Serbia and Being Welcoming – Day 1

AD7695FF-2DE7-4B4B-9762-7A3A72AEDA1ASerbia is beautiful. It’s a small Slavic country with a rich and complicated history that has taken them to where they are now — open, welcoming, and always working to be better. I’ve been looking forward to this trip for six months. Now that I am finally here, with my feet planted firmly on Serbian soil, it is so much more than I could’ve imagined. 

The first thing I witnessed was the deep compassion Serbians have for one another. As my airplane-mates and I waited for our luggage, there was a terrible tumbling sound coming from the escalator. An elderly gentleman lost his footing and fell, head-over-heels, down the moving steps. Several Serbians dropped their own baggage, phones, glasses, to run and help the man up. They then escorted him to a seat, his head bleeding, and waited with him until his family could be located (they were waiting for him outside of customs), and the medics came. It is rare today to see so many people jump to another’s aid in our communities. While scary, the moment — the compassion and the community — washed over me and I knew I would learn so much on this short, five day trip. 

My host, Milan Dakić, the Deputy Ombudsman in charge of Children’s Rights, picked me up and we started the hour-long journey from the airport to Novi Sad. He told me of the history of his nation, and the many languages spoken in his city. As he spoke, I had the pleasure of taking in the beauty along the motorway. 

Once in Novi Sad, after dropping my things at the hotel, Hotel Veliki, an inviting and comfortable hotel near the town center, we went walking through the city in search of lunch. The streets here are narrow and there are cars, but few. The streets were lined with cafes and shops and packed with people on this warm, clear Sunday. 

The thing that struck me immediately was the various people about. There were children in groups, teenagers lounging in the park and at the cafès, middle-aged folks eating, and older community members sitting together on benches. Everyone was out, enjoying the weather and taking advantage of this beautiful Sunday to be together. I didn’t see a single phone. I saw people chatting and enjoying one another’s company. I saw generations sharing the same space. I saw families, and couples with dogs. I saw joy and happiness. I saw connection. 

Milan and I enjoyed a leisurely lunch then I returned to the hotel for a rest after my long journey from Spokane to Belgrade. I then had the pleasure of meeting the city Ombudsman, Zoran Paclović, and Milan’s wife, Daniela, for a drink and wonderful conversation about migrations and how to best meet the needs of our immigrant children and their families in our communities. 

Today was the start of so much learning. I can already tell Serbia is an example for all of us. I can’t wait to share all of it with you. 

Odds & Ends and Final Thoughts on China

I’m not sure it’s possible to capture all I have seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched during this journey to China. There are so many thoughts swirling through my head, it’s difficult to even know where to begin, so I will default to the NEA Foundation and their guidance to begin this discussion. Twice during our trip, as a group of Global Teaching Fellows we had the opportunity to debrief our experiences. During the first debrief, after visiting the Great Wall, we were asked about our pre-conceived ideas about China prior to our arrival and how those notions were challenged in our first few days in country. In the US, we are shown an image of oppression and profound crowding whenever we are confronted with images of this nation. I expected Chinese citizens to have little freedom, and with that, limited happiness.

My assumptions were immediately challenged. Yes, the city of Beijing is bustling, trams are crowded, and traffic is thick, but space is not at a premium here. While China boasts one of the largest populations in the world, freedom of movement is prevalent. There is a concentration of people in the cities, but the nation itself is huge and each town has its own flavor, with varying landscapes and ways of life. It is true that personal space is not as valued in China as it is in the US, so personal bubbles aren’t generally respected, but there is room to move and people are kind and accommodating.

Along the lines of freedom, I also had the idea the Chinese government would be oppressive. While there are clear expectations and boundaries, in many ways, Chinese citizens are freer than we are in the United States. I know that statement is hard for some to take, but hear me out. In the US we have freedom of movement, we can travel, we can do and say what we want. On the surface it appears as if we are free. After all, it’s written in our constitution, right? But there is so much happening underneath. Our oppression comes in the form of judgment and the desire to control one another and to determine what is best for others, based on our own beliefs and values.

In China, while there is a distinct class system, with little upward mobility, and there is limited freedom in speaking, there is incredible freedom in being. The Chinese are extremely accepting. They are open and curious and unashamed of their curiosity. There is true freedom of religion in China and, despite the homogeneity of the citizens, they welcome foreigners and praise their differences. Women have the right to choose (which I will allow has a lot to do with birth limits, but nonetheless), women are not shamed for their choices concerning their own bodies, and homosexuality is accepted and has been for centuries, although same sex marriage is not yet legal in China.

