Eagles in the Land of the Dragon

By Madi S. ’15

Photos by Chandler S. ’17 and Andrey Drobot

At 9 a.m. Thursday, March 6, 13 sleepy teenagers and six chaperones pulled away from LCDS amid cheers and jitters. At 10:30 p.m. Friday (Beijing time, 12 hours ahead of EST), our exhausted bunch landed in Beijing International Airport, the largest in the world. As we peered out the huge windows, Doug W. ‘15 looked at me and said, “This is China!” “Is this even real?” I asked.

We met our wonderful ACIS tour guide, Bruce Li (yes, like Lee, but not THAT Bruce Lee), who stayed with us throughout our trip. Clutching our room keys like lifelines, we dragged ourselves into to our rooms, thankful for a shower and some precious sleep.

Refreshed, we visited the popular food market on Wangfujing, where, not surprisingly, we saw many foods we don’t in America. Fried starfish, seahorse, various insects and lizard were all on sticks, waiting to be sold. On this street my sister, Chandler ’17, and I first discovered that our “Americanness” sometimes charmed the locals. “So beautiful! I love you!,” a shopkeeper shouted out his window as we giggled and ran away. Bruce explained that likely wouldn’t be the last Chinese person asking to take photos with us because, well, we look different.

We then had lunch with Betsy and Derek, two American students studying at Tsing Hua University in Beijing. (I was constantly amazed at what Paul P. ’16 ate: He downed two fish eyes and took a decent bite out of the head of a chicken, brain and all. This was only our first meal.) We talked to Betsy and Derek about living and studying in China, and later they showed us around campus.

Day Two started with the awe-inspiring Temple of Heaven, where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties went to pray for good harvests. We met a tai chi master in a nearby park who taught us a bit of the martial art. Though I knew I looked ridiculous as I stumbled through what he was trying to show us, it was fun! Once again, we drew a crowd. A group of all ages stood around us in a circle, snapping photos. Still not used to the Chinese “paparazzi,” we laughed and scooted away.

Our next stop was a pearl store, but first a local woman showed us how to tell a real pearl from a fake. As we finished shopping and filed into the bus, Lower School librarian Cindy Knauer said, “I’ve been a bad, bad girl,” to which several students and teachers also attested. I suppose that’s what happens when you let women shop freely in a jewelry store!

Later our fleet of rickshaws took off in Hutong and delivered us to a large red door. It entered onto a courtyard, where we were ushered into our hostess’ house. Madame Wu wore an enormous smile throughout our long, translated conversation. She gushed with pride when she spoke of her third-generation, well-educated family all living inside the same courtyard. Asked about the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Madame Wu said something that will resonate with me for a very long time: “Life isn’t that easy. You have to look at your problems, move on, and keep positive.” As we grew silent and pondered the significance of what she had just said, I saw how Madame Wu was, in an almost literal sense of the phrase, a human ray of sunshine. Madame Wu’s pride and unwavering positivity is the greatest of any person I’ve ever met and deserves admiration, and I can only hope to have the honor of aging just as she has.

Monday morning started in Tiananmen Square. The iconic picture of Chairman Mao was striking to behold in person, but an eerie feeling settled over a few of us, walking through the foggy morning and thinking about the tragic events that occurred where we were standing.

Next came two hours climbing the Great Wall. One hour going up, and one hour trying not to fall down, that is. We were amazed that such a vast, beautiful structure could be created just by hand and will. We climbed as high as we could so we could behold more of where we were.

We bade farewell to Beijing and hopped the overnight train to Xi’an. It felt a bit like camping and our cabin even played a few games of UNO before going to sleep.

Having only one day in Xi’an, we packed as many sights as we could. We went first to the Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist temple where monks strolled past as we explored. After a traditional shadow-puppet show in the Muslim Quarter, we drove to see the Terracotta Warriors and Horses. (On the way, Maddie S. ’14, Emily C. ’15, Emily M. ’17, and Steven F. ’16 were kind enough to serenade us with a Katy Perry song.)

Words cannot describe the awe we all felt seeing the warriors. The more we learned, the more fascinating they became. There is no substitute for seeing the figures in person while smelling the dirt and clay in the air.

Obscenely early the next morning, we flew to Shanghai. We took the subway to reach the Shanghai City Planning Museum, where Bruce told us Shanghai’s incredibly short history, relative to Beijing’s. On the second floor, we found a scale model of the center of Shanghai, incredibly detailed and lit up.

On Friday, we visited the SMIC School of Shanghai. After a little pre-trip research and visiting the school, it seems to be like Country Day on a larger scale. Originally a preparatory school created for the workers of the SMIC company, the school now has 2,400 students and courses in two language tracks. We received a tour of the school from Dr. Shu-Kuang Hu, Chancellor of the SMIC school and great-aunt to Lian N. ’15. After our tour, we played games with some of the English-track Chinese students and had a music lesson on a traditional Chinese instrument called a Hulusi. Despite my inability to play an instrument or read music, I was able to skate by and have quite a bit of fun, with the help of Emily C. ’15.

After our visit to the school, we came to Hershey Shanghai Headquarters, where we heard the history of the company’s Shanghai branch and tasted Hershey’s chocolate sold in China. We were surprised when it tasted less sweet than the American version, but were told that the company changed the recipe to suit Chinese tastes.

On our last day, we visited the Bund, the Jade Buddha Temple, and Yu Yuan Garden, the only fully restored classical Chinese garden in Shanghai. After our tour, we had an hour to shop as we pleased, which, of course, meant intense bargaining. While some of us were shy about haggling, Middle School administrative assistant Gail Clauss was certainly not! Everyone shopping with her got great deals.

Despite having a blast on our last full day in China, we ended the evening on a slightly melancholy note, that feeling that comes with every realization that it’s time to leave.

I think that our trip to China affected not only me, but our entire group, in ways that will shape us for the rest of our lives. We were exposed to a different worldview, learning constantly throughout the journey. Not only do I have a greater understanding of the Chinese people, but the Chinese language too, because the language and the culture are inseparable.

A huge “thank you” goes out to: Wang Laoshi for making this trip possible, the LCDS administration for believing in the Chinese program and the opportunities that this trip had the potential to (and did!) give us, the parents for agreeing to let us experience a culture so different from our own, and for each of the travelers for being a pleasure to travel with. I am more grateful for this opportunity than I can put into words.