The next day would remain as a top highlight of the entire trip. Beijing students that are part of a cultural ambassador program each buddied up with one of the Global Explorers students for the duration of the day. With their proficient English skills, our kids got an education on the history of the Great Wall, popular music and technology, and perhaps most importantly appropriate (or not!?!) Chinese slang. All of this, of course, occured while also climbing the allegedly steepest section of the Great Wall, amongst dense crowds, of course. Little did we know that the wonderful intensity of the day was just getting started.
After a lunch featuring a local specialty of stewed whole fishand a million other dishes spinning around the lazy susan, we piled in to the foyer of the program's facility for a multi- staged "Sino-American Festival Carnival" complete with an official banner, words of wisdom by a costume Confucious, and TV and radio press reporters. The production was indeed festive highlighting three Chinese holdiays alternating with three American holidays throughout a calendar year, each with an interactive activity. After a calligraphy lesson, painting Easter eggs, making mooncakes, having a Halloween costume contest, making dumplings, and a visit from Santa Claus, and other various lessons and performances, we were both exhausted and humbled by the immense effort that went in to this production, but it was so much fun! As for the results of the media coverage, check out this report from China Radio International!
The next morning held the most unique and highly anticipated event of our group's China experience. Through the passion of the AFAR Foundation, a major sponsor of the Learning AFAR program, for the work of Ai Wei Wei, we were able to visit him in his hime and studio. He is often labeled a "dissident artist" and regardless of what he is called, he has a fascinating story. If you are unfamiliar with the world's most famous contemporary Beijinger in every place except China, a great place to begin is watching his documentary "Never Sorry".
Approaching the unmarked entrance of his studio, two things immediately stand out: a vintage bicycle propped against a tree with a basket full of fresh flowers, juxtaposed with a healthy population of survelliance cameras glaring down from every direction. Ai Wei Wei puts a fresh bouquet of flowers out everyday as a reminder to the officials who have yet to return his passport after confiscating it as part of the effort to silence his voice and limit his influence.
The Canadian ambassador was just leaving as we arrived and the first thing Ai Wei Wei did was take a picture of us on his phone to post on Instagram (@aiww) while commenting that this was the first group of high school students to visit him. In a barely audible voice, he answered our various questions, but was mum on any information about his upcoming installation on Alcatraz, which the Oakland students will go see in person this fall and we will have to check out from afar. As a parting gift, he gave us each a couple of ceramic sunflower seeds from a previous installation at Tate Modern and the group a complete set of his documentaries. Wow.
Then we returned to the hutong, this time on a bicycle rickshaw tour instead of our own two wheels. We ate lunch in the home of Mr. Wong who regularly cooks for groups touring the hutong as his post-retirement hobby. We also got a tai chi lesson in the street from a kong fu master who studied with Jet Li and crowded in to another woman's home for a traditional papercutting lesson. It was cool to see the hutong from the inside out rather than just passing through the alleyways and wondering what life is like behind the grey walls, even if it was only a glimpse.
Our last evening in Beijing, we had a Peking Duck banquet in the fancy restaurant of our hotel, a delicous send off meal before flying to Shanghai, and a local delicacy that Matt and I were grateful to try without the financial commitment of buying a duck dinner on our own!
In Suzhou, it was a boat ride through the canal, seeing the equivalent community to Beijing's hutong. Then we moseyed through the Lingering Garden, a traditional dynasty era garden with the design and selection of specific plants carrying lots of symbolism. Before departing the city, we snuck in a whirlwind tour of a silk spinning factory where we got to pet the super cute silk worms!
Nanjing had a 20th century historical focus, with a climb up to Sun Yatsen's Mausoleum. He is revered as the father of modern China. The second site was a somber one of the Memorial Hall of the Nanjing Massacre, evoking feelings similar to visiting a holocaust museum. An important lesson for our group was seeing how the massacre museum delivered clear messages about the atrocities commited by the Japanese during WWII, but omitted all information about the role of of the Chinese government in creating a circumstance where such a brutal slaughter was even possible.
Hangzhou is a city known for its green efforts as well as its green tea. We visited a tea farm and sampled some of the finest dragonwell variety money can buy, and for that reason we only left with a tiny tin of it. Ironically, while the city promoting the use of electric cars and bicycle sharing programs, we were still stuck in some of the worst traffic in our diesel-powered tour bus. When we finally got to the famous West Lake for an electric boat ride across it, it was so hazy with regional air pollution that we could barely make out the scenic views! Sigh...
In Shanghai for the last three days of the program, we of course took in the famous skyline view from the Bund, only slightly hazed with air pollution at the time. We also saw a stellar acrobatics show, ate some awesome dumplings, did the obligatory souvenier shopping frenzy routine, and contrasted a solar energy research facility with a state-run petrochemical company's educational exhibit. The true highlight in Shanghai was visiting some senior citizens in an assisted living facility. They were so excited for our visit that we were rushed from room to room with just a few minutes to talk via a translator in each one. Then they put on a performance that rivaled the cultural ambassador students' in Beijing!
The nine days of the program were packed to the brim with all the best that China has to offer. We were worn out at the end of each day and even more so after seeing the group off at the airport, the standard condition I find myself in at the end of every Global Explorers expedition. This is how we know that we made the most of it though.
Even more than the places we experienced, the people are what made it particularly memorable. The whole group of students from Coliseum College Prep and their adult group leaders were so fun and rewarding to work with. The group bonded as a whole instantly making managing of group dynamics a non-issue. They are from socio-economic backgrounds that typically preclude international travel so it was amazing to see this experience resulting in personal insights and hopefully opening up new inspirations and options in their futures. I will never forget watching them kanga line up and down the subway car on the way back from viewing the Shanghai skyline lit up on the last night of the trip. They were turning the passengers' heads, of course, but also making them smile.
We also had two very different, but equally awesome guides from Chinatour.com. Jing in Beijing was extremely thoughtful and articulate, while Peter in Shanghai kept us engaged with his hilarious antics and unbounded enthusiasm for everything. What really pulled the disparate pieces of our undrstanding of China together though were the personal stories and reflections they shared.
But besides missing all these people, we were also grieving the end of having luxurious hotel rooms, prearranged and impossible to finish meals, and a personal guide who could answer every obscure question in fluent English. Just when we had gotten used to travel in China being so carefree, we were back to fending for ourselves...