I recognize that there are limits in freedom in China. I also recognize that we are very free in the United States, at least outwardly. However, the freedom to be without other people judging or trying to change you is extremely powerful and something I wish we in the United States could recognize and learn. I believe the Chinese are able to accept difference because they are a group culture, in which the community is elevated above the individual. In the US the individual is valued above the group, which causes us to care about our own opinions and beliefs above others. It is difficult to be compassionate when we are taught to care mainly about ourselves. I’m sure these are controversial ideas. What are your thoughts?

The second question we debriefed was a challenge we had to overcome during our visit to China. Mine was a cultural challenge. As an American, I am often in a hurry and everything is a challenge, a competition of sorts. We tend to set a goal and work to achieve that goal – we focus in, and, as a result, sometimes forget to look around and enjoy the experience. This was particularly challenging on the Great Wall. We had limited time on the wall and a great deal of ground to cover. I had to make the conscious decision to not worry about making it to the top or worry about making sure I walked the entire length of the section. I forced myself to slow down and really experience the journey. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t going to have a photo at the top. What mattered was that I was there, I was present, I allowed the experience to wash over me and through me and to really enjoy every moment. I hope to take this lesson back to the states with me – slow down, look around, life passes quickly, it’s important to enjoy it.

Finally, in our last debrief of the trip we discussed global teaching and learning and how we can bring our experiences into our schools and classrooms. We decided that we need to be leaders and teachers to both our students and our colleagues in three main areas: 1. To be compassionate and empathetic – to recognize our own biases and ideas, put them in check and be open to new experiences; 2. Travel – see things, go places, even if it’s only as far as the other side of the city – seek out new experiences; and 3. Be reflective – not only of your experiences, but also of yourself – strive to learn from your experiences and expand your horizons.

My journey to China was so much more than I ever expected. The people are kind and courteous and aren’t afraid to ask questions and ask for a photo or two. The land is beautiful and there is so much green space. The history is deep and so very interesting – I need to come back and explore some more – we only touched the tip of the iceberg.

The following are a few more views of China, the food, the people, the culture. Thanks for following along with me on this adventure.

China – Day 5


Terracotta Warriors

When someone wants to build and/or dig in any area in China these days, they first have to notify the government who sends out an Archeologist to inspect the area. With such a long and rich history, any site in China could contain ancient artifacts, relics, or tombs. In 1974, in Xi’an, a farmer began to dig a well. As he dug, he noticed pieces of clay in the dense soil. This made him nervous, so he contacted his local government officials. This is how the terracotta warriors were discovered. At the time of the discovery, Archeologists were not sure what they would find. They were shocked by the magnitude of what they would eventually unearth.

The first Emperor of the Chin dynasty had the reputation for being quite ruthless, but he is also credited with bringing the nation together as one. He was very interested in finding the elixir for eternal life. As such, he tried many things that could potentially kill him. The one that is purported to be what did him in was mercury. He liked this shiny liquid and believed it could be the elixir and drank it. When he died the officials who buried him used mercury in the tomb, possibly to keep raiders out. It is this Emperor’s tomb, which is surrounded on all sides by the Terracotta Warriors.

There are three pits currently under excavation. Pit one is the size of two football fields. Inside, it is estimated there are 8000 warriors, 2000 of which are currently standing or being worked on. In the second pit, there are over a thousand warriors and in the third there are only 68. The second pit is still mostly underground, not yet unearthed, as Archeologists are not yet sure how to preserve everything as they dig. The third pit is extremely unique, as the warriors are so few and spaced out and the shape of the excavation in unique.

Like most things in China, the sheer size of the excavation in pit one is breathtaking. The entire area spans two football fields in length. When you walk into the pit and are confronted by these soldiers, archers, generals, and their horses, the sight washes over you and is, frankly, overwhelming. Warrior upon warrior stands guard for this cold-hearted Emperor, who reportedly buried his workers alive.

Each warrior is unique, with individual details on the clothing and differing facial features. It is easy to tell the role of each warrior, as they have distinct markers. Archers wear a hair knot on the right side of their head, unless they are left-handed, then it is on the left. Mid-rank officers wear a hat, and the general wears a different hat and different armor. Each warrior took four months for the original artist to create. In order to be able to work year round, they built them in caves. Each artist signed their work, but not for recognition. They signed them in order to be inspected. It took 40 years to create all of them. It is said that after all was completed, the Emperor buried all the workers alive.

The reconstruction is slow. When the Emperor died, the people saw it as an opportunity to rise up. They stormed the tomb and collapsed the roof, crushing many of the soldiers. Archeologists pain-stakingly dig out the pieces and puzzle it all back together.

