Day 4 – Beijing to Shanghai
The morning of day 4 involved a visit to the Confuscius Institute, the organisation which had sponsored and subsidised our trip. We played on the interactive exhibits, admired the educational resources and sat at the boardroom table while the directors talked at length about what they do, before swapping business cards. Happily Mr Cheah had taught me previously how to accept a business card (with both hands, looking interestedly at the details and then offering one’s own with both hands). Watching the local dignitaries, this was clearly the right thing to do and I got quite practised at it.
But what I’d been anticipating with childish excitement was the bullet train. And it was everything I’d hoped for – clean and comfortable and FAST! Apparently we were travelling at speeds of up to 350 km per hour and although I can’t confirm this statistic, it did seem as though the view was moving very quickly past the window. The next four and a half hours were absolutely fascinating. From Beijing city we headed into the country, where every single inch of land was used – to grow maize or cabbages or planted with trees. There has been a program of ‘greening China’, which has obviously worked, as there are rows of trees everywhere. It was strange to travel through tracts of land with nothing on it and then suddenly come across a huge collection of skyscrapers in the middle of nowhere. Who lived there? Why? What on earth did they do? The train stopped only twice during the journey and there were two minutes to get off (including all luggage) at each stop, which necessitated a very brief period of panic during which suitcases were lost and found and people urged on and off the train.
We arrived at the end of the line in Shanghai in the dark and it was just like a fairy tale Christmas, with zillions of huge tower blocks and buildings all lit up and sparkling. Very, very impressive and quite beautiful. I was reminded of Bladerunner and marvelled at the elevated roads and fast-moving traffic. We didn’t have long to get to know our new guide, Charlie, but were pleased to note that the new bus driver was this time a non-smoker, which was an added bonus and made everything a lot more fragrant.
Amongst various other facts, Charlie told us that Shanghai is the second largest city in China with a population of 24 million (quite different from what we had been told previously in Beijing; and I doubted that the population of Hangzhou had decreased from 44 million at the beginning of the week to 7 million today but again, with no Google to check these facts, I have no way of confirming this). He also said that there are 1.4 billion people in China, which I am finding very difficult to even imagine, even though it feels as though we have seen most of them. He continued telling us about the sub-tropical climate, the distinct four seasons, the two airports and three railway stations and how Shanghai is the political and economic centre of the country.
Dinner was very late and held at the club of a multi-billionaire (you did read that correctly) who also owns five schools in Shanghai. I found the idea of owning a school an interesting idea, but apparently this is quite common in Asia. Surrounded by beautiful cutlery and crockery and with a decent New Zealand red wine served in generously sized glasses, we could tell that the evening was going to be a memorable one. My neighbour at the table was a lovely woman who spoke very little English but was keen to translate each course for me using a rather nifty App on her phone (and there were many, many courses) so I could make the most of the culinary experience. Although hearing that I was eating ‘botanical amaranth’ didn’t actually tell me too much about the dish in front of me, it was certainly interesting to hear. I wasn’t so keen on the white tree fungus which would apparently moisten my lung health for autumn. Having said that, it was the most delicious meal I’ve had since we arrived in China – I had got used to a lot of cabbage and rice with the occasional tofu dish, but this was fabulous. Sliced lotus root in sweet sauce, morning glory with garlic and soy … The exotic dishes just kept coming and we were happy to oblige by eating them.
Before heading off to bed, we did some more business card swapping and I found that the government official who had joined us for dinner had gold tooling on his card and the chef had a really beautiful embossed design on hers. She was pulled from the kitchen after the meal and gave a little speech – she is apparently a famous Shanghai chef and well-known for her brilliance. I can well imagine it – it was certainly the best meal I have enjoyed since we arrived in the country (tree fungus excepted). I also reflected on the fact that again, we were completely unable to tell the age of someone Chinese. The chef looked about 16, but was apparently 38. I just cannot fathom how these people have not a single wrinkle on their faces and am determined to uncover this secret before we leave on Saturday. I am very much hoping that their fabulous, youthful skin cannot be attributed to the regular eating of white tree fungus.
Day 5 – Shanghai to Hangzhuo
The following morning, we set off for the school owned by the multi-billionaire who had hosted our dinner at the club the previous night. Shanghai was less sparkly in daylight, but still impressive in terms of its sheer size. The middle school we visited has 1100 kids, 2/3 of them boys, who all gain enrolment to the school through a stiff academic entrance exam.
