Getting Schooled In China

My 12-year-old, 14-year-old, and I got accepted into an exchange program to visit and teach in China..

What a great opportunity! Travel and lodging was covered (for the majority of the trip), we would get to see several parts of China, stay with host families, and have my girls separated so they both survive until next school year. (I’m sure my kids are the only ones who seem to want to kill each other over the summer) This was going to be the trip of a lifetime!

Our first time out of the country. Without my husband. Twelve-hour flight. Dietary changes. In the dead of summer. For three weeks. Staying with strangers who may or not speak English. Few actual itineraries or details given. Seriously, sounds like a dream trip, right? What could the possible downsides be?
Well, maybe you didn’t see the part where we went to China in the middle of the summer? Beliefs about ill effects of air conditioning are pervasive and strong with the Chinese. Several adults told us they had “broken” arms due to air conditioning blowing on their arm. They cautioned us to be careful and keep the air from blowing directly on us, lest we too, become broken. Thankfully, we escaped the danger with the minimal air conditioning we encountered.

We did have air conditioning in our bedrooms, which we gratefully turned down each evening to give us relief from the pouring sweat that we were drenched in. Many other places had air conditioning but often was not used or would cool the room a few degrees but not even close to what we were used to. So, it was hot. You might say I glistened for three solid weeks. I was hopeful that the glistening would translate into pounds being shed. I guess I can keep dreaming.


Secondly, we are helping pilot this program. Last year there were four teachers and six students. It must’ve gone swimmingly because this year, they invited 30 teachers and 60 students. And we were spread out for the second week across five different cities. Such exponential growth was sure to mean smooth sailing. You know the saying; Many hands make light work. This was going to be a breeze.

Yeah, right! In the same way that a tornado is a gentle wind or a tsunami splashes playfully. The truth was, the amount of people, requests, complaints, concerns, and expectations were beyond what had been expected on either end.


As far as I can tell, Chinese people are less meticulous in their planning than Americans. There were vague plans that we would come to China “sometime”, “probably” in July (they eventually sent us our flight itinerary about three weeks before we left). We would be at a school or “possibly” two, “somewhere” in China. “Probably” in Jinan or Weihai. There was a host family “somewhere” asking for details about my husband’s job three days before we boarded a plane. It was required for selecting a host family, I guess. My kids “might” be in the same city with me. My 12-year-old will “possibly” be in the same house as me. I had requested to lay eyes on her daily and check-in but was aware that she would likely be with a separate family. But hey, adventure is the spice of life, so we accepted the uncertainty and eagerly boarded the plane to Beijing.

A week and a half before we were to leave, teachers were suddenly given topics to create lesson plans that would be used by all the participants on this trip. We were uncertain as to the levels of children we were going to be teaching and were told we needed to teach each lesson for two solid hours. Lesson plans had to include a Powerpoint and video but had to be attached separately as you cannot access Google or Youtube in China. We worked on lesson plans that were rejected and had to be redone. Attachments were often too big and we had to find ways to send all attachments, which for me, took three separate emails. They didn’t seem to like that but with a few short videos, a Powerpoint, and a detailed lesson plan, it was necessary. Finally, plans we took it upon ourselves to load the files to a Google Drive folder that many of us downloaded to a flash drive, which would become instrumental in our teaching.

Now listen, if a program like this was going on in the United States, there would be detailed itineraries sent out six months before, hosts lined up around the same time, there would be clear expectations of lesson plans communicated months in advance and said lessons turned in and thoroughly reviewed, plans and back-up plans in place, any necessary fees paid well in advance, and all bookings completed and communicated months before the event would take place. Panic and anxiety rose every time we failed to receive a straight answer to our endless questions. Apparently, programs in China involve less advance planning and more go-with-the-flow kind of expectations. This was true not only in this program but was seen with other entities while on the trip, including host families. Maybe here in the west, we are just more type-A with planning. Anyway, we quickly learned to be ready to change plans on a moment’s notice.

Now listen, if a program like this was going on in the United States, there would be detailed itineraries sent out six months before, hosts lined up around the same time, there would be clear expectations of lesson plans communicated months in advance and said lessons turned in and thoroughly reviewed, plans and back-up plans in place, any necessary fees paid well in advance, and all bookings completed and communicated months before the event would take place. Panic and anxiety rose every time we failed to receive a straight answer to our endless questions. Apparently, programs in China involve less advance planning and more go-with-the-flow kind of expectations. This was true not only in this program but was seen with other entities while on the trip, including host families. Maybe here in the west, we are just more type-A with planning. Anyway, we quickly learned to be ready to change plans on a moment’s notice.