There were also some weapons discovered, those not stolen by raiders are still buried in the pit. One sword Archeologists discovered is bronze and coated in chrome. Still sharp, they found it could cleanly slice a stack of 20 sheets of paper. It is not clear how this technology was discovered or implemented during the Tang dynasty, because it has been lost over time. This fact, alone, increases the mystery of the place.


Muslim Street and the Great Mosque

The Chinese people are open to all religions. The government does not dictate a national religion, and people are allowed to practice the religion of their choice. The four major religions practiced in China are Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam. This last one surprised me, as I didn’t know such a large Muslim community exists in China and that Islam has been practiced in China for centuries.

In Xi’an there is a Muslim quarter and at its heart stands the Great Mosque. This mosque is unlike any I’ve seen. One of the Emperors built the Mosque as a gift for the Muslim community’s help in ending a great battle. It would seem that a great beauty enticed the Emperor. He abandoned his duties in order to spend his time with this temptress. One of the Emperors Generals tried to overthrow the Emperor, but when fighting started the Muslims joined the Emperor and ended the war. Built in the traditional Chinese style, the Great Mosque is a place of peace and tranquility. Worshippers go five times a day to pray.

Surrounding the mosque is what is known as Muslim street. It consists of a huge market, in which bargaining is required and a food street. The street is always lively, but as it is the end of Ramadan, it was even more packed and active. The movement and electricity of the crowds was fantastic. There was so much to take in and experience.

We heard about a place in the market where you could dip your feet into water and fish would swarm your toes and heels and nibble on your skin. At only 20 yuan for 30 minutes, we had to find this place and try it out. It was a hoot. The feeling of the fish all around your feet, nibbling at your toes and ankles is indescribable. At first it shocked me and I wasn’t sure if I could sustain for 30 minutes, but after I got used to the feeling, it was actually quite relaxing, and my feet felt so smooth afterward. I’m not sure of the ethics of the whole endeavor, but it sure was interesting. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. Maybe some young entrepreneur could open one of these places in the states. I’m sure it would be a success!

Xi’an Taoli Tourism & Cuisine Institute

In China, compulsory education is 9 years, 1st through 9th grades with a kindergarten option. There is also a preschool system, but it is not mandatory. Ninth grade, at least from my observations is part of middle school. Once students enter their 9th grade year, they think about their options for the final three years of secondary school. There are three: the academic route for those students who have a chance at attending university, going straight to work for those students with immediate family obligations and who have not shown academic prowess, or vocational school. It is the latter type of school that we had the pleasure to visit.

Xi’an Taoli Tourism & Cuisine Institute is an award winning culinary arts school, was established in 1976, for future chefs in training. Unlike the previous school we visited, this school teaches real-world skills through experience and practice. It is not a fancy school and seriously lacks ventilation, but they employ over 50 highly skilled professional educators, who are all award-winning chefs in their separate specialties. There are three specialties in which students may concentrate: traditional Chinese cooking, Chinese pastry cooking, and western cooking.

During their 9th grade year, students decide if vocational school is their preferred route and they they apply. For this institute, students apply at age 15 and must go through an interview process and pass a simple test. I was told it is not excessively difficult to be accepted into the school, but the testing for the western cooking program is more intense. Students attend for three years, until they are 18. Once they graduate, they have a Chef’s license and can go straight to work. One interesting note – while both girls and boys attend the school, girls are only allowed to student Chinese pastry cooking, as cutting is deemed too taxing for them. Currently more than 2000 students attend the institute.

Mrs. Jou, who runs the school, boasts that their students win many awards for their cooking and that many teachers are gold winners in national competitions and are considered masters in their fields. She explained that students participate in many competitions during their studies at the school in order to increase their passion for cooking and to maintain their focus on their studies. A typical class has 40 students. They first watch the master model the lesson, then in groups of 8, they take turns practicing the new skill. She stated that it takes at least 5 years to become a master in a specialty, so students are not maters when they leave and will need more practice in a restaurant.

During our visit we saw demonstrations by four of their top teachers. One of the Chinese cooking masters showed off his cutting skills by chopping up soft tofu and placing it in water to show how finely he’d cut it. Floating in the water, it looked like a flower. He then cut a cucumber on top of a balloon without popping it. The cucumber was sliced so finely that it stuck to the balloon.

A second Chinese cooking master demonstrated food art. He cut a radish into a flower, another into a swan, and used jam to draw a beautiful shrimp on a plate. He can cut a peony in 1 minute and 19 seconds flat. He holds a national championship in flower cutting.