We arrived to the wonderful sight of a hundred or so students doing their physical exercise. Apparently they do a minimum of 75 minutes per day – a 30 minute run, followed by Physical Education drills. We had arrived during the latter – push-ups, star jumps, burpees – it was amazing to see so many children doing this out on the basketball courts. I resisted the urge to join in and took photographs instead.
The premises were equally impressive. Beautiful greenhouses, science labs and classrooms for robotics, AI, VR, psychology, health and well-being. Listening to a class of 45 Year 9 students simultaneously chanting “My mother is an accountant …” from the same English book was fascinating and faintly disturbing, but this was the only class of children we saw – other than that, we were treated to art work, and music rooms.
The bullet train we took to Hangzhou was a brief hour’s ride. Yet another guide arrived to assist us on our journey - Abbey was very teacherly and told us off for talking while she was and waited for us to be quiet, which is a great teaching strategy with students in a classroom, but slightly less effective with educators on a moving bus. She talked for the full 40 minutes about her home town of Hangzhou with barely a break for a breath and stopped only when we arrived at the hotel.
We learnt that Hangzhou is a historic city of 9 million people, often seen as “just below paradise” (Mrs Truscott hadn’t made me aware of the geographical paradise scale, but Hangzhou is evidently high up on it). More than 29 million Chinese people visited the city last year, as did more than four million international visitors. It is famous for its gardens and actually has a “green coverage rate” of 68%. Given that even by my reckoning this is more than half, I was surprised to not see much greenery as we drove through the city, but perhaps that will come later. It is considered a “no worry, no hurry” city and very romantic; famous also for textiles, especially silk, for green tea growing and for being China’s equivalent of Silicon Valley. 20% of ‘Made in China’ goods are from this area.
The evening’s entertainment was to be a visit to the theatre. During the 40 minute bus trip to the theatre, Abbey recounted the story we were about to watch. By this point the smog was palpable and my lungs were starting to malfunction so I was low on oxygen and can’t tell you the plot exactly, but I recall that it did involve a love story with a young man and woman by a lake; that there was a version with a happy ending and a version with a sad ending and that you never knew which ending you will experience. Seated in an audience of 6,500, the show was absolutely spectacular. The music was loud, the costumes exquisite and the effects unbelievable - we saw acrobats and trampolinists and people entering the stage on zipwires above our heads, live horses running about the stage and a terrifying war scene with cannons which were fired in a deafening manner and inevitably added to the air quality.
It was only when Scene III came on and we saw the loving couple by the lake, that I understood why we had been told to bring umbrellas for “rain by the lake”. Always keen to base my decisions on facts, I had asked what the probability of rain that evening was and, when told the chance of rain was “zero”, I chose not to bring an umbrella. However, the advice referred to a special effect in which sprinklers above the audience sprayed water to make the scene more lifelike. Smoke, fire, water – we were there and in the thick of it. And it was fantastic. It really brought home the amazing culture in which we are being immersed. The week is going quickly and we are making the most of it. Tomorrow we are off to a principal’s conference, to each deliver a brief presentation and to sit on a panel answering questions from Chinese principal trainees.
Day 6 – Hangzhou
I maintain that travelling is good for people. You make new friends, you learn things about others and you question a bit more. How are the education systems of our two countries different? What can we take home and apply to our context? Why are the Chinese so generous with the application of silicon sealant around their hotel showers and sinks? In terms of new friends, I have teamed up with a rather fabulous new principal from a primary school south of Perth. She sends me photos from her hotel room of how she has managed to use the various types of electrical sockets to charge her phone and I haggle prices down for her when we go out shopping. We all have our strengths.
Waking up to air that you could taste this morning reminded me that we have been told that the leader of the country has decreed that by 2030 there will not be any vehicles with combustion engines in the whole country – they will all be electrical. I am impressed that one person can have such an influence and with air quality as it was today, I can see how it could genuinely save lives. Despite my cunningly purchased inhalers before I left Perth, I am coughing badly now but have not yet resorted to spitting on the pavement like a local. It doesn’t help that so many people smoke – in the hotel, in the restaurants, indoors everywhere – I suspect that opening my suitcase when I get home will necessitate a significant amount of washing.
Breakfast was another delicious buffet in our latest hotel – the Media Hotel. (I haven’t yet worked out why it is called this and I got to channel number 501 on the television last night before giving up all hope of finding an English speaking one, so the name may actually have nothing to do with the general accessibility of media at the establishment). Pausing for a while to admire the little aquariums of black fish and two cute little terrapins by the eggs and toast, it suddenly struck me that perhaps these were not placed there for their cuteness and that if I stared at them for too long someone might whip them out and fry them for me, so I moved on swiftly. And had fruit and a croissant for breakfast.
