On Sunday, March 20th, at 5 a.m., twelve Collegiate seniors and two faculty members, (Upper School Interim Head J.P. Watson and Director of Responsible Citizenship and Strategic Planning Claire Sisisky) departed the Richmond International Airport. The next day the group touched down in Shanghai, China. They had been preparing the entire semester for this trip. Earlier they had hosted the Chinese students at Collegiate for a design thinking conference to tackle problems that face the U.S. and China. During the trip, they would be fully immersed in the foreign culture, living with a host family and getting to know our partner school in Yangzhou.
The students dealt with the travel time in many different ways. Madison Burger (‘16) recalls, “Most people slept, but I watched way too many movies and stressed out about Chinese food.” Arriving in Shanghai, the Collegiate delegates noticed the smog and the sheer size of the city first. Shanghai is the most populated city in China, with a metropolitan population 1.7 times that of New York City. Throughout the trip, the students kept a blog about their experiences and updated it with pictures and stories of their travels.
An interesting phenomenon that all of the American students noticed was the Chinese population’s fascination with Westerners. When they posed for a group photo on a bridge one day, Chinese people crowded around to take pictures of them. Dalton Ruh (‘16) remembers, “People just stopped all of us and asked for pictures, or just took pictures of us walking down the street, because we were Americans. We are all probably on over a hundred different random Chinese people’s phones. Being famous would be pretty annoying.” This is a cultural experience that is very common for American tourists. For many of the Chinese, the only time they really see Westerners is in the entertainment industry in movies and tv shows. Encountering the Westerners in real life, especially outside of the big cities, is still a rarity that they want to photograph and remember.
A major adjustment the students had to make was the completely different diet in China. A favorite dish of Chris Marshall’s (‘16) was the hotpot, also known as steam bowl. It is a dish similar to fondue, which typically includes meat, vegetables, dumplings, and wontons. The students described the food as “not even close to American Chinese food.” Burger said, “Food here is basic, and everything there is more unique.” They ate different foods like cow stomach, pig brain, and octopus. Adjusting to the new diet was surprisingly easy for most students, but what was actually difficult was the transition back to American food. The greasy American food upset many of the students’ stomachs upon their return.
On the last day of the trip, Peyton Lyons (‘16) had a rough morning when he confused the meeting time for the bus departure from Yangzhou to Shanghai. When he discovered his error, he quickly packed his things, and his host family started to drive to the meeting point thirty minutes behind schedule. It got to a point where the bus driver would not wait any longer, and with Lyons still on his way, the bus pulled out and started the trip to Shanghai to catch the flight home. Marshall remembers the bus driver refusing to stop the bus. Lyons describes the next two hours like a scene from Fast & Furious, chasing down the bus in his host family’s car. Saving Lyons from being potentially stranded in China, the kindhearted host chased the bus until finally catching it at a gas station two hours out. Peyton was saved, and the IELC group was reunited at last.
Our Collegiate students learned a great deal that week, about themselves and about the country of China. Alex Parham (‘16) developed a deeper understanding of what communist China is truly like. He says, “Going into it I had certain ideas of what a communist country looked like and what it was supposed to be, but when I got there I realized it was not what I thought it was…. what I found was a state that resembled our own, and growth was everywhere.” Burger appreciated the hospitality of her hosts the most, saying “While staying with my host family, I always felt like they wanted me there and were doing things to make me feel at home. They were all beyond excited when I walked through the door, and tried their hardest to use English whenever they saw me. I felt so welcome, and even when I messed up, still felt like they accepted me into their culture and home.” The trip broadened each student’s perspective on the culture of China and gave them memories they won’t soon forget.
Photos courtesy of https://collegiateemergingleaders.me/category/asia/