The Chinese pastry chef (a female master chef), with the help of several students, demonstrated the fine art of the Chinese dumpling. She made Four Season Happiness Dumplings, which have four pockets, one for each season. During this demonstration many of our cohort were invited to try and wrap a dumpling. They chefs then cooked the dumplings and, at the end, we were able to eat some of our creations.

The youngest master chef, only 22 years old, demonstrated hand-made noodles. Several of the boys twirled dough for noodles as the chef demonstrated. By twisting and folding the dough 13 times, the master chef made the thinnest noodles I’ve ever seen. It was amazing. More of our cohort had the chance to try their hand at the skill, too. It was much tougher than it looked.

The vocational school option is controversial in some areas of the United States and most vocational schools still have an academic element. Students in my district can take vocational classes, but they are only half days and there must be room in their schedule for such classes. Most students aren’t allowed to really focus on a vocation until after graduating from high school. In China, students have the option of skipping the academics of high school and really focusing on their chosen field. I’m curious about your thoughts on this. Please comment – let’s start a discussion…

China – Day 4

Temple of Heaven

The Temple of Heaven is known as the people’s park in Beijing. It is a place in which visitors can glimpse real-life in Beijing – it is truly an authentic experience. Upon entering the park, visitors see a great deal of green space and the area is populated by many Cyprus trees which are quite common in China. It also means “plentiful”. The Emperor had the people plant many Cyrprus Trees outside and inside the Temple of Heaven compound to increase the chance of a good harvest for the farmers and for the nation.

During the Harvest, the Emperor would come to this great hall, called the Hall of Prayer for Great Harvest. The Emperor would come here to pray and fast. During his stay at the Temple of Heaven, the Emperor had to stay in the Fasting Palace (not pictured) for three days. During those three days, he had to eat a vegetarian diet and could not have the company of his concubines. He was to sacrifice his own comforts for the sake of the people.

The Temple was built around 1420 and is a true feat of engineering. The Hall of Prayer has three levels. The top is Heaven, the second level is Earth, and the third is the people – which represents Chinese religion at that time. The hall is constructed of 28 wooden columns as the support structure. Four of the columns represent the seasons, 12 are the months, and the other 12 are for the hours of the day (they calculated hours differently than we do).

The numbers 12 and 24 are very important, as most farmers were illiterate. The only literature in their homes was a calendar. The year is 12 months, but divided into 24 parts based on what happens through the year to inform the farmers what they should be doing during each part of the year.

Outside the Temple of Heaven compound is a massive green space with an adult playground. Many people come to the park at all hours of the day to exercise and meet with groups. Many of the people are elderly. They come together for music lessons, to dance together, exercise together, and socialize, while being healthy. It is totally wild and completely awesome.

Our guide explained that we should explore the area and join in with the folks exercising. He said they would welcome us and that we should ask them their ages. He said the people would not be mad because it is a point of pride for them that they are still so agile at later stages in their lives. In China elderly people are afforded a great deal of respect and honor – much different than in the US. It is really cool to see all of the groups together and exercising. There were many people of all ages together, enjoying this beautiful place.

We also had a short Tai Chi demonstration and lesson, followed by time on the playground. I wish that parks in the US would move toward this type of set-up. The equipment was fun and functional – you could hardly tell you were exercising – plus there were several pieces of equipment specifically used to massage tired muscles. I also loved how they had poles on which to place your belongings, such as bags and purses. Everyone hung their items up and didn’t worry about anyone taking them – refreshing

Biking on the Xi’an City Wall

After leaving the Temple of Heaven, we boarded a plane to Xi’an, which was the original capital of China. It is much older than Beijing and as its own city wall. Xi’an is bordered by a mountain, a natural barrier against enemies, which is why the Emperor chose it to be the capital city. The city wall of Xi’an marks the beginning of the Silk Road.

This city wall is one of the most well constructed city walls in the nation, which is why it still stands today and is in such good condition – of course the Chinese government takes great pride in maintaining their historical sites, so it is also well cared for. We had the pleasure of renting bicycles and taking a tour of the wall. It is truly immense, like many places in China. The sun beat down on us, but the breeze was nice on this 97 degree day. We spent an hour biking as far as our legs would pedal us. The bikes were a bit small for my 6-foot frame, but I managed. I even wore my bicycle dress for the occasion. For me, this was one of the highlights of our trip to China.



Chinese Foot Massage

We ended our 4th day of touring with a traditional Chinese foot massage. They start with a foot bath in warm water that smells a bit like cinnamon. I was glad, because my feet had been sweating in sandals all day and were a bit ripe – I felt I needed to apologize to Li Fung Mei, the massage therapist, for the smell. Good thing they were washed and smelled pretty before the massage started.

