“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Beijing with 33 young adults

I tried to post something about this earlier, but for whatever reason I didn't. Was probably too exhausted, crazy busy or the site was blocked.

I just got back from Beijing where 2 other teachers and I took 33 high school students for a Week Without Walls. It wasn't a cheap trip. Each student paid about $1000, which for Myanmar, is a pretty big deal. It says a lot about the caliber of our students, though many couldn't afford it as well.

The trip was a lot of fun, but it was truly exhausting. I felt like a mother a lot of the time... chasing after students, reminding them to get their gloves, sharing my hat when they got cold. I hated how agressive I became... I guess I felt like I had to in order to stay on task and target. I was constantly shouting to get their attention, but I suppose someone had to do it. I guess I wish I was more passive about things, but I'm just not.

It was a pretty grueling trip up there, taking pretty much all day. We flew on an Air China flight to Kunming, where we were literally herded through their airport to go through immigration and customs. We had to watch carefully because the students would disappear into the bathroom and could have been left behind. They left such a small time window for the transfer passengers. Being ensconsed in the hotel was amusing. The kids wanted to stay up all night of course. I feel like I got insufficient sleep for the entire week. I'm sure I did.

The first day was quite mild (our kids have never seen winter!), so jackets came off and even a few t-shirts emerged from the hardy few. We went to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. In typical Chinese fashion, we were halted outside main gate by rude and aggressive guards while someone important entered. Our tour guide was in a rush and we whizzed through barely seeing anything except the courtyards. Much was covered up anyway, in preparation for the Olympics. I did manage to stumble into the legendary Starbucks that's inside. It is tastefully done inside the typical souvenir shop. Didn't have time to buy, though, but would've loved to!

We had an evening of Peking Duck, which while fatty, was not overly remarkable. The eating style of putting it into bread was reminiscent of the Middle East or Mexico which I suppose was the most unusual. Of course, being teenagers, the students brought around a plate of scorpions to share! Because they're absolutely shopping mad, we let them have 30 minutes (with major threats that they had to be on time) on Wanfujing--the wide pedestrian avenue in downtown Beijing.

Of course the second day was freezing cold and the kids didn't realize how abruptly the weather can change at this time of year and were all ill-prepared. We drove out to the Great Wall at Badaling. We missed the tabogan down, but had a grand time climbing. I think most of the students stopped after 1 or 2 towers. It was incredibly misty, so we couldn't see beyond the closest tower anyway. A big contrast from the last time I was there in mid-summer! Luc (the other western teacher) and I climbed to the top of one section, where it was snowing. We collected some to take down to our astonished students. After lunch it began to settle everywhere and by morning there was 5cm of snow outside our hotel. Such a thrill for our students--I'm so glad they could see it for the first time on that trip.

Another evening shopping--this time we walked from our hotel to the nearby shopping mall market. It was interesting to see our students responses to the Chinese. They hated how agressive they were and kept telling me how unplesant it was and how rude they were as sellers! Despite a heritage of bargaining in Myanmar (where people always try to rip me off all the time as a foreigner!) it took a few days for the students to realize that they needed to pay only 1/10th of the asking price.

The third day was closer to the hotel but bitterly cold. The snow had settled, but with it came the winds from Siberia. The snow was also quite slushy so feet were frozen before midday, and of course, no return to the hotel to change socks. We spent the morning huddling at the Temple of Heaven (under glorious snow!). The students shivered and hugged each other, but were remarkably patient and understanding, rarely complaining or asking to go home.

The Temple of Confucius was closed (which our guide didn't know), but the Temple of the Llamas was in the midst of a festival, during which our students really appreciated the opportunity to pray and light incense (where, of course, one student managed to light his synthetic gloves on fire--he was completely unconcerned!).

The evening was wrapped up with a trip to the famous acrobats. I love them--they work so hard to produce a great performance. Luc told me that the Cirque de Soleil is better, but I'm sure they're different. One annoyingly spoilt kid nagged me through the performance to go and get candy from the stall downstairs, which of course I refused! He had also made us have to walk in 15 minutes late!!! Grrr! Later he snuck out to go shopping when we told the late ones they had to stay in the hotel. Talk about spoilt brats! :(

The last day was colder than ever, and the winds swept us through the Hutong Tour. The tricycles may have been exciting for western tours but they were nothing new to our Asian students. They were also unimpressed with the comparative poverty of the family's house we went into--but I must say they were very polite and friendly about it all.

With our free afternoon we took the kids ice-skating--another first. The skates were terribly blunt, but slipping, sliding, crashing and laughing was still a buzz, and well-remembered afterwards. More shopping of course, and a taxi ride home--a logistics nightmare, but easily done with Chinese speakers, and our mature students.

The last night I think I got one hour of sleep--Ohnmar (the Myanmar teacher who was my roomate) and I did a room check, and then an hour later wondered at the loud music coming from two students' room next door. No knock, phone call or doorbell would rouse a response, and lo and behold, next door was the same. We were sure they had snuck out so proceeded to wake up all the boys to check everyone. It turned out that they were all in their room, but were so exhausted that they did not hear the knock, but needless to say, it was very hard to believe!

Anyway, another long day to return, and when I got back I promptly fell asleep to catch up! It truly was a fantastic trip with some great kids, but I doubt I'll sign up for it next year--it was exhausting and definately indisputably work not fun!

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