In July, nine students ages 12–19, a teacher, and I spent ten days in China attending an international student leadership camp. Over 1,200 students from thirty-two other countries were in attendance. Our students were responsible for representing the United States and sharing our culture, history, and leadership styles with their peers from around the globe. The trip was sponsored by the Ambassadors Foundation.
We departed on a Thursday morning and after 19 hours of travel, arrived in Beijing on a Friday night. We were greeted at the exit gate by two smiling Chinese guides who took our luggage and escorted us to a thankfully air conditioned bus. It was much hotter and more humid than we were used to. We were then transported to the Royal School of Beijing, which was our gracious host for the camp.
During the drive from the airport, we were amazed at the many cranes visible working on a variety of construction projects, the majority being apartment and condo buildings. Despite having arrived after a series of rain storms, we also immediately observed a thick gray haze that covered the city. This past winter, Beijing and other cities in northern China logged their worst air pollution readings on record. The smog added to the mystery of this amazing country we’d read and heard so much about. We learned that many students are kept inside or, for the lucky ones, play in large air filtered domes to avoid the many health risks associated with the polluted air.
We arrived at the school and were shown to our quarters in the school’s dormitories. Here we discovered several big differences between Chinese and Americans. The Chinese prefer a much firmer bed. In fact, several of us ended up sleeping on plywood covered with a padded quilt, and we were provided with beanbags as pillows. The Chinese believe that sleeping on a firm surface is better for one’s health. Next we discovered what are called “squatty potties,” which are toilets that are porcelain bowls in the ground which you hover over as opposed to sitting down. Much to my western embarrassment, a Chinese janitor was kind enough to demonstrate for me how the squatty potty worked after he noticed me eyeing the bathroom situation curiously. Both the beds and the toilets took some getting used to.
Over the course of the ten days, we spent the mornings learning about Chinese culture and history. In the afternoons, we toured Beijing and the surrounding area, seeing such sights at the Great Wall of China, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, the Silk Market, and more. In between classes, discussions, and sightseeing, we chatted with the students and teachers from other countries. As we asked them about their way of life, ideas, and beliefs, they in turn inquired about ours. I was amazed at some of the conversations over religion, politics, and traditions that our students tactfully and respectfully navigated with the other students. Words like “weird” and “odd” were replaced with simply “different” as students began to understand each other’s way of thinking.
During an hour spent on the bus between locations, I overheard an amazing conversation between one of our American students and a Chinese student. I immediately tensed up when I heard our student ask what was thought of our Democratic government versus their Communist government. I worried there was going to be a fierce debate with strong words used on either side. The Chinese student was silent for a moment before responding that he appreciated America and how we work and live. He stated he hoped to visit and perhaps live in our country someday. He continued by stating that there are many more people in China than in America, and that Chinese are different than Americans. Communism works here for our people right now, he said.
Regardless of anyone’s opinions on communism or democracy, I was impressed by this student’s gracious and tactful response. Our American student was equally tactful as he explained why he liked certain aspects of the U.S., while admitting that there were other parts he believed we needed to work harder on. At that moment, I wished both students could be immediately placed into leadership roles in their respective governments to tackle relations between our countries.
I also came to learn a few things about the United States and how we’re viewed in the world that I hadn’t fully realized. A rather tense conversation with a Serbian teacher prompted me to research and refresh my memory as to America’s history in Serbia. While some applaud America’s intervention and military actions in Serbia, others, like this teacher, obviously do not. A teacher from Russia inquired as to how long the U.S. will continue policing the world and touting our way of life as the best. On the other hand, I was encouraged by conversations with Chinese students and teachers who applauded America’s creativity and freedoms, and who stated they prefer and enjoy our movies and music.
Some of the highlights from our trip were the International Night of Friendship, hiking the Great Wall of China, and exploring the Forbidden City. On the International Night of Friendship, students from each country dressed up in traditional garments, gave a speech, and organized a booth with information on their country. Many performed songs or dances from their homeland. With a country as diverse as the U.S., our students decided we’d all wear jerseys representing sports teams from across the country. Students exchanged gifts representing their culture and heritage, and it was a night of great conversations, music, and dancing.
After hiking the steep and sometimes very narrow steps of the Great Wall to reach the top of the mountain, our students were able to see out over a vast green forest. It’s a sight I don’t think any of us will ever forget. Thinking about the incredible amount of work and dedication it took to build the wall by hand gave us a better appreciation for the Chinese people. Being able to touch the stones in the Great Wall, walk the pathways of the Forbidden City formerly reserved for royalty, and smell the many diverse foods available in the Hu Tong District gave us an understanding of Chinese culture and history that couldn’t be replicated by simply reading a book or watching a film.
When the 10 days came to an end, our students had made many friends both in China and around the world. There were many tearful goodbyes and exchanges of Facebook (although Facebook and other social media sites are banned in China) and e-mail information. Most of our students arrived only being certain of the existence of their small corner of the world, but they left Beijing with the confidence the world is a very big place with many opportunities, ideas, and potential.