.m.

Nothing cheers up a group up of teenagers better than an unexpected opportunity to shower. We arrived at the Bell Tower Hotel this morning for breakfast, mostly well rested but pretty grimy, and had our worst fears confirmed: our rooms would not be ready until late afternoon. We’re a tough bunch, so we geared up to face a long day with greasy hair (woe is us!), but some higher power intervened and by the end of breakfast we had our room cards and an hour to settle in and clean up. I’m not sure the kids have been happier about anything else on the trip, save, perhaps, the Great Wall.

Our favorite part of the train ride was the view we had for a couple of hours this morning: mountains with terraced orchards to our right (dotted here and there with grave stones and monuments, the new ones marked with paper flower wreaths); farmland and  tiny villages, some in ruins, to our left (interspersed with industrial sites.)

We are spending lots of time looking closely. Today we sketched at the Shaanxi History Museum and again at the Terracotta Warriors Museum, where Ryan gave his docent project. (Did you know that the workers who built the warriors were killed after Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s death so they could not reveal the secrets of the burial site?) Then we watched a show of music and dance from the time of the Tang Dynasty, which was entertaining but still put more than a handful of us to sleep.

Tomorrow: Visiting the Great Mosque, Shopping in the Muslim Market, Climbing the Great Goose Pagoda, Riding around the Ancient City Wall, Preparing for Changsha    


Forbidden City Forbidden, Tiananmen Too
Thursday, March 10, 10:15 p.m.

A few kids are still up playing cards, but most have already been lulled to sleep by the rocking of the train. We’ve said goodbye, sadly, to Weifang and Beijing and are headed to Xi’an. Overheard at our farewell dinner: That was only yesterday? It seems like a week ago! and I can’t believe it’s almost time to go to Yali!  Somehow both are true. Time is slow and fast for us in China.

Today was another chilly day with clear, bright blue skies. We started the day with Izzy’s docent presentation and Mike’s sketching lesson at the Summer Palace.(Did you know that this beautiful imperial residence was built as a 60th birthday gift for the Dowager Empress Cixi?) Later, Weifang arranged for us to skip the block-long security line into the street across from Tiananmen Square. But even she could not talk our way into the square itself (which was closed for a meeting of the People’s Congress) or the Forbidden City (which closed early due to security concerns connected to the meeting.) Nonetheless we saw Tiananmen Square from a distance, learned about it from Damon, and got a photo of the group with the iconic portrait of Chairman Mao over Tiananmen Gate. (Did you know that Mao Zedong declared the founding of the People’s Republic of China to a huge crowd gathered in Tiananmen Square, which holds nearly a million people?) We were also able to walk into the outer courtyards of the Forbidden City, where we heard from Abby and completed a second sketch. (Did you know that all of the many roofs of the Forbidden City are yellow, the color of the imperial family, except for one? The library has a black roof, symbolizing the power of water to douse fire.) The students took today’s disappointments in stride, and we are so, so proud of their flexibility and positive spirit. 

Tomorrow: The Terracotta Warriors!


Silk Underwear, Robes, and Pajamas
Wednesday, March 9, 10:30 p.m.

Even though the kids are meant to be packing, they are strutting up and down the hotel hallway modeling silk underwear, robes, and pajamas. What an amazing day we’ve had!

Here are the highlights:

  • Meeting Joy, Weifang’s six-week-old granddaughter, whose Chinese name means “He speaks to her softly.”
  • Watching Evie give a thorough presentation and then go on to find the exact spot where her mother fell last year at the Temple of Heaven. (Did you know that the Circular Altar is designed around nine, the number of the emperor?)
  • Warming up at the teahouse (below-freezing temperatures postponed our sketching lesson).
  • Stretching a layer of silk onto a comforter after Maddie Mulligan’s solid docent presentation at the silk factory. (Did you know that silk was more valuable than gold in Ancient China?)
  • Riding through the hutongs on bicycle rickshaws and hearing Grace respond knowledgeably to her classmates’ observations about these ancient neighborhoods. (Did you know that some formerly rundown Beijing hutongs are now trendy like New York City brownstones?)
  • Yelling “NO!” as the fifth motorcycle entered the cage at the acrobat show. Andrew gave an informative presentation, but there is no way he could prepare us for the hair-raising feats we witnessed. (Did you know that many of the props used in Chinese acrobatics are simple household items such as plates, chairs and drums because the art began as a form of wintertime entertainment in countryside homes?)
  • Driving hard bargains for gifts and souvenirs, including silk underwear, robes and pajamas.

It wasn’t a perfect day, of course, but yesterday we discovered a new proverb about that: For every great day there will be some fingerprints on the windows.

Tomorrow: Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Overnight Train to Xi’an.

Tuesday, March 8, 5:00 p.m.

We are driving down out of Yan Shan, the mountains north of Beijing, past the terraced peach and apple orchards. The bus is not quiet, exactly, but it’s subdued. We are tired after our three-hour hike on the Great Wall. And of course some jet lag is kicking in. It has been an outstanding first full day in China—brisk and sunny, perfect weather for our excursion.

Liam gave us an overview of Beijng this morning. (Did you know that the city was called Dadu when Marco Polo lived here under the rule of Kublia Khan?) And Kevin gave his docent speech on the Great Wall. (Did you know that, contrary to popular belief, the Wall cannot be seen from space?) Our first sketches ranged from Murphy to Golschneider. Tomorrow, Mike will give us a sketching lesson at the Temple of Heaven. The hike itself was exhilarating and breathtaking (in every sense of the word).

We are currently on our way to Remnin University, where pairs of Foote students will have dinner on campus with small groups of college students. Tomorrow: Temple of Heaven, Silk Factory, Hutongs, and Acrobats, not to mention shopping.

P.S. 9:30 p.m. A quick report from Belle about dinner with the Remnin University students: “That was the best thing ever.”

Blue Skies in Beijing

Monday, March 7, 5:30 p.m.

After the smoothest flight ever, we landed early in Beijing (a particular relief after last year’s seven-hour delay). Weifang greeted us with flowers and hugs, and we set off for the Beijing Foreign Studies University Hotel, where we are currently figuring out how to plug our iPods into adapters, finding out what happens when both roommates leave the room with the key cards locked inside, and examining our freshly exchanged RMB. We plan to take advantage of the early arrival and the blue skies (!) with a walk around the BFSU campus before our meal at a nearby Uighur restaurant, where we’ll meet Sam’s friend Jessica, who toured him around on his last trip to Beijing. Tomorrow: THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA!!!