2017 China Experience

Five faculty members and 23 ninth graders will travel to China from March 5 - 18. 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 11th trip to China.

Megan Williams is Middle School Math Chair. This is her third trip to China.

Drew Sweet teaches Latin. This is his second trip to China.

Beth Mello is Head of Lower School.

Kossouth Bradford is School Counselor. 

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.


One Foot in Hong Kong and One Foot in New Haven
Friday, March 17

We ended our last day in China with a warm and celebratory closing ceremony featuring lots of laughter and a big group hug. We are now packing up and heading to bed in advance of a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call for tomorrow’s flight home.

We were thinking a lot about home today, and that “one foot in Hong Kong and one foot in New Haven” feeling made it hard at times to stay positively engaged in the activities of the day. Luckily, our visits to Wong Tai Sin Temple, Victoria Peak, and the South China Sea rejuvenated our spirits and brought us back to China for one last day. 

On our last day in China we…

  • got to hear Jaden, Adin and Manny deliver solid docent presentations;
  • had a quiet moment to sketch at Wong Tai Sin;
  • spent a lot of time on the MTR, Hong Kong’s subway;
  • rode the world’s steepest tram up to Victoria Peak;
  • enjoyed a treat of our choice up at the top;
  • marveled at the views on the drive around Hong Kong Island;
  • bargained for one last time at the Stanley Market; and
  • walked barefoot on the sand along the South China Sea.

We’ve had a good trip and are looking forward to seeing our families tomorrow evening.


Goodbye Yali, Hello Hong Kong
Thursday, March 16

We said our goodbyes at Yali this morning (the pictures are worth a thousand words) and flew together to Hong Kong. It’s hard to say now what our friendships at Yali will mean to us, but for now we are sticking with the sentence that emerged at the closing banquet last night and at our farewells this morning: Wo men shi e jia ren. We are family.

Thankfully everyone is feeling better, and we had a good day here in our last stop of the trip. Cody told us the story of the founding of Buddhism at the Po Lin Monastery, where we enjoyed (!) a vegetarian lunch, climbed the steps to the Giant Buddha, and did a silent meditation walk on the Wisdom Path. 

We met up with Leslie Stone (and Mia and Wyatt) and four Yale-China Fellows for supper and did some bargaining at the Temple Street Night Market before turning in for a well-deserved rest.

Soaking Up Our Last Day in Changsha
Wednesday, March 15

Our last full day in Changsha began with a visit to Nanya Middle School where the ninth graders created floral arrangements and participated in a Tai Chi class. Before heading off to lunch they squared off against each other to practice their emerging skills. Another delicious lunch was eaten (served with a side of Tamiflu) and we headed off to the Hunan Embroidery Institute, where the students tried their hands at the ancient art of embroidery while making new friends from Beyla Middle School.

The day closed—following a visit to the school store—at the banquet. The students and faculty reflected on their time together and committed to a lifetime of friendship... tears were shed but mostly laughter was heard as well as pledges to stay in touch. Despite the illness of one of their classmates, students are in good spirits to begin the final leg of their journey.


From Yiya to Yuelu
Tuesday, March 14

This morning Foote students went to Yiya middle school. Once again they were overwhelmed with the warm reception from the students and faculty who prepared special presentations and showered them with gifts. The ninth graders performed a song and several poems for an enthusiastic audience. They must have felt like rock stars given the attention they were shown and the autographs they signed.

Following the school visit, we traveled back in time to the Yuelu Academy, part of the Hunan University that originally promoted the teachings of Confucius. Pablo started off his presentation there by comparing Foote’s 100th anniversary celebration with the Academy’s recent anniversary, 1,036 years!  During our visit we experienced first-hand traditional Chinese instruments from 3,000 years ago. The music was beautiful and inspired a mindfulness activity led by Kossouth after the musical presentation.

The afternoon concluded with a visit to Orange Island, named for the orange groves that used to grow there and home to a grand statue of Mao Zedong in his youth. (He has a full head of hair.) We also made a quick stop at the Du Fu Pavilion to hear from Fiona about one of China’s most beloved poets.