Kids in China are well-behaved, respectful, and obedient. This should be a piece of cake. Yeah…not exactly. The students were eager to learn and devoured their workbooks at a feverish pace. Trying to get them to wait while we did other activities or took breaks was nearly impossible. It was as if they were compelled by an outside force to do as much work as possible in the workbook as quickly as possible. We only had two-and-a-half hours to complete each lesson, which consisted of around five to eight pages. Therefore, when we got to the page we were working on, roughly half the class would have it already completed.

Public speaking was not their strong-suit either. I had to beg and bribe to get students to share even the simplest of sentences out loud. So…not unlike American elementary students for the most part. I guess my expectations of behavior in China was misguided and somewhat stereotypical. So when typical misbehaviors reared their heads, I was stunned. Due to the arguing and explaining that I was unable to understand, the Chinese tutors in each class dealt with these problem behaviors but most were unequipped with handling children, in general. The goal seemed to be for them to pacify the unruly child with whatever it took to keep them calm. I’m curious to the disciplinary differences during the traditional school year. Perhaps they decided that because the Americans would be there, everything was fair game?

Honestly, most of the kids were amazing. They did their best, came out of their shells, formed bonds with various American teachers and teenagers, laughed, and had a ball. Almost across the board, our host families had a student at the same school. There were a few exceptions. We received many messages asking us to repeat a song, dance, or activity that a student was excited to show their parents.

The host families were PHENOMENAL! They welcomed us with open arms, treated us like family, and ensured we got to experience local restaurants, activities, and nature. We hunted bugs (not me personally), went to concerts, performed at musical venues (again, not me), hung out at beautiful beaches, walked coastlines, at on piers, tried on dresses at a traditional dress shop, ice skated, went to the opera, and generally got a good idea of the area we were in. And it. Was. Amazing!

Other than the chronic exhaustion from seven straight days of school from 8 am to 5:30 pm, followed by authentic Chinese meals (which were, by the way, nothing like real, American Chinese food), and the above-stated activities, it was fantastic!

The American teachers found ways to engage, entertain, and interact with the students, even when we often couldn’t speak the same language. This was an area where the Chinese tutors were immensely helpful and appreciated. They would translate instructions for games and activities when the students stared blankly after receiving them. The tutors encouraged the students and developed a good working relationship with all. We could not have done this without them.

Teachers, in general, are resourceful, creative, and adaptable. All these qualities came out during this exchange. Don’t have a ball? Wadded up paper will do. No colored pencils? Colored chalk will suffice. None of your planned activities printed? It just became a group activity on the projector. No lesson plan? Make one up on the fly. Lessons too hard? Pull educational activities out of your back pocket. Whatever was needed, the teachers managed to work it out. The Chinese organization was helpful in trying to get us what we needed, but often it was spur of the moment and there just wasn’t time. It was an amazing show of ingenuity! I was beyond impressed.

Our teens, ages 12-17 were fabulous working with the kids. I think they were the students’ favorite part of the program. They got to do fun activities, songs, and dances with American teens. No matter what the teenagers were doing, the students loved it. Parents came in and took pictures and most often they included the teens more so than the teachers. It was the fun part of camp, for sure. Many teens stepped up, some for the first time, as leaders. These young people stepped outside their comfort zones, many coming without a parent, teacher, or familiar person to travel to the other side of the world alone. It wasn’t always easy for them either. Some had problems with the food that was offered, there were minor illnesses, a lot of ingenuity on their behalf, and lots of problem-solving. I was so proud of the way they stepped up and took charge. Even in the midst of sudden changes, issues, personality conflicts, overheating, exhaustion, they managed to be positive, upbeat, and touch the lives of the Chinese students.

Overall, this was a wonderful experience. We formed relationships with a variety of people, from the Chinese students and their helpers to the coordinators and host families. It was also a blessing to see such a variety of teaching styles and ideas and meet many amazing American teens and teachers. Would I do it again? I’m not sure yet. My girls definitely want to do it next year. Who knows?

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