Li Fung Mei was so sweet and extremely strong. It was a powerful massage and didn’t just cover my feet. She massaged my shoulders, arms, legs, and back. The massage also included the placing of a very hot bag of rocks on my torso and then on various spots on my back. Li Fung Mei was quite fond of my hair. When a hair would fall out of place she would instruct me to fix it. She complimented me several times. By the end of the massage, I felt like I was walking on clouds. Not bad for a 60-minute massage for only $25. I could get used to this!


China – Day 3

The Great Wall

The Chinese name for the great wall is Mutianyu. I looked forward most to this leg of our journey. I’m sure that is a common refrain from travelers to China, but for me the deep history of the wall and the magnitude of the endeavor to build such a massive structure is astounding. The section of the wall we visited, located in rural Beijing, in the early Ming dynasty. General Xu Da of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, built the wall on top of a 1,000 meter high mountain ridge. This section looks like a flying dragon and has multiple guard towers. It’s overwhelmingly huge.

The wall itself is constructed entirely of huge slate gray blocks. It changes elevation quickly with many inclines and declines. Some are quite steep, moving nearly vertically up. Others are more gentle, like rolling hills. These variations in level are addressed by using varying sizes of steps. Some were tiny, barely steep at all, some were massive, even difficult for me at 6’0 tall to climb. Walking the wall is no small feat and quite the workout. This doesn’t hinder the thousands of tourists (both Chinese and foreign) from visiting.

In order to get to the top of the wall there are three options, a cable car, a chair lift, or hiking up. With only a couple of hours to explore, our group opted for the cable car. After our walk on the wall there were four options to get down – cable car, chair lift, hiking, or…a toboggan. I, of course, chose the latter – such a fun and fast way to get to the bottom!

As Americans, we tend to take things as a challenge. We set a goal and we strive to achieve that goal. Often this can get in the way of enjoying the moment, as we are more focused on the goal than we are on truly taking in the experience. This was my challenge as I explored the Great Wall. With only a short two hours to explore, I focused on the experience rather than pushing myself to walk the entire section and make it to the “top”. I’m thankful I broke out of that American cultural norm, because as I walked and looked and explored, the immensity of this place, its history and its miraculous construction, washed over me and brought me to tears. I walked on the Great Wall of China!IMG_1623


The Chinese Tea Ceremony

We ended our Great Wall Day with a stop at a tea shop for a Chinese tea ceremony. I lived in Japan, a country which values and honors tea as well, and has a very traditional tea ceremony. The Chinese tea ceremony was quite different. It was more a demonstration. When tasting tea in China one must first smell the tea to take in the fine aroma. There is a specific process for this. There are two cups for the tasting, a tall cup and short cup. The tea first goes into the small cup then the small cup goes on top, like a lid – it looks a bit like a mushroom. The whole thing is held together then turned over, so the tea pours into the smaller cup. You then lift the tall cup out, roll it between your palms and smell it. The bouquet of the tea is amazing. You drink the first cup in three sips for luck.

We had the pleasure of trying five different teas, all very different, and all so delicious, I went wild after the ceremony, buying several canisters of my favorites. When drinking tea, the water must be exactly the right temperature in order to steep the tea properly. They test the water temperature with a tiny ceramic naked boy, called PP boy. He is soaked in cold water. They bring him out of the water and pour the hot water on his head. If he pees, the water is the right temperature. They say, “no pee, no tea!” Hilarious!

The teas we tried all had different health benefits and should be drank at different times during the day. We tried a Ginseng Oolong, a traditional Jasmine tea, a Lichi fruit tea, Pu-re Tea (the oldest and most traditional of the teas, produced near Tibet and only available in China – it is also the only tea that improves with age), and a Fruit tea. I wish I had the words to describe the flavors. All I can say is, when you visit China, experience a Chinese tea ceremony. You will never view tea the same way again!


China – Day 2

Tiananmen Square

Our first stop today was Tiananmen Square, the site of the famous 1989 protest in which university students demonstrated, resulting in hundreds of civilian deaths. It’s tumultuous history creates an atmosphere of both awe and oppression despite its vast expanse. The square is enormous, large enough to hold 1 million people. Multiple buildings outline the square, including the entrance, the army office, a government conference building – in which a yearly conference happens bringing together all of the local governments around the nation to report to the central government and plan for the coming year – monument to the people’s hero – for the army heroes – the national museum, and Chairman Mao’s mausoleum – his body is entombed in a crystal casket inside. As you can see in the photos below, a painting of 1967 Chairman Mao hangs above the entrance to the forbidden city. They call it “Mona Lisa Mao” – anywhere you walk in the square his eyes follow you. He is always watching.

