The 2013 Foote China Experience

This blog details the Foote 2013 China Experience, which included ninth grade students and six members of Foote's faculty/staff:

Deb Riding, coordinator of the Foote China program, co-chair of the Humanities Department, and a sixth grade humanities teacher and advisor who also teaches the ninth grade Comparative Cultures class, a social studies/history course that prepares ninth graders for their experiences in China.
Ann Baker Pepe
, director of Development and a past Foote parent who has traveled previously in Asia.
Mike McCabe, director of Technology at Foote who studied Buddhism for several years and has traveled extensively. This will be his first trip to China.
Brad McGuire, a physical education teacher and coach who is accompanying the ninth graders to China for the third time.
Susan (Sue) C. Shaw, a teacher in the Learning Support Program who has traveled to South Korea and Hong Kong, and who was inspired to join this year's trip by her son's experience with the 2012 China program.
Drew Sweet, a middle school Latin teacher and co-coordinator of the Applied Sciences Club who has traveled to Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Thursday, March 14

The Cambridge Room at the Kimberley Hotel may never have seen such a raucous conference as tonight’s closing ceremony.  We celebrated the successes of the group and recognized the contributions of each individual.  Each of us paid close attention to a fellow traveler throughout the trip (we drew names on the way from New Haven to Newark) and shared positive observations with the group.  The feeling in the room was upbeat — filled with hugs and laughter.

Our day in Hong Kong was a good one.  As we expected, some of us had one foot in China and one foot at home, but we all enjoyed our visit to the Wong Tai Sin Temple (introduced by docents Tamir and Shelby), our trip across the harbor on the Star Ferry (introduced by Sherman and Andrew), and our tram ride up Victoria Peak (introduced by Christoph and Chandler).

After our closing ceremony, most of us walked over to the Night Market on Temple Street for one last look around town and one more chance to bargain. We are now packing for home in anticipation of an early morning wake-up call. We’re looking forward to seeing families and friends tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 13
Yali uniforms, an organic resort, goodbyes and Hong Kong

We have made it – safe and sound and in good spirits – to Hong Kong.  On the bus to the hotel from the airport the faculty leaders gave a standing ovation to the students for their performance in Changsha.  This group wins the Outstanding Cross-Cultural Interactions Award for sure.  There will be many stories to tell when we get home.

We settled into our hotel rooms around midnight and most stayed put.  Only 12 students made it across the street for our simple noodle supper, and none of us felt up to the planned visit to the night market.  We decided to put that off until tomorrow.

We started our day with a trip to the school store at Yali, where many of our students bought school uniforms to go along with the sweatshirts that the school gave us as parting gifts.  Then we traveled with our e-pals to Orange Island to fly kites and to take a group photo in front of the statue of the young Chairman Mao.

Orange Island and a young Chairman Mao

We had lunch and a farm tour at a local organic food resort (who would have guessed it?) and then headed to the Beiya School, where we participated in a calligraphy program and made many new friends.  

The farm tour at the organic food resort

At Beiya School

After the visit to Beiya, we returned to Yali to gather our things and say goodbye to our guest families and students.  We were so sad to leave our friends in Changsha.  It has been an intense few days, but so valuable to each of us.

Tuesday, March 12
The market, Nanya, and Yali Yuhua

We gathered back at Yali this morning and sneaked in a half-hour meeting for reflections on our homestay experiences.  We wrote in our journals and shared with the group some of the surprises, awkward situations, and fabulous moments with our host families. By the time we stepped on the bus, we had all had a lot of laughs together, mainly about our own comical mishaps and misunderstandings.

We traveled by bus to Nanya, the Yali-affiliated boarding school south of the main campus. We stopped just before the school gate to visit a huge covered farmers' market.  Most people in China shop daily for fresh ingredients for their meals.  Some of these ingredients were unfamiliar to many of us, so it was interesting to see this basic part of life in China.  We also got a chance to taste sugar cane.  Delicious!

An exuberant Nanya welcome

When we arrived at Nanya, we were met by Principal Sun Quangui, who visited Foote School in the fall of 2009, along with our beloved guest teachers Li Yu ('Robert') and Xiang Jiaxiang ('Joshua'), who teach at Nanya.  We toured the campus, participated in a kick-boxing lesson, taught some students the game 'Old Maid' and played a soccer match against the Nanya girls' team (which ended in a 3-3 tie, naturally).  

Chinese and American soccer players

After a special lunch in the school cafeteria we traveled to the nearby Yali Yuhua School, where each of us paired up with a student and participated in tie-dying and paper-cutting activities.  Then we headed back to the main campus for the closing banquet, which was held at the Nanfeng Hotel across the street.  After good food, friendly conversation and (another!) birthday cake for Drew Sweet, the students went off with their host families, and the teachers headed for their annual Foot(e) massage.