Overall the students (and faculty) have been amazed by the hospitality of their hosts and buddies and the Yali community as a whole. During our morning meetings, the students have commented that their families have given them the best of everything in their homes: rooms, beds, and food. We have been genuinely grateful!


Learning from Lei Feng
Monday, March 13 - 11:00 p.m.

Our kids rose to occasion after occasion today. They came back to Yali from the first night of their homestays with stories of kindness and comforts, new slippers and homemade dumplings. Then they toured Yali's history museum, where they saw, among a century-plus of photos (the dirt road leading to the first campus, the science building gutted by fire during WWII, the pantheon of heads of school and party secretaries), a photo of themselves when they were in sixth grade celebrating their study of Buddhism with our 2013 guest teacher, Hannah. On the way up the stairs to the auditorium, students were beginning to brainstorm how to use the 18 minutes allotted for the assembly rehearsal, but when they entered they found the audience already seated and the stage set up for Yali's rock band. Our students quickly paced out the dance, scoped out the micrphones, and tuned the instruments. When it was their turn to perform (after Beth rocked the speech and our wind chimes were graciously accepted), they brought tears to our eyes. Kids who don't always sing sang. Kids who don't always smile, smiled. And they maintained this positive energy through their classes at Yali, their visit to Fu Yingfei's daughter's 4th grade classroom, their basketball game (27-25, Yali) and their departure for home with their host families. 

In the middle of the day at the Ma Jiachong Housing Community, where our students visited lower-income elderly residents as a "Learn from Lei Feng" community-service project, Danny explained that Lei Feng, a young soldier in the People's Liberation Army, was Mao Zedong's image of the model citizen. Lei was selfless, kind, gracious, community-minded, modest, dedicated, fully engaged.



Host Families
Sunday, March 12 - 11:00 p.m.

We actually did it—woke up at 4:45 this morning, checked out of the hotel, and got on the road by 5:30 a.m. The group managed the transition to the Xi’an airport exceptionally well, especially given the lack of sleep and the expanding luggage (all of that bargaining results in lots of additional stuff). We arrived in Changsha to a cool rain shower and a warm welcome by Fu Yingfei and our Yali e-pals. After lunch and a visit to the city museum, where Graley gave a thorough introduction to Changsha, we held family-group pep talks (We can do it!) and headed home with our host families. Of course there were a few jitters, but all of the students (and some of the faculty as well) went bravely into the unknown. Cannot wait to hear all about it tomorrow.


Saturday, March 11 - 10:00 p.m.

We are on the cusp of an important moment in our China experience. Tomorrow morning we will shift from tourists in Beijing and Xi’an to guests in Changsha. Tonight, after a reflections meeting and rehearsal for Yali, the students are packing their bags and going to bed early, preparing for a 5:15 a.m. bus to the airport. Whose idea was that?! Our student docents—Imaan, Isaac, and Page—did a great job at the three sites we visited today: the Grand Mosque, the Xi’an City Wall, and the Great Goose Pagoda. Each site was accompanied by a special event:

  • At the mosque, Imaan and Hilal were able to spend a few quiet moments inside the prayer hall, which is off-limits to non-Muslims. Their devotion made the mosque feel particularly sacred to the rest of us.
  • We were able to ride bikes most of the way around at the City Wall (construction blocked the north side), a fun reprieve from all the walking we’ve been doing.
  • At the Pagoda, Kossouth led us in a mindfulness exercise that turned out to be a highlight of the day.  We listened to the bells and the birds, and appreciated where we were, what we're doing, and how we got here, acknowledging at the same time the mixed feelings we have about being away from those we love.

We are taking good care of each other, and we are in good spirits for the next phase of our journey.