I had been looking forward to visiting a teacher training centre today. After admiring a beautiful library, staffroom and calligraphy centre (seal carving was not the disturbing practice I had initially feared) we sat in a lecture theatre and listened to a welcome speech. The speaker spoke loudly into a microphone and his words were simultaneously translated by two people in a plastic booth to the side of the room and transmitted through an earpiece into our headsets. I was quite excited by this and felt like someone participating in a United Nations event. There was a bit of sensory overload, what with hearing both versions at once from different directions, but I found that watching the translator rather than the speaker helped a lot, given that you could then see what they were saying as well as hearing it.
After the introduction, we all split up into different rooms as we had all been charged with presenting to an audience for two minutes. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked to speak for such a short period of time – it had certainly made it easy to plan! My topic was that of continued professional development for principals and I shared ideas on the importance of instructional leadership, well-being and the use of a formal coach.
My previous confidence regarding the translators passing on the correct information was slightly knocked when he said that one school in the delegation found that the Australian children worked well with the chimpanzees that they had been helping to foster. He quickly changed this to kangaroos, but the seed of doubt was sown and after this I never had full faith that our message was getting across. I did hope that there was no consequence for the young translator for this moment which certainly lightened the long speeches for the Australians in the audience.
After each sub-group had presented in their different rooms and we had enjoyed morning tea (mango parfait and cream choux buns were highlights for me) it was back to the lecture theatre for summaries of speeches and remarks on summaries of speeches and grateful thank yous for remarks on summaries of speeches. I have learnt that making remarks on summaries of speeches can be almost as long as the summaries themselves. I also noticed that although we all listen politely and face the person speaking, the locals appear to pay more attention to their phones during most of these speeches. Perhaps they have had more years of it than we have.
The school we were to visit in the afternoon treated us to an amazing lunch in an exceedingly posh restaurant. There were crabs and prawns and eels and ducks with their beaks still clearly visible. I lost count after 20 dishes. Once I had been reassured that they were not eyeballs, I particularly liked a dish of porridge-like fermented rice with mini rice balls in it. We enjoyed the occasion and chatting with our hosts.
The experimental public primary school we visited in the afternoon was very interesting. The Golden Wind Band students were clearly well-practised and played beautifully for us. It was not surprising to hear that they had won many prizes for their performances. Our photographs were taken and we were filmed entering the premises and at all points after that. One student had been chosen to speak formally to us on each staircase and they gave highly polished and practised performances. We heard of the innovative programs taught there (notable courses for me were Sudoku, Lego and fencing) and watched a video of the ceremony they have for reaching the significant age of ten. We watched fencing displays and physical education and admired artworks by the children. They presented us with objects they had painted and coloured and it was all very lovely.
Before we could leave, we had to have group photographs taken. Of everybody. Many times. And the Golden Wind Band. With a specially pre-prepared banner to mark the occasion. I had the sobering thought that if any of us were lost in this country, they could probably be traced solely from the vast number of photos that had been taken of them in various locations. We walked a short distance in the rain to the Natural History Museum – an imposing and impressive building. We were there to watch how the experimental school uses resources in the community (the museum) as part of their classroom education. A class of 10 year olds watched a National Geographic video on the solar system and then made a model of eight planets and the solar system using toothpicks, plasticine and a set of data on each planet’s diameter and its relative distance from the sun. It was good to at last see some real kids doing a real classroom activity and as soon as we could, we sat down with them and got involved. It was a science teacher’s dream – plasticine and the planets – and I naughtily hid in my group and continued working on the model with them while the other visitors had to take a tour of the premises accompanied by the videographer and photographers. I definitely got the better deal, even if I did get told off at the end for starting to clear up when I should have apparently been in another photograph. It was worth it.
At the end of our visit to the museum there was the usual rigmarole of banners being rolled out from balconies and many, many more formal group photographs. These are universally loved, wherever we go. They take ages as everybody has to stand in a particular place and you get pulled by the elbow until you are in the required location. As someone who very rarely appears in photographs, it has been quite confronting for me, being snapped at all angles and from all distances. But educators here are so valued and seen as such dignitaries, it is apparently necessary. At one point one of the Australians shook hands with a little Chinese student and his friend was overheard saying that he wouldn’t wash his hand when he got home that night, because he had shaken hands with a principal!
It had been a long day and I was pleased to get back to the hotel for an early night. Tomorrow we spend time at an international school and I’ll be looking forward to comparing this to our previous school visits.
Dr Julie Harris
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