Transcending Language, Culture and Political History

By David W. ’19
Photos by Hayden F. ’20 and Tristan H. ’18

A dozen students stood laughing in a karaoke club over spring break, filling the queue with songs we were comfortable singing. Then, as we took our seats on black couches surrounding a small stage, a song that none of us had requested came on. We looked at each other, waiting for the next student to take the spotlight.

Then a man — our tour guide, in fact — climbed on the stage, grabbed the microphone, and belted out “Hotel California.”

What made this scene unusual was that we were on the other side of the world when it happened, in Xi’an, China. But then again, The Eagles have sold a lot of records, so maybe it happens all the time and only seemed unusual to us.

Photo by Tristan
Photo by Tristan
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Tristan
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Tristan
Photo by Tristan
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Tristan
Photo by Tristan
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Tristan
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Tristan
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Hayden
Photo by Tristan

Three days earlier, 14 students from Lancaster Country Day School crowded into a bus en route to Washington-Dulles International Airport. After more than 24 hours of travel, they landed on the other side of the world, the Chinese flag waving above their heads.

Although it may seem obvious to the reader, it was still a shock for me to step off the plane into Beijing International Airport — where everything is in Chinese. We were suddenly immersed in a new culture many of us had never experienced.

We passed through customs and met our tour guide, Eagles fan and karaoke aficionado Jack Xu. He introduced himself using a few lines of conversational Chinese, and then quickly switched to English with a laugh as many of us looked on with confused expressions.

We boarded our tour bus and marveled at the complexity of Beijing. There, modern Chinese architecture rises beside ancient temples, providing a stark juxtaposition between old and new. Seemingly hundreds of flags adorn the rooftops of concrete government buildings in the capital city of the People’s Republic of China. Street vendors sprinkle the sidewalks and sell their goods as rickshaws, cyclists, and walkers pass by. There we were, 14 in a city of 22 million.

“Small world” didn’t seem so apt an expression.

Meals in China are family-style. For every lunch and dinner, we sat around two round tables with a Lazy Susan (cānzhuō zhuànpán) in the center. Our group would sit down, tentatively pick up the chopsticks, and then, instantaneously, our food would arrive. Waiters and waitresses flew by with roasted vegetables, fried duck, lamb, and tea to name just some of the menu.

Our first full day in Beijing began with a Tai Chi demonstration. The ancient Chinese martial art consists of slow, defensive movements. A Tai Chi master met us in a Beijing park to show us basic moves. What we attempted afterwards paled in comparison to his fluid and experienced movements. However, there was one exception: As many of us learned that day in this park, our Chinese teacher, Mrs. Haddad, regularly practices Tai Chi.

From there, we continued to Tiananmen Square. It is a vast expanse, more than six times the size of Moscow’s Red Square. Once again, we were surrounded by the red flags flying over our heads. China’s legislature stood tall in the distance as a giant picture of Chairman Mao stood above our heads. Similarly, the Great Wall of China was a gigantic, awe-inspiring structure. Climbing the wall was a sweaty experience. Despite the cold, many of us shred our layers to adjust for the exercise we were all enduring.

The rest of our time in Beijing flew by. We visited the Temple of Heaven, a vast imperial complex used by ancient emperors to pray; a vocational school, where we cooked a popular Chinese meal (with no shortage of help from the students); a world renowned Kung-Fu show; and Olympic Park, where the 2008 Olympics were held.

A six-hour train ride from Xi’an took us to the Terracotta Army, the so-called Eighth Wonder of the World. This massive collection of 8,000 ancient, individual warriors was built so that the Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang would have an army for protection in his afterlife. There are three major “pits,” all with different ranks of soldiers. Excavation is continuing. Some expect that it will be a hundred years or more before the pits are fully excavated.

Looking down into the third pit, we could see ancient bone from a human who lived thousands of years ago near the mighty, buried army. We were all intimately connected with that person, whoever they might have been. We looked straight into the eyes of a past we had all just discovered. It was sublime, if only for a moment.

A visit to the Tang Bo art museum taught us about the ancient practice of calligraphy. And later, we visited the Wild Goose Pagoda, a Buddhist temple in Xi’an.

I clumsily attempted to pray in the Buddhist fashion; however, instead of bowing onto the pillow, I folded my hands and placed them on what I later discovered to be a donation box. My faux pas was noticed by Mrs. Haddad, who gently taught me the basics of prayer.

I realized my teacher was a Buddhist.

A flight to Shanghai took us to a Coca-Cola factory and Lancaster Country Day’s sister school, SMIC, where Lexi J. ’19 reunited with her exchange student, Lorraine C. A few gentle tears rolled down their cheeks as they met once again; only this time, it was on the other side of the world. We toured the NYU campus there and saw a famous gymnastics show. The finale? Eight motorcycles simultaneously driving at high-speeds in a small metal cage.

The next day, we visited Hangzhou. This area is commonly referred to as “paradise on Earth.” A cool spring breeze brought with it scents of a soon-to-come blooms. Ponds with calm waters were filled with schools of fish swimming near traditional Chinese buildings. Small structures were nestled among groves of trees, off of pathways lined with beds of flowers. A small wooden pathway led us along the edge of a lake where we heard the sounds of chirping birds in the foliage. A boat tour showed us the entirety of this earthly paradise.

We ended our trip to China with an impromptu nighttime cruise of Shanghai. In stark contrast to the scenes of nature we had seen earlier, this boat tour showed us the marvels of modern technology. The beautiful Pearl Tower stood out to us, lit in bright purple. Its stunning beauty complemented the paradisiacal Hangzhou we just experienced. It was its own sanctuary, nestled in its own grove of high-rises and skyscrapers, off of pathways lined with cars and street lamps.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of the trip occurred during a nighttime walk in Xi’an. There, in the city streets, we happened upon a group of Chinese square dancers. Without hesitance, the dancers welcomed a dozen disheveled American teenagers into their nighttime ritual. This was an act that transcended language barriers, cultural differences, and political history. In that moment, dancing in a circle near our hotel, all of us were immutably human, participating in a practice older than language itself.

LCDS Global Programs include a robust, curricular, experiential learning travel program and a diverse international student community. For more information on our travel opportunities or learning about the rewards of hosting an international student, please contact  Heather Woodbridge, Director of Global Programs