Friends forever! Our visit at the Yali Yuhua School

We hope everyone has arrived home by now and has packed for tomorrow.  We don't leave for Hong Kong until 8 p.m., but our luggage has to be at Yali at 8 a.m. sharp.  We're expecting more fun activities tomorrow morning (a trip to Orange Island is planned) and afternoon (a visit to Beiya, the north campus, where we'll see Principal Xu Chuyang, who visited Foote this past fall) and some sad farewells come evening.  

Monday, March 11

We arrived at Yali last night and the kids went to their home stays for the first time. They were both excited and nervous about their home stays; meeting the parents, engaging in and sustaining conversation, and being unsure about what to expect can be stressful. But we met back at Yali this morning and every student was totally enthusiastic and happy about the night. They returned with numerous stories about what they did and how kind the parents were. It was a wonderful, positive response!

A welcome assembly awaited us this morning. Both our kids and the Yali students performed. After the assembly, we participated in a community service project. We broke our group into three smaller ones and visited older people in a senior-citizen apartment complex. With about seven million people in Changsha, just about everyone lives in an apartment. It’s like Manhattan in that way.

The welcome

The Yali school had provided some food for our kids to bring. Through our former guest teacher and a few Yali students, our kids were able to briefly interview the residents. Foote kids then broke into spontaneous performances, singing songs, reciting poetry, and introducing themselves in Chinese. They sang everything from “Jasmine Flower,” the song we often sing at assemblies, to a round of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” to “Stand by Me.” We recited French, Spanish, and Latin poems. One of the residents, who had led a quite sheltered life, had never before heard any of the languages our kids were speaking.

One group met with a woman who was part of an arranged marriage when she was just 17. She was quite elderly, bent from age and infirmity, but her eyes opened wide with amazement and her face beamed as she looked at the girls and was so thrilled to hear of all the choices they could make about their lives. It was quite beautiful, and a really powerful interaction for all who participated.

We had lunch at a buffet owned by a Brazilian man. It was international food, very interesting, and the kids loved that it was a huge buffet where they could choose anything. 

After lunch we visited music, art, and English classes at the main campus at Yali. The school serves students in grades 10 through 12, and now when Yali students and teachers speak to us about it, they call it Yali High School. It is a senior middle school; junior middle school accommodates grades 7, 8, and 9. Some campuses also combine both middle school programs for a full 7 through 12 program. The classes we attended were very interactive. In English, we played charades and Pictionary, which was very fun.

After class visits, we enjoyed an hour and a half of play time with the Yali kids. Some students played basketball, with some games more serious than others. Some relaxed with their Yali friends in the sunshine. 

We had a quick group meeting, then the kids went off for dinner with their host families evening. The teachers went to dinner with the nine teachers who had been guest teachers at Foote over the years, along with quite a few of the leaders of the Yali student delegations. The dinner was hosted by Vice Principal Wang Xu, who visited Foote two years ago, at a restaurant that gave us a meal that was beyond fabulous.

Previous Foote guest teachers

Dinner with teachers and chaperones

Then we went dancing! Ballroom dancing is a favorite activity for Gao Jun, our most recent guest teacher, who had been planning this event since December. He took us to a dance hall, where we sat at little booths and drank tea. When a new song came on the loudspeaker, young men and women who were the instructors and who the Yali group had hired would come over to us and ask us if we’d like to dance. They were just amazing dancers, and they taught us swing dancing, the tango, the waltz, line dances! Gao Jun, by the way, is a very good dancer. It was an enormously fun way to spend the evening together. (We are hoping no one took a video, though!)

One last item to mention, and perhaps one of the most important: We have been praising the kids on their levels of interaction with the Yali students. They have been engaged in every way possible, volunteering to read poetry, playing basketball, helping the Yali kids set up for the assembly. It is an across-the-board effort, not just one or two of our kids, but everyone finding a way to interact. We are very, very proud of them.

Sunday, March 10
Xi'an to Changsha: The Dear Leader and Dear Friends

After an exciting second day in Xi'an, the entire group woke eager and ready to head to Changsha. Our enthusiasm served us well, too, as the hotel staff failed to set wake-up calls for the group – and yet everyone was at breakfast before 6:30 anyway! What a great job by all of our travelers!

After our short flight to Changsha, we were thrilled to see Gao Jun at the airport, and he was accompanied by 30 yellow-clad seventh grade students from the Yiya School, one of the other schools operated by Yali in the city of Changsha. The delightful Yiya kids, with smiles ear to ear, paired up with our students and accompanied them to two buses that Gao Jun had arranged for us.

