Friendship across the Pacific
November 15, 2013
"This is the smell of Asia. You’ll never forget it," announced Mandarin teacher David Knell as 10 travel-weary students, including me, stepped out of the airport and into the fragrant scent of incense and smoke.
I was lucky enough to be a part of Park City High School’s 20th anniversary U.S. China People’s Friendship Association (Utah Chapter) student-exchange trip. Shirley Smith, who co-founded the Utah chapter with Val Chin for the student exchange, explained that the U.S. China Peoples Friendship Association is a national and highly respected organization that was founded right after China opened to the world.
Over the last 20 years, hundreds of students have participated in the exchange, with many returning to China to study and work. In the months prior to the trip the Park City students were assigned Chinese counterparts with whom we corresponded regularly. Despite this electronic communication, no one was exactly sure what to expect as our plane landed.
According to Park City junior Jaron Ehlers, "I was excited; I have never left the continent before and China seemed like a very fascinating place and I really wanted to go there. I was very nervous. Before I met (my counterpart), all I got was an email so I didn’t know too much about him. I consider him a friend after this trip."
We met our counterparts our first morning and set out on a four-hour bus ride to Miyun County.
Cute, with short hair and thick glasses, I recognized Yifei right away. Her mother was waiting with her to hug and welcome me. We sat together on the bus sharing music and stories. I was grateful that her superb English made up for what I still lacked in Chinese. the time we arrived at our Miyun hotel, a picturesque collection of stone cabins covered in red ivy, I knew we would be friends for life. That night, a small group of Park City High School students and their newfound friends from Beijing #4 stayed up long after the adults retired, playing games and laughing around a fire.
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"We both have a lot of the same interests, so even though it was kind of hard to communicate we could still share the same things," remarked Ellie Karr, a Park City senior, on her relationship with her counterpart.
The next day was spent trekking over the Great Wall. Dizzying in height and exhausting in length, our six-mile climb over steep steps and crumbling stones gave us the perfect chance to open up to each other.
As part of our cultural immersion, we each spent a day attending classes at Beijing #4. Trying to understand the lesson as the teacher rattled on in Chinese, too fast for my comprehension, I was startled by the sudden ringing of the morning bell. Yifei led me outside where hundreds of students were already lined up in perfect order to perform morning aerobics. Yifei attempted to guide me as I followed clumsily, standing out in green in the synchronized sea of blue and white uniforms.
Our time in Beijing ended with a memorable weekend at our counterparts’ houses, where we each had the opportunity to view China through their eyes. Yifei’s mother drove us home to their modern apartment in the city, enthusiastically asking me about my life as we moved through Beijing’s traffic. Her family prepared a banquet perfectly suited to my vegetarian preference, offering dumplings, cakes, and spiced vegetables until I could barely move. After dinner we sat around the table together, discussing politics and life in alternating English and Chinese. When the time came to say our goodbyes, I hugged my new sister with tears in my eyes.
"Staying with my Chinese host family was incredible; they were extremely kind to me and showed me such hospitality that I now feel a greater urge to treat everyone in my life better," stated senior Logan Pretorius. "Prior to meeting my host family, I had emailed them some of my photography. When I arrived to their home, they had framed all of my photos and hung them around the house, proud to display my hobby’s work."
Over the course of the next week, the students and teachers of Park City High School visited Xi’an, Hangzhou, and Shanghai. We flew to Xi’an to view the world famous Terra Cotta warriors and the spectacular Muslim Mosque and to watch some incredible noodle making. In Hangzhou we visited a beautiful park, cruised on West Lake, and stopped for tea at a plantation, the likes of which we had only seen in magazines. One of the highlights of the trip was touring the Lingyin temple in Hangzhou. We gazed in awe at the towering statues of various Buddhas and hiked around the stone caves. Our trip ended in the bustling, international city of Shanghai admiring the lights of the city both from the water and from Shanghai’s famous Pearl Tower.
Through it all, nothing left as deep an impression on us as the bonds we had created with our friends at Beijing #4, and with each other. "The friendships I formed on this trip are definitely going to last a long time, I can tell," grinned senior Katie Whiting.
We left Park City extremely excited but apprehensive about what was to come. Being completely thrust into a foreign culture with customs, delicacies, and perspectives different from our own certainly seemed intimidating to some. But, in the end, it was the best thing that could’ve happened to any of us. In China we met friends to last a lifetime and opened our minds to new lives and opinions. We were able to appreciate the differences in our Chinese counterparts while simultaneously finding enough common ground to remind ourselves of the connections we share with all people. It was truly an incredible experience, and we eagerly await the February arrival of our counterparts to Park City.
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