Positive, Negative, Interesting
Friday, March 10

Each morning we start our meeting with some reflections on our experiences over the last 24 hours. We make a chart in our journals with three columns, one for the positive, one for the negative, and one for the interesting. Then we share out our thoughts with the group. Sometimes one person shares an experience from the negative column and someone else has put the exact same experience in the positive column. For instance, this morning one student shared a frustration about people staring at our group or taking photos of us. “I feel like an animal at the zoo.” We talked about how there’s less privacy in China; staring at someone you find interesting is perfectly polite. We had talked about these cultural differences before the trip, but living it is different from hearing it. Another student put the staring and people taking photos in the positive column. “It makes me feel like a rock star.” It’s interesting that different people experience the same event in different ways.

Here’s a sample chart about the past 24 hours:


  • We had a great time and a good sleep on the train.
  • We enjoyed the hotel’s Western breakfast.
  • This morning’s meeting was particularly powerful. Students said honest, somewhat risky things, like how they felt taken care of by the group during a difficult time.
  • Our early check-in at the hotel was nice; the shower was much appreciated.
  • Our new guide Xia Yan is well informed and kind. 
  • The tour through the Shaanxi History Museum and sketching by roommate pairings led to some nice interactions.
  • Tommy and Alex did a good job presenting their information about the City of Xi’an and the Terra Cotta Warriors.
  • It is spring in Xi’an (although we hear there was a snow day at Foote). We have seen a lot of forsythia and plum blossoms.
  • Family group game night was fun.


  • We miss Weifang.
  • Some of our roommates snore.
  • Lots of people in China smoke.
  • The air quality was not great today.
  • Some of us don’t get the best deals when we try to bargain.
  • We are getting nervous about the homestays.


  • We saw some beautiful and some desolate landscapes from the train: factories and farmland, tiny villages and abandoned houses, dirt roads and family shrines.  
  • We followed the chronology of the dynasties by looking at artifacts from different eras at the Shaanxi History Museum.
  • Some of the pre-historic artifacts look like modern art.
  • Xi’an has a different vibe from Beijing.
  • Fourteen hundred years ago Chang’an, as Xi’an was called then, was the largest and most culturally diverse city in the world.
  • Chang’an was the beginning of the silk road.
  • Xi’an is still planned on the North/South and East/West grid.
  • Qin Shi Huang (of terracotta warriors fame) wanted to be known as the first emperor of China, so he had historical records and literature burned.
  • Qin died when he ingested the mercury that his doctors thought would cure him.
  • The bell tower outside our hotel room windows was used to mark the morning opening of the gates during ancient times.  The nearby drum tower signaled the evening closing of the gates.
  • Xi’an has an interesting mix of Tang and Ming architecture.


Rocking and Rolling
Thursday, March 9, 10:00 p.m.

The train is rolling through what must be sparsely populated countryside, given how few and far between the lights are that shine in our windows. We pulled out of Beijing at 8:40 p.m. and will arrive in Xi'an in time for breakfast. The sleeping compartments are clean and comfortable, and students are in various states of repose, playing cards, reading, sleeping— after a full day in Beijing.

Tiananmen Square was our first stop in the morning. The good news: Weifang talked the guards into allowing us to bypass the block-long security line to enter the area. The bad news: Jack had to give his docent presentation from the sidewalk across the street because the world's largest public square was entirely cordoned off to ensure the security of the leaders from across the country who are in town for a session of the People's Congress. We were, however, able to take our annual picture with Chairman Mao at Tianenman Gate on our way into the Forbidden City, where Nate told us about Yongle, the first emporer to live in the palace, and Penn told us about Puyi, the last. Later we rode in bicycle rickshaws through one of Beijing's Hutongs, stopping along the waterway for Quinn's docent speech about these historic neighborhoods that were built around the time Marco Polo was in China.

Across town at the Summer Palace we heard from Lilah about the selfish Empress Cixi, who built an ornate marble boat-shaped patio with money earmarked for the imperial navy (which subsequently was unable to defend against the Japanese). We spent a relaxing afternoon sketching, watching a sidewalk calligrapher, taking photos with Chinese tourists, having our arms temporarily tattooed with Chinese characters, and relaxing with cups of hot chocolate in a little courtyard cafe that we somehow had all to ourselves.

Graley gave a lovely farewell speech to Weifang after a steamed bun supper, and we boarded the train, which is rocking us gently to sleep. Tomorrow: The Terra Cotta Warriors.