Tiananmen Square means Heavenly Peace Gate Square  it marks the entrance to the Forbidden City. Every morning at sunrise there is a flag raising ceremony and every evening at sundown there is another ceremony for lowering the flag. Also, each day, a different group of students – members of the pioneers – stand on the memorial steps out of honor. This place is one of pride and respect in China. Citizens visit it daily and show their pride in their country and their culture.


The Forbidden City

The Forbidden City was home to China’s Emperors beginning during the Ming Dynasty through the final Emperor during the Ch’ing Dynasty. A total of 24 Emperors lived in the Forbidden City, with final Emperor living there until 1924. It is massive, with only 20% of the city open to the public. It was built in 1420 during the Ming dynasty when the capital was moved to Beijing. It is now the Palace Museum.

The original building actually burnt down in 1421. Upon reconstruction, they added the giant copper cauldrons, which they would keep filled with water to fight fires should another occur. There are several cauldrons surrounding the first three buildings, but still would not really stop a fire. The idea was that if the cauldrons existed, there would be no fire. Women were not allowed in the outer corridor. The Meridian Gate is the entrance to the compound and had two entrances, one for women and one for men. Both entrances are marked by a statue of lion. On the men’s side, the lion plays with a ball under his right paw and on the left the plays with her baby under her left paw.

In the outer corridor, there are three buildings (see picture above with the small building in the center).  The building on the right is for the Hall of Supreme Harmony. Inside sits the dragon chair. Dragon means Emperor, so this was essentially the throne room. The building on the left was used for testing. The Emperor would test potential officials. The middle room was strictly for changing. The Emperor used this room to get dressed in proper attire before entering the Hall of Supreme Harmony. It is all extremely grand and opulent. As you enter the outer corridor it is customary to touch the large nobs which adorn the great doors (third line up) for luck and a long life. The buildings were repainted prior to the Beijing Olympics, otherwise they are original – extremely sturdy construction considering these buildings have been standing for nearly 600 years. The Chinese government is dedicated to preserving their nation’s history. It’s breathtaking.

*Note: I just happened upon the cat in the upper right picture above. He was resting in the afternoon son. Clearly a stray, he still appeared well fed and content, if not a bit mangy. So cute. In the Modern Art Zone I saw some stray dogs who were equally as cute lounging outside a couple of cafes.

The next section of the Forbidden City was the inner corridor which housed the Emperor’s concubines. According to law, he was allowed 3000 concubines. These girls were usually chosen between the ages of 13 and 16 and brought to the palace for the pleasure of the Emperor – he did not get to choose his wife, but he did get to choose his concubines. Each evening, after finishing his daily business, a eunuch would bring him a list of potential partners for the evening and he would simply point to one. The girl would prepare for her visit by bathing and coifing, then she would remove all of her clothing and be wrapped up in a silk rug and brought to the Emperor. She was brought to him in this way to ensure she did not have any weapons with her.

One very famous and extremely ambitious concubine was known as the Dragon Lady. She befriended the eunuchs and as such they would place her name on the scroll numerous times. Because she was able to visit the Emperor more often than the others, she bore him a son. That son eventually became Emperor at the tender age of 6. He later died of smallpox at 19 because the Dragon Lady arranged for him to have the wrong medicine. She then got her nephew, who was only 4 to be Emperor – allowing her to control everything. It’s quite a story and one which continues with the summer palace below.

The photos above are from the Imperial Garden. It’s incredibly beautiful and peaceful. The concubines often spent there time there. It’s serene and has natural rock formations unlike anything I’ve seen.

*Note: The doorways all have a high lip, making you step high to walk through. You can see one in the doorway picture above. The purpose of the lip is to keep the devil out. Just my kind of creepy detail.


The Summer Palace

The Summer Palace is possibly one of the most beautiful sites in Beijing. The lake is serene and the view from the shore on a sunny day is magical. The Emperor summered at this palace and often held celebrations here. It was at this site the Dragon Lady’s nephew, the then Emperor, organized a revolution against her in 1898. Unfortunately, she won and had her nephew arrested and imprisoned inside the Summer Palace. He was forced to stay there, without seeing anyone for 10 years. They say he stayed there just waiting to die. The Dragon Lady even built a brick wall inside the door so no one could see in and to prevent her nephew from seeing out. When the Emperor finally died in 1908, the Dragon Lady found a young boy of only 3 to become the next Emperor. She was ruthless.