From the airport, we all made our way to Shaoshan, the childhood home of Chairman Mao. George and Abby's docent presentation, outside of the Chairman Mao museum and in the shadow of a great bronze statue erected in 1993 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Mao's birth, was made more special by the presence of the Yiya kids – and of course by other tourists who came over to listen in! Our students did a great job interacting with their new pals from Yiya as we toured the museum and marveled at the breadth of Chairman Mao artifacts – all the way down to his socks!

The entire group in front of a statue of Chairman Mao

Gao Jun and Deb Riding at Chairman Mao's childhood home

The bus rides to and from Shoashan deserve their own mention, for the rainy, cool day was quite welcome after so many warm and dry days thus far, and the mist in the air accentuated the lush, green countryside. It was a wonderful palette as we were all able to view the rural side of China and see people working on traditional communal farms.

We arrived at Yali Middle School in Changsha in the mid-afternoon and were greeted by Secretary Wu and the Yali students. Secretary Wu, who visited Foote in the fall of 2010, offered – with Gao Jun's translation – his official greeting, and then the Foote students met their host families. Within minutes, smiles and handshakes became hugs and plans for the evening, and the Foote students headed off with their friends to experience family life in China.

Saturday, March 9
The Bell Tower, Biking, Great Goose Pagoda, and Muslim Market

We slept in this morning! Our 7:30 wake-up call seemed luxurious, especially followed by a delicious breakfast at the hotel. Our first docent presentation, by Natalie and Dylan, was right outside the hotel and across from the Bell Tower. We learned that the Tower, constructed in the early Ming dynasty, played a central role in Xi’an’s history. For centuries, the bell was rung each day at sunrise to signal the opening of the gate, and again at sunset for the closing of the gate. In the 1500s, as the city grew, the entire Bell Tower structure was moved 1,000 meters so it would still be located in the center of the city.

Ann and Weifang at the Tower

A short bus ride took us to the city wall for Lawson and N’dasia’s docent presentation. It is a beautiful wall, 12 meters high, among the oldest in China. We were excited as we mounted bikes and took off to ride the 8.5 mile perimeter. The temperature was comfortable, despite a stiff wind, and most of the kids biked in shorts and T-shirts. Each of us took it at our own pace, with Ian O-G leading the way. Weifang had purchased kites for the students and those who finished first put a long string of kites aloft in the smoggy air.

Bikes at the city wall

From the wall we headed to lunch and then the Great Goose Pagoda, which was originally built during the seventh century as a place to translate and store the Sanskrit texts collected by the Buddhist monk Xuan Zang on his journey to India. Rachel and Ian O-G introduced us to the story of the monk and reminded us that China’s famous Monkey King stories are based on Xuan Zang’s travels.

At the Great Goose Pagoda

Xi’an is located in a very dry section of China, and by the afternoon many of us were feeling irritation in our throats, noses or eyes from the combination of smog and sand in the wind, so we used dust masks when we set out to visit the Muslim Market. It was a great experience for everyone. The students found so many interesting, odd and wonderful treats for themselves and for gifts. After about an hour of successful bargaining we met up at the gate to the Great Mosque. Sasha and Charlotte were the presenters as we learned about this beautiful mosque, founded in 742. Although only about 2 percent of China’s population are Muslims, that amounts to more than 24 million people.

Our yangrou paomo dinner, a traditional Muslim meal, was delicious! The combination of a distinctive bread soaked in beef or lamb broth, with rice noodles and flavorful chunks of beef or lamb, was a local version of comfort food that seemed to satisfy nearly everyone. There was a lot of laughter at the tables as the kids compared their stories of bartering and showed off their purchases. Everyone wanted to try Jared’s selection, an extremely unusual head massage device!

Tonight we called home and were happy to connect briefly with parents, then packed and met to talk about the transition to the home-stay part of our trip. After six days of being together 24-7, we’ll spend a lot more time with Yali buddies over the next few days. The kids were excited to hear the details about the Yali friends with whom they’ll be staying. Tomorrow we are up early and off to the airport for our flight to Changsha.

Friday, March 8
History, food, and camaraderie

The train to Xi’an was a great experience. Most people slept well despite the very firm beds! We arrived in Xi’an and went straight to the Bell Tower Hotel in the center of the city. Many of us were happy that the hotel buffet included familiar breakfast favorites such as Raisin Bran, Rice Krispies, omelets, toast and bacon. Some of the group, though, enjoyed local Chinese breakfast foods.