International Women’s Day
Wednesday, March 8, 11:00 p.m.

It was a beautiful day in Beijing, chilly and windy in the early morning, but with clear blue skies and a warm afternoon sun. We started off with journal reflections and a lesson from Sammy about the gaokao, China’s intense college entrance examination, as a follow-up to last night’s visit with students from Renmin University.

Then we headed to the Temple of Heaven, where we learned from Zane about the site’s numerous symbols of heaven and earth, took family group photos on the circular altar that was seen in ancient China as the center of the universe, and tried to capture the stunning structures in our sketchbooks. We happened upon the temple’s staff posing for a group picture to celebrate International Women’s Day, and the women of all ages in our group joined them for an international photo that was followed by smiles and laughter and handshakes and hugs, celebrations of friendship that did not require a common language.

Later, as we walked from the temple to the teahouse, Quinn met a man who was clearly his twin (although the two were born five decades and half a world apart), prompting more laughter all around. After a tea ceremony and lunch we visited a silk factory and heard from Nahjae the legend of how silk was discovered. We spent the afternoon shopping for gifts and souvenirs, having a good time despite some mixed results in the bargaining game.

We were spellbound by the daring feats of the acrobats at an early evening show and then faced our own challenge: more dumplings than we could possibly manage for supper. Most of us fell asleep on the way back to the hotel, but we rallied for quick family group meetings and then packed our bags for tomorrow’s overnight train to Xi’an.


Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Tuesday, March 7, 11:00 p.m.

Today we met two Fantastic Beasts. One was a carved pixu at the jade workshop. This legendary dragon with phoenix wings brings prosperity by eating gold and silver with its huge mouth.  "It takes wealth in but doesn’t let any out," our guide explained to the group’s delight, “because it doesn’t have a rear end." The second was a real xique, a black and white bird with an unusually long tail. According to Weifang, “If you see this bird some good news is coming your way.” We must be in for lots of good news because we saw a whole flock of xique at the base of the Great Wall.

Our Foote students are pretty Fantastic Beasts themselves. On our first full day in China, they…

  • Tried assorted new foods. (The halal beef breakfast sandwich was the biggest hit.)
  • Climbed thousands of steep steps in a breathtaking beautiful area so remote that we saw only a handful of other Great Wall hikers.
  • Rehearsed songs for the Yali performance on the long bus drive.
  • Used their journals for written reflections and observational sketching.
  • Presented the first set of on-site docent talks.  (Hilal gave an informative overview of Beijing, and Sam debunked some myths about the Great Wall.)
  • Experimented with bargaining
  • Went out to dinner with students from Renmin University. (Our roommate pairs met groups of three or four college kids and went off to a nearby restaurant for English conversation and camaraderie.)

What we ask of students on this trip is quite demanding. The group is meeting the challenges with intrepidity and joy. So far so good!


Safe and Sound in Beijing
Monday, March 6, 10:00 p.m.

Floors five and six of the Beijing Foreign Studies University Hotel are quiet. Most students were asleep well before the 9:00 room check. The group made it through the long flight in good shape and managed to negotiate the crowded immigration scene with patience and grace. But honestly, by the time we got to the hotel, our energy was flagging. It had been over 24 hours of travel, door to door. Still, we enjoyed a delicious “real Chinese food” supper with Weifang, and a few adventurous souls explored the college neighborhood with Kossouth after that. Most chose a game of UNO or an early bedtime. We are tired, but we are safe and sound in Beijing. Tomorrow: The Great Wall of China


Intact at the Airport
Sunday, March 5

Our good spirits kept us warm in this morning's frigid weather as we hugged our families and headed off. We are through security, relaxing at gate 74 ahead of our flight. The drive to Newark was smooth (after the bus bottomed out exiting the circle) but thank goodness Nahjae and Fiona noticed that one of the luggage doors was open as we were cruising down I-95 past Bridgeport!  We are already following John Turner's advice to look out for each other. All the bags made it intact, and the group too.