In China, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, students go to school 5 days a week, and cockroaches are found equally despicable. It’s weird – I’ve always regarded China as such an alien and unfamiliar place despite my heritage, and one of the biggest revelations I’ve had over the summer is just how similar day-to-day life in China is to that in the States.
And yet, these past 6 weeks I’ve experienced in China has been nothing short of life changing, mind blowing, and everything in between. I’ve had the most amazing experience exploring every cultural nook and cranny of Xian, Guangzhou, Fuzhou, and the students and people I’ve had the chance to interact with have blown me away with not only their kindness, intelligence, and respectfulness, but also their unique viewpoints, thoughtful questions, and comprehensive worldview. It’s been a journey of very high highs (like when we successfully pulled off a television-worthy elephant toothpaste demonstration and very low lows (like when we hiked up Victoria’s Peak in Hong Kong in the torrential rain), but I enjoyed every second, and the wonderful team (shout out to Alvin and Jennifer) I was stationed in China with only made it that much better.
The first taste I experienced of China this summer was in Xian. There, we were teaching the students of Xian Gaoxin No. 1 High School in a summer program of sorts. The students were entering 10th grade (the first year of high school for Chinese students!!), and we taught 2 classes of students for 2 periods each per day. On first impression, I was so impressed with the maturity and intellect of these students – not only were they astoundingly polite and well-behaved, but they also asked great questions and participated thoroughly in all of our planned events and lessons.
We spent roughly 10 days teaching students in Xian and developed our lesson plans to cover a wide range of topics regarding American culture, technology, and experiments. Specifically, we taught MIT Culture, US Holidays, Game Theory, Elephant’s Toothpaste, Monty Hall Problem, Tower of Hanoi, Brainteasers/Puzzles/Riddles, American Culture, Tower Build, and American Dance Moves. One of us took point for creating the powerpoint and curriculum materials for each topic, and all three of us reviewed and taught each lesson to the students. Most of the lessons involved activities that engaged the students beyond the slides of the powerpoint – for the Monty Hall problem, we did simulations with candy rewards and asked students to pick doors and choose to switch to stay with their original decision.
My favorite lesson in particular was Game Theory – we played a bunch of games with the students including simulated prisoner’s dilemma, the guessing game, and a modified game version of the Keynesian beauty pageant problem that everyone really enjoyed, and used these fun activities to talk about the underlying principles of game theory (dominant strategies, nash equilibrium, rationality).
I also loved our Elephant’s toothpaste demonstration and experiment. We used a 6% HCl to do the demonstration at first, and let students run through the procedures and experiment as well with the 6%. While the effects were cool, it couldn’t hold a flame to the results of our 30% HCl demo at the end of the class. I’ve never seen the solution foam up so quickly (and the drops of red and blue food coloring we added to the edges really made the foam look like toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube). It was a really exciting moment for everyone and got the students genuinely excited to learn about chemistry and types of reactions.
Outside of the classroom, we were able to engage with the faculty and volunteers in awesome ways. Hao, our primary faculty liaison, was amazingly friendly and helpful. Not only was he great at helping us organize the program, he became a friend that we could go to for anything. He brought us to see the famous Terracotta Warriors (Bi Ma Yong), which was indescribable. It’s so surreal witnessing such a huge part of Chinese history in culture in person – especially in a landmark as iconic as that one.
One of the memories I’ll remember forever about Xian was going to a Chongqing Hot Pot restaurant with Hao and the principal of the school. It was a traumatizing experience to say the least. I must’ve told this story at least 20 times by now, but here it is again:
In America, on the scale of spiciness, medium spicy is not that spicy, right? In Chongqing style foods, that mentality is EXTREMELY wrong. Jennifer, Alvin, and I all ordered medium despite the various warnings of Hao and the restaurant staff, but because we were measuring on the American scale, we didn’t listen (BIG MISTAKE). When the personal hot pot bowls arrived, the soup must’ve been 95% chili oil and 5% broth. The first bite wasn’t terribly spicy, but it quickly paved way for an hour of tears, sweat, more tears, and 15 glasses of water. I was caught between constantly wanting to eat more because the food was so delicious and abstaining because my tongue and mouth and nose were suffering from the worst heat I’ve ever experienced. And yeah, let’s just say I’ve really learned my lesson regarding spice.
We also slept on wooden board beds (no mattress!!!! L) with blankets in the school dorms – while we had a rough time at first and had a few days of sore backs and necks, I came to like the rustic charm of the school dorms.
In addition to Hao, there were also around 6 volunteers (students that had just graduated from the high school) who assisted us a lot with finding materials and setting up classes. While they were staffed in order to keep the program running smoothly and handle a lot of the logistics, many of them became really good friends of ours – we bonded over the stress of school, love for food, and desire to broaden our cultural perspectives. They were a huge highlight of my time in Xian, and gave me some of my favorite experiences and memories. In particular, after class one day, 2 of the volunteers brought us to eat Liangpi (cold rice noodles) and Rou Jia Mo (meet with bread), both of which became some of my favorite dishes of all time. Especially the Rou Jia Mo – that was so mouthwateringly delicious, and I crave it every day in America.
We also visited the Bell Tower, Drum Tower, Beiyuanmen (Muslim Quarter), and hiked the entirety of the Xian City Wall (all 9-ish miles of it!!). We really wanted to rent a tandem bicycle, but there were no 3-person options L. Also, we went to a supermarket every single night to get Chinese drinks (the grape flavored Qoo drink is bomb) and snacks to accompany the 54-episode drama we started (and pretty much finished) – Lost Love in Times.