At the front of the Summer Palace there is a statue that is a mixture of several animals – a dragon, deer, and a lion. This statue stands for justice – interesting considering the history of the place. Additionally, in front of the main hall (top left in pictures above) there are four statues, two dragons and two peacocks. The Dragon Lady had the Peacocks placed closer to the door to show that she was really in charge.

The Summer Palace has the longest corridor (see above pictures, bottom right), measuring 728 meters from beginning to end. Along the corridor, on the ceiling beams, are painted 14,000 paintings. Along the side and at the end of the corridor is the lake. When you reach the very end there is a marble boat (see below, top left). This boat was the Dragon Lady’s favorite place to sit and listen to the rain.

We ended our visit to the Summer Palace with a dragon boat ride across the lake. The sun was bright and the view spectacular. It was a wonderful way to end a busy and very interesting day. There is so much to describe, what I’ve provided here only scratches the surface. Thanks for following along on this journey with me.


China – Day 1

Hongqaio Market

After our school visit, we had an extra hour to visit the Hongqaio market and haggle with the shopkeepers for the best deal on a variety of goods. Our guide spent time explaining the finer points of getting the best price, and not to worry if the retailers called us stingy or told us they were losing money on the deal – that is all part of the game. He also explained some important price points and that “special friend’s” price was definitely not the lowest they would go.

Of course, the first thing I spotted was a Starbucks – even here in Beijing a vanilla latte tastes the same. After a quick coffee and observing some of my fellow educators bargain some amazing deals, I tried out my skills and scored a bluetooth speaker and headphones and a new iWatch watch band, each for under $20 (if you know how much a watch band for an iWatch costs stateside, then you know what an awesome deal that is). I have to admit, it was a bit exhilarating. For someone who is not generally a shopper, the challenge pumped me up and I left with several bags of goods.

Factory 798/Dashanzi Modern Art Zone

Next on the agenda was a visit to the modern art zone. We didn’t have much time to explore, but I made the most of it. I explored the streets and alleys and came upon some truly amazing artwork. I particularly enjoyed a store called Sticky Monster. It was every bit as cool as the name would imply, with a variety of works of art, pins, statues, journals, and more unique items. Another interesting place was Cow Park, dedicated to the cow, of course. There were cow statues large and small and even a little green space for some grazing. Finally, I stumbled upon PandaMandy – my favorite, obviously. No haggling necessary here. The price was the price and very reasonable. Each vendor had its own flavor and provided a unique experience.

Aside from the shops there was artwork everywhere, even on the walls and fences. The graffiti art was outstanding and stood on its own as an outdoor exhibit. One gallery was dedicated to the superhero and another displayed antiques in sculpture. Dashanzi offers insight into the Chinese culture through art. It’s yet another face of this incredible country.

Yonghe Lama Temple

The Yonghe Lama Temple is a Buddhist temple in the middle of Beijing. On the day we visited it was raining hard, as June is the rainy season in China. This added to the atmosphere of this beautiful place. Built in the 1700’s it is home to the Wanfuge Pavilion, which houses the largest Maitreya statue in the world. It was carved out of a whole piece of white sandalwood and stands 18-meters high, with an 8-meter-deep foundation. No pictures are allowed inside the buildings or I would have one here. You’ll just have to go and check it out for yourself.

The temple is still in use today as a monastery. Monks study there and begin their journey toward enlightenment. Each building contains various statues of Buddha. As I was headed back to the entrance, I could hear a woman wailing in the second building. She was praying to the statue for longevity. Her wails were so heart-wrenching, I began to cry as I looked on at her bowing and praying. Her daughter stood in front of her watching. It was truly heartbreaking and powerful – such grief and faith together. Hundreds of Chinese were there to light incense and pray to the Buddha. It was overwhelming, really, to try and absorb it all. One day, I’d like to return and take my time – let the power and peace of this place to soak in.

Hutong Tour in a Rickshaw

The Rickshaw ride was a fun way to see the Hutong. Hutong are the original dwellings in Beijing before the population boom and expansion. Each house is small and made of gray brick. Riding in the rickshaw gave us time to observe and really see this historical area of the city. Families still live in these tiny homes, but they are worth a great deal of money now. The homes are not sold to private investors, as they are considered historical and need to be preserved. Instead, the government will sometimes pay to relocate families at the high price of $4,000,000.

Riding in the rickshaw was a kick in the pants. Rickshaws are not a common form of transportation as they used to be. They are now mainly for tourists. This is obvious, when you sit in the seat and the driver immediately offers to take your picture for a souvenir. Our driver struggled with my camera and I ended up with a short video instead of picture, so we settled for a selfie. The driver’s seat was a tad too high for him, and he used a wire strung from the back wheel to the front as a brake. His calves were mighty. It would be a difficult job, especially having to rely on tourism for an income.