Breakfast in Xi'an

Once we had a chance to shower and change, we headed off to the Shaanxi History Museum. This was the first time a Foote group has visited this museum and it will definitely be included in future itineraries. Many of the students were glad to see artifacts from the dynasties they studied this year, and Ms. Riding picked up some terrific new materials to use with classes next year.

Outside the Shaanxi History Museum

From the museum we went to lunch — we watched an expert chef make the noodles and then we ate them in delicious soup. Our local trip coordinator, Weifang, has helped with options for our vegetarian students and those with food allergies. Within a few minutes after lunch we were entering the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum. The docent presentation by Caitlin and Nick on the front steps gave us a great introduction, and it was astonishing to see the scale of the project Emperor Qin envisioned and commanded his subjects to create over a 35-year period. The warriors were discovered by chance in 1974 when a local farmer was digging a well. In the nearly 30 years since the discovery, an enormous museum has been constructed over the archeological site. The warriors and horses that have been uncovered and meticulously reassembled are amazing – and the project is far from complete.

The warriors

Presenting outside the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum

We pulled out our journals and added sketches of the warriors. The sketching process has been a great activity this year — we all slow down and observe better when we are trying to draw something, and many of the kids really look forward to this part of our days. After a quick ice cream treat, we headed back to Xi’an for a dumpling feast and a Tang culture show that included dances and music popular from 200 A.D. to 700 A.D.

We heard that there’s snow in Connecticut but here in Shaanxi our weather has been great — in fact, spring has come early in Xi’an — the cherry trees are blooming and it was in the 70s today. Our turtlenecks and long underwear are in our suitcases unused!

Our days are really busy, but there is time for chatting and laughing (or napping!) on the bus rides between locations. After six days of near constant travel, we took time for a group meeting this morning to review strategies for promoting group survival. The kids are doing a great job in many respects, from trying new foods to getting to the bus on time, watching out for each other, and maintaining an open mind as they observe differences between China and their lives in the U.S. They are definitely trying to live our trip motto: Be in China!

Thursday, March 7
The Forbidden City, Literally
A missive delivered by phone on the overnight train to Xi’an

We had our second tai chi lesson at the local park and we were actually good at it! Then we visited the Summer Palace. It was created in 1750 for royal families to rest and entertain, and later became the main residence for royal family members at the end of the Qing Dynasty.

The students loved the Summer Palace. It’s such a beautiful spot, and this year after Jared and Shafton gave an informative presentation, we had a lovely moment. We were all sitting and sketching, and as we looked up and across the lake, we were struck en masse by the palace's beauty.

At the Summer Palace

We had a dumpling lunch. Then we went downtown and to Tiananmen Square. But Tiananmen Square was closed because of the transfer of power; the National People’s Congress is meeting this week, and a new president and new leaders are being appointed. Security was high. We stopped to hear a docent presentation by Ian and Leila on Tiananmen Square, and a crowd of Chinese tourists gathered. They wanted to hear what our students had to say.

Presenting in Tiananmen Square

We arrived at the Forbidden City, the Chinese imperial palace for emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasties, five minutes after the last tickets were sold. Tickets stop selling at 3:30 p.m.; we arrived at 3:35 and were not permitted to enter. Our host, Zhu Weifang, had no idea the Forbidden City closed at this time. We were still able to go to the outer court and do our sketches and the presentation, given by Matt and Caroline, which attracted another crowd of Chinese tourists wanting to hear what our students had to say.

Presenting outside the Forbidden City

We walked along the outer wall next to the moat, which was very interesting. Although we were disappointed about the Forbidden City, the students took time to comfort Weifang. They are being very flexible travelers.

We were able to ride in bicycle rickshaws around the hutongs, or narrow alleyways that lead to courtyards surrounded by houses. Much of the hutong and its ancient housing was destroyed to build the 2008 Summer Olympic venues. We tucked ourselves into a hutong for a presentation by Ella and Carson. Everybody did a good job, of course. 

After we went to the houses, we went to the Olympic venue for a quick photo opportunity. 

We arrived at the train station and ate dinner on the train. The kids are settled in now; we’ll have our first day in Xi’an soon. Off to the Terra Cotta warriors!

Wednesday, March 6
The Temple of Heaven, Tea, Silk, and Acrobats

We started our day with a tai chi lesson in a local park. It was an excellent chance to stretch our sore muscles from the hike on the Great Wall.

Our next stop was the Temple of Heaven, where we heard from docents Dom and Izzy. They told us about the rich symbolism of the site, with interlocking circles representing heaven surrounded by squares representing earth. The Chinese also believe that the center of the earth is located here.