Overall, Xian was an amazing introduction into my time in China this summer, and the students really made me so excited to teach every morning when I got out of bed. I will truly cherish every single event and person from this vibrantly beautiful city.
Before our time teaching Guangzhou, we took a 4-day detour to Hong Kong (via the metro system in Shenzhen), and explored so many great parts of Hong Kong – from the street food fish balls in Mongkok to the beautiful views from the iconic Victoria’s Peak lookout.
When we arrived in Guangzhou, we were greeted by 2 awesome teachers at the train station – Teacher Su who taught English and Teacher Wo who taught computer science. They were extremely welcoming, warm, and helpful throughout our entire time in Guangzhou. Instead of student dorms, we stayed in a quite nice hotel room for the week we were teaching. It was around a 10-minute walk from the school and in a busy and accessible location.
We were teaching at Zhongshan No. 1 Middle School, a feeder school attached to Sun Yat-Sen University and located inside the larger school campus. The school was extremely organized and provided us with all the experiment materials right when we arrived. It was also structured differently than the Xian program – the curriculum was meant to be extremely experiment/hands-on based, so we had to revise huge chunks of material to cater to the students. The English level of the students here were also really good – we rarely had to translate anything into Chinese. Also, instead of teaching some periods of class in addition to other teachers like we had done in Xian, we were given full control over the class for the whole day (~6-7 hours of material).
Because we were told to emphasize the experiment portion of the curriculum, we taught Hang Gliders, HTML/CSS, Elephant Toothpaste, American Movies/TV, Monty Hall & Brainteasers, Tower Building competition, Game Theory, Forensics, Film Canister Rockets, and MIT Culture. We also had a Jeopardy game at the end as well as an American-style field day that included relay races, jump rope, and more.
Every other night, the teachers brought us to various Guanzhou landmarks. I unfortunately missed the outing with the Canton Tower, but according to Jennifer and Alvin, the skydrop was extremely fun and the view was fantastic. We also went to explore Pearl River and got to experience a really beautiful nigh-time boat ride. On the last day before we left, Su brought us to various museums and landmarks, including the Sun Yat-sen memorial and the beautiful folk art museum. It was breathtaking seeing the art and culture throughout the vast history of China, and in particular, the ivory sculptures were the most eye-catching. It honestly made me so sad to think that these beautiful art pieces were made only at the expense of elephants. It also really made me think about the ethical implications of a lot of things we do, and that duality that exists in various forms of art and culture.
Overall, I had a great time in Guangzhou – the students were younger and a bit more immature, so I didn’t get as attached to them as I did the students in Xian. Furthermore, we were there for a shorter amount of time, so we weren’t able to do a lot of personal exploring of the city that we were able to do in Xian. I still loved the vitality of the city and would love to return to experience more of what it has to offer.
And last but not least, we finally arrived in Fuzhou!! This is where Alvin’s family is from, so we all felt particularly connected to the city. We arrived pretty much in the middle of the night, so we called a taxi to bring us to the hotel. And oh my goodness, that hotel (Atour Hotel) was perhaps the best one I’ve ever stayed in – it was the perfect balance of lux and comfortable, and I really appreciated the soft bed after that no mattress, wooden board stint in Xian.
Side note: did you know there are 3 words that all mean “Hotel” in Chinese?? (#wild)
Anyways, we were greeted in the front of the hotel by Jason, a student in the class we were teaching that was in charge of organizing a lot of the logistics and helping us settle into the atmosphere. He was great in all aspects – friendly, personable, and most of all, relatable. Jason definitely became one of my favorite people in China and we still keep in contact now after the program has ended.
As a whole, we were teaching around 150 students for 2 weeks – most of the students were second-years at Fuzhou University, but a good amount was also third-years. Because they were all older than us and majoring in electrical engineering/information science, we were worried that they would already know everything that we were teaching them, so we tried to focus on more culture-focused and niche technical topics rather than the general introductions we had given for much of Xian and Guangzhou. Here, we taught around 2-3 hours everyday in the morning, and a group of students would follow with a quick 10-15 minute presentation about various facets of Chinese culture (from the art of traditional Chinese tea to intricacies of the Beijing Opera).
We taught about MIT Culture and holidays, American Movies and TV, American Slang, Game
Theory and Brainteasers, American Food, Idioms and Accents, the Chinese American Experience, American Dance, Ultimate Jeopardy, and more. Because they were all college students, I found that they weren’t as engaged in the class and used their phones quite a bit. I also suspect that their English speaking/listening abilities might not have been at the level of the students in Xian and Guangzhou, which also made it a bit harder for them to get involved in the lessons.
In addition to class, a group of students (around 10-15 people) would bring us around Fuzhou to explore every single afternoon/night. We ended up going to so many awesome places – West Lake, 3 Streets 7 Alleys, Karaoke Bars, Escape Rooms, Mahjong Parlors, Hot Pot places, a actual VILLA!!, and much more. I absolutely loved spending this time with the students, as we could get to know them on a closer and more personal level, and had some awesome conversations about everything and anything. From them, I learned about various facets of the CCP, the best way to brew and pour tea, and the details of the Chinese education system. I miss so many of the students from Fuzhou, as they were relatable and made us feel right at home.
Ultimately, I loved my time in China over this past summer, and I’m so fortunate to have gotten the opportunity to work with Jennifer and Alvin, meet all the wonderful people and students in China, and explore so many wonderful places. I have no idea where my future will bring me, but I definitely plan to revisit China again soon!