Student to student
On a recent student exchange trip to China, I experienced many new things from the sensation of jellyfish sliding down my throat to breathing air that seemed to lack oxygen (supplemented by carbon monoxide) to the headache that results from attempting to decipher a diagram about the semi-impermeability of cell membranes, labeled in Chinese characters.
Thanks to the People’s Friendship Associations of Park City, Beijing, Xi’an, Hang Zhou and Shanghai, 9 other PCHS students and I got to experience 16 days of Chinese language and culture. We were accompanied by PCHS staff chaperones Dave McNaughton and Sue Galusha, our mayor, Dana Williams, and his wife, Lisa.
Before we went on the trip, we were each assigned a Chinese student counterpart from Beijing Number 4 High School. Most of us had e-mailed our counterparts before arriving in China, but nonetheless, few of us were greeted by exactly what we anticipated.
"My counterpart was different than I expected, but she was still pretty awesome," said Katie Brenner, a senior who went on the trip. "It was nice to connect with someone from the other side of the world."
The Chinese students were incredibly accommodating. Joey Cauceglia, a junior, said that his counterpart seemed to do "everything he could possibly think of" to make Cauceglia’s visit better.
My own counterpart, CongYan, and her family took me sight-seeing, taught me to make jiaozi (Chinese dumplings), and even bought me candy that they thought Americans would like (they were right, it was delicious).
The hospitality of the Chinese students and their families made the PCHS students eager to return the favor when their counterparts come to Park City this January.
"I’m really excited," said Brenner. "Everything we did, I was thinking, ‘Oh I can’t wait for her to come to America so I can show her this’ or ‘I can show her that.’"
Cauceglia summed it up with a short and sweet, "I’m stoked."
Beyond the student exchange portion of the trip, we did a lot of sightseeing and some wandering on the streets.
Beijing had many crowded roads on which taxis and bicycles swarmed and crossing the street was a near-death experience every time. Convenience stores sold watermelon and lychee flavored sodas for the equivalent of about 40 cents. Everywhere I went I got stares for my 5 feet, 7½ inches and blonde, curly hair.
"In almost all forms, [China] is completely different than the United States," recalled junior Hayden Ward. "Government, food on almost all levels, China is different."
Despite this affirmation, many students remarked on the westernization of the cities we visited. Senior Amy Wegesser said, "You could tell that they were westernizing . . . but they should try to keep some things original . . . and preserve their culture."
Cauceglia also lamented the destruction of some elements of traditional Chinese culture, but concluded with resignation, "That’s [probably] just how it’s going to be."
One place we witnessed a disproportionate amount of modernization in China was on the many official outings on which we accompanied our Mayor Dana Williams.
We visited members of the city government and sat in on Olympic Committee meetings. Like Park City did for the 2002 Olympics, Beijing is currently toiling to polish and perfect every element of the city.
"It was interesting to experience," commented Ward. "He was definitely treated as a dignitary on the trip. I felt that he represented Park City well."
Mayor Williams turned out to be impressively professional and collected in a diplomatic setting, as well as casual and amiable towards the students.
After a week in Beijing, we stayed the night at a hotel in Minyuan county, where we prepared to hike 7 miles along the great wall, mostly by talking, laughing, teaching our Chinese counterparts how to play tag and to bowl, and exchanging various elements of pop culture.
The next morning, we woke up early to hike one of the man-made wonders of the world. Upon seeing the miles and miles of stone wall stretching out over the green and brown mountains, I was amazed.
After a farewell banquet in Beijing with many pictures, secret handshakes and a few encore performances of the Soulja Boy Dance, we parted with our counterparts and left for Xi’an. We went to see the terra cotta warriors, ate homemade noodles and visited Xi’an international university. After being bombarded with introductions, questions and photo ops with the college’s English majors, we departed for Hang Zhou, where we visited Buddhist temples and gardens. The scenery was beautiful, and the Buddhas carved into the granite cliffs were incredible.
A 4½ hour bus ride got us to Shanghai (1½ hours spent literally stationary in traffic), the shiniest and most modern city we visited. The third highest building in the world towers over Shanghai and two more, even higher skyscrapers are under construction.
Most of the places we went in China were more modern than we had expected. Public restrooms aside, it was one of the most incredible places I have ever been.
Ward enthused, "It was an experience being there I’m glad I went," and Wegesser exclaimed, "It was amazing!"
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