Afterward, we took a break in a local park before heading to a tea house, and many of the students joined local residents in a game similar to hacky-sack. At the tea house, we participated in a tea ceremony and learned about many types of tea. We also learned the proper way to hold tea cups, so men's hands represent a dragon's head and women's represent a phoenix.

When we finished lunch, we visited a silk factory. We learned about the life cycle of the silkworm and how silk is made. Many of the students even helped stretch a double silkworm cocoon into a blanket.

When we were finished at the silk factory, we went to a large indoor market with many different booths. The students had a great time haggling with the shopkeepers, but we found out that some of us got much better deals than others as we talked over our purchases on the bus.

With our day winding down, we went to an amazing acrobatic show. The many feats of strength and great flexibility of the performers delighted us, but the highlight was undoubtedly the motorcycles in the large steel ball. We were surprised again and again, as no less than five performers drove around the ball at once without mishap.

Finally, we had a delicious dinner of Peking Duck and headed back to the hotel for some much-needed rest.

Tuesday, March 5

We started the day at a local restaurant.

We had a spicy beef on a "bun" (a cross between an English muffin and a country biscuit.) We could also choose from boiled eggs, fried rice, and a sweet, doughy treat made with pumpkin and covered with sesame seeds.

Then we headed to a jade factory where we saw artisans carving jade and toured a museum-like showroom full of statues, jewelry, chopsticks, combs, wall hangings and other unique decorations. One of the most interesting items was the "Ball of Life." Carvers shape a story of life from a single piece of jade -- a ball within a ball within a ball that takes seven days to complete.

This piece in this photo runs about $8,500.

Approaching The Great Wall started out like leaving any familiar place, but as we got closer, the landscape took a dramatic turn; hills with tall, elongated peaks and terraced fields grabbed our attention as the road seemed to narrow and wind up through these hills. After a number of turns, hints of The Great Wall came into view and shouts of excitement added to the energy of anticipating a new adventure.  

We hiked a good distance to get to our starting point.

We stopped to say "ni hao" to all of our friends and family back home!

One of the hard parts.

Almost straight up.

That was tough!

And then we had an incredible workout that lasted four hours over some very steep stone paths. We took a break about mid-way to hear our first docent project given by Anika and Annie. We either have a highly inquisitive bunch of kids or we needed to do more hiking. The kids were bursting with questions after the presentation.


We finished the evening with a great dinner and show. Zhu Weifang alerted the hosts and they threw Drew Sweet a surprise birthday party.

Monday, March 4
Arrival in Beijing


With Zhu Weifang, center

Poise and Flexibility from the Get-Go

We arrived in Beijing in good shape this afternoon and were welcomed by clear blue skies and our gracious host Zhu Weifang, who is a professor of English at Remnin University.

The group managed the 14-hour flight quite well, with the help of hundreds of movies, a couple of card games, and endless views of frozen tundra. The in-flight map let us track our progress over the Arctic Circle and reminded us of a couple of locations we labeled on our sixth grade world maps (Baffin Bay and the Kara Sea, for example). Some in the group slept; a handful slept well. We received compliments on the composure of the group from fellow passengers and from the flight crew –this despite the game of musical chairs that took place around hour nine.

It turns out that traveling with 36 people requires some patience. ("Hurry up and wait" may join our list of mantras this year, although no saying can replace the ubiquitous "Be in China!") It took so long for the immigration official to process our group visa that we had to readjust our plans for the evening. Instead of heading directly to the Beijing Foreign Studies University Hotel to check in (and perhaps to shower?), we traveled directly from the airport to Remnin University to meet with Weifang’s students. Pairing up with one other Foote student and going out to dinner with five or six college kids is a pretty challenging social situation even when it doesn’t take place immediately after a flight to the other side of the world. Yet the students exhibited more poise and flexibility than we could ever have expected. They left Weifang’s lecture hall with smiles and returned with exuberant stories about their new friends, the food, the restaurants, the campus, the city.

In the meantime, the faculty had dinner with Weifang and toasted the 10th anniversary of Foote’s first trip to China (way back when the Class of 2013 was in kindergarten). It was especially good to have Ann Baker Pepe and Weifang together for this occasion, as the two of them worked together to launch the program and to plan the inaugural trips.

After a short meeting and a group photo in the hotel lobby (to prove that everyone really did make it to China), the students are now settled in their rooms once they had prepared their backpacks for tomorrow’s hike on the Great Wall. We’re trying a new section this year, just under seven miles stretching from Jinshanling to Gubeikou. We’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, March 3

Ninth graders and trip chaperones met at Foote at 6 a.m. to board the bus to the airport. They posed for a farewell photo before setting out on the first leg of their trip.