A Blog Covering D.C. Education [ABCDE]

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Aug 11 2011

Teaching in Rural China, Pt. 2: Trading Places

This is part 2 in a series on my experience teaching in China this summer. Part 1 is here.

Today’s theme: exchanges.


As I was boarding my flight out of mainland China, I picked up a copy of China Daily, ┬áthe local English newspaper. Until then, I had missed any chance of reading the local news in English. The government officials from the town in which we taught, after all, had alerted us that many of its people had never before had conversations with Americans–forget trying to find an English-language daily there.

I scanned the front page, as I do with any newspaper, but, this time, more with the purpose of gauging what types of events receive coverage and how they are portrayed. I wanted to see how the media feeds the locals its news, whether Communist party propaganda has as much influence as it is said to have. I noticed nothing particularly unusual on the front page (the editorial/opinion section, on the other hand, was a whole different ballgame–filled with nationalistic screeds, part of what seemed like planted propaganda pieces).

Then I saw a headline below the fold, “Bridging the gap between cultures.” Having just participated in what amounted to a program to bridge the gap between two cultures, I knew that it’d be worthwhile.

I read the lede. Then, I blinked to make sure that I was reading the right newspaper, that I hadn’t accidentally read from a copy of the Washington Post, a backpack stowaway finally revealing itself. Nope, the words were there, mention of Phelps High School, from good ole’ DC Public Schools, in the first line of the article.

It turned out that China Daily was writing a piece on the rise in cultural exchange going on between the US and China. To give the piece a more human touch, the newspaper dispatched reporters to our nation’s capital, and to the Mandarin language program at Phelps, one of DCPS’ specialty schools.

Reading the article brought back a memory from the moments before boarding. While walking to the gate, I had seen a massive swarm of schoolchildren, dressed in bright red uniforms, following flag-bearing adult guides, as part of what was obviously a travel program of some sort. Curious, I glanced at the sign above the gate and saw the group’s destination: Washington, D.C. The talk in the article about ramping up the level of cultural exchange between the two countries was no joke.

Finally, this weekend, once more safely within the borders of the United States, I stumbled across another article involving exchanges, this time from the LA Times, about Chinese teachers on one-year exchanges with public schools across the US.


Everywhere I turn these days I see evidence of the growing cultural and educational links between the US and China. American and Chinese citizens, it seems, are trading places, early and often.

We’ve engaged in, for quite a while, building strong economic ties (in fact, you might say we are almost mutually dependent), but there has been little mention of the other types of links that nations can form, particularly those that flower from what foreign policy gurus might call “soft power.”

In fact, explaining the rise in cultural and educational links is easy:

  • On a global stage, we want to be the best.
  • In order to be the best, we need to beat the rest.
  • To beat the rest, we have to know the rest.
  • To know the rest, we need to interact with the rest.
  • Therefore, cultural/educational exchanges!

Less cynically, of course, there are plenty of good reasons to engage in the type of cultural and educational exchange that I’ve noticed in the past few weeks. We can learn lots from reaching out and interacting with others. In our trying educational times–when we’ve been told over and over that our education system sucks and that some of our overseas brethren have gotten it down pat–looking beyond our shores becomes even more important.

The relationships and even impressions built through what may seem like a superficial exchange program can, especially when formed at a young age, shape future interactions. When this generation’s youth become the next generation’s leaders, these intangible things can make a difference. We want a peaceful world, right?

I know that my experience working with Chinese students in China has forever changed my own understanding of China. The associations I make with the word “China” are no longer mainly negative. In between images of the communist regime and the smell of factory smoke, I hear the laughter of my students, as they attempt to sing Taylor Swift (one of America’s top ambassadors of soft power, along with Lady Gaga and Katy Perry), or the shouting on the soccer field, as a 30-on-30 epic match takes place (a la this).

You might even say that I have an affinity towards China now, that whenever I see something in the news, I’m more interested than I’ve been previously in “understanding” China.

I guess you can apply this “learn from others” lesson to any sort of travel. But the travel that takes you deep into the heart of a country, and has you interacting for a sustained period of time with its people, can be even more powerful.

So, all you CMs out there, try and find an opportunity to do what you are doing–teaching–but somewhere else.

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    Really, "A Blog Covering Dilemmas in Education": A (former) English teacher's reflections…

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