Dinner in the Hutong

Dinner in the Hutong was a highlight of the day. Our tour group is quite large, so in order to accommodate our group, the family set up a table in the upstairs loft bedroom. Eating between a shower and a bed was an interesting experience. The family prepared and served the meal, which consisted of traditional Chinese fare – sticky rice, vegetables, small bits of meat, and beer. Everything tasted delicious and the hospitality was incredible.

After dinner, the patriarch of the family spoke to us about his story. He was a Kung Fu Master for many years at a local sports college from which Jet Li graduated. Both of his sons work in Kung Fu, too – one even choreographed the fight scenes for the movie “The Great Wall.” It is quite the story and according to our guide, every word is true, as the school displays many pictures of the Kung Fu Master throughout its halls. The family had several birds in cages hanging outside. The birds had fallen from the tree and the family was caring for them. They’ve rescued several birds over the years and one, which they let go, still lives in the tree and visits. It’s a magical place, this Hutong with it’s Kung Fu Master patriarch.

Whew! What a first day!

Wenhui Middle School

What happens when you visit a top five middle school in China? The experience completely changes your view of kids between the ages of 12 and 14. While students were clearly in the midst of becoming teenagers, all awkward and full of nervous energy, they had two characteristics which we don’t often see in typical middle school students – at least not in the states. One, they had confidence – confidence enough to hold a conversation in English (their second language) with a bunch of foreign teachers, and, two, a deep respect for and dedication to their education. These kids were serious and focused.

Wenhui Middle School was established in 1997. The original school educated roughly 1500 students with 150 staff members. In its early years, the school took students from across Beijing. They have since added a primary school, adopted more of a neighborhood school model, and now have a student body totaling over 2000 students and a staff of over 200. The school building is not large, at only 15,000 square meters, so space is at a premium and classes are large. In the middle school (grades 7-9) there are 32 classes with 40 students in each class. By US standards, 40 students constitutes an overloaded class. However, based upon my observations of students sitting at their desks, focused on their studies, 40 of these students would not be too many to handle, and is quite normal in a Chinese school.

June is exam month in China, so the students and staff were quite busy. We were honored they took time out away from their studies to host us. The English teacher, Fiona, brought her class to meet us. Her students were bright, kind, and eager to learn all about school in the US and to share with us about student life in Beijing. Students attend school from 8:00 am until 4:00 pm. They take eight classes, four in the morning and four in the afternoon, with one hour in the middle for lunch – which we’re told is quite delicious.

I had the pleasure of talking with Yu Meng Xi (her English name was Kelly). She was bright and her English skills were excellent. She explained that she spends her weekends taking three classes – two for English and one for math and her evenings are spent on homework. English is one of her favorite subjects. One focus of the school is for students know other cultures, particularly western culture, so Yu Meng Xi went with her class last December on an international field trip. They visited New York and Los Angeles.


The assistant principal explained what’s amazing about their school and graciously answered our crazy questions. Each month in autumn, the school focuses on a single subject and holds class competitions to keep students motivated. September is sports, October is science, November is Reading, and December is English. They also celebrate many western holidays to learns more about western culture. Additionally, to better meet students individual needs teachers provide homework at a basic, standard, or advanced levels. Students get to choose which level to complete.

As a cohort, we were mainly interested in discipline. They tackle discipline in three main ways. First, students stay together all day in one classroom. Teachers move, not students. Second, each class has its own master teacher. This teacher handles all of the discipline and stays with the class throughout the day. Third, they have a virtue department. The virtue department focuses on guiding the students in self-discipline, morals, and values. The virtue department handles any major infractions. I am extremely curious about what this looks like,  but unfortunately time was short and we did not get to explore this topic further. Also, they had a massive security room with screens showing cameras for every part of the school.

As far as teacher evaluation, teachers are evaluated on three elements: student evaluations, student competitions, and student scores on the final exams. There are two levels of educator unions, one at the school level and one at the district level. I would also love to know more about that. Finally, contracts are renewed annually and it is quite rare to fire a teacher. The assistant principal explained that teaching is a well respected profession and many university students pursue careers in education. Teaching is considered an admirable endeavor.

Our morning at Wenhui Middle School was incredible. The teachers and administrators were more than accommodating and the students were friendly, outgoing, and excited to meet us. We’ll have another school visit in the coming week. Next we will visit a culinary arts school. So, check back regularly!