As we sat in Atlanta on Saturday afternoon awaiting our flight, the gate area began to fill primarily with people speaking Chinese. This was not a big surprise as we were about to embark on a 16-hour flight to begin our eight-day journey in China. At that point, I remember thinking that I probably was not going to understand much of what was said around me for a while. I did not realize how real or powerful that thought would prove to be.
We arrived in Chongqing at about 1:00 AM on Monday morning and settled in for a brief sleep before continuing our travel to Xichang early the next day. I ate breakfast and decided to talk a brief walk down the street for my first experience in China. The neighborhood was bustling as people headed to work and dropped off their young children at school. As I walked, it became very clear that I stood out among the residents of this section of the city. It was probably somewhat my imagination, but it seemed that every person on the street was staring at me. I know for a fact that I couldn’t understand a word that anyone was saying or read a single storefront sign.
For the first time in my life, I was obviously the different one. I thought about how some of our students back home might feel the same way in our relatively homogeneous school population. I thought about our students who struggle with reading. For some of them, our written words must be as confusing as the Chinese characters in store windows and on street signs that I couldn’t read. As I walked back to the hotel, the idea of empathy ran through my head.
Now don’t get me wrong. In no way am I saying that my voluntary eight days in China as an outsider in any way equate to an understanding of people with no choice regarding the ethnicity, ability, or another characteristic not in their control. I knew that I would be leaving China and returning to my world where everything is pretty comfortable. In the meantime, I got a glimpse into a world where I was different from most everyone else. It helped me to appreciate the perspective of our students who are unlike their peers. It helped me to understand that being different helps you empathize with others. It helped me to understand that our students need exposure to situations such as this to broaden their horizons and better prepare them for the world outside of Franklin County and Vermont. And this all happened during a ten-minute walk on my first morning in China.
As we toured China during the rest of the week, we met with school officials. It turns out that they want the same thing that we do — the opportunity to interact with a different culture to develop a better understanding. School officials wanted to send their students to our school and welcomed our students to visit theirs. We had sent a group of our students to China the week before we visited and know that it was a life-changing experience for all of them. Next semester, we hope to have three Chinese students attend BFA Fairfax.
We need to figure out how to send more students abroad — not just to China, but to a variety of countries throughout the world and to other parts of the US. Over the years, we have had students travel to France, England, Costa Rica, Greece, and Puerto Rico. It’s complicated because the trips are teacher dependent (“Mr. So-and-So always takes us to…”) and relatively unpredictable (“we’re going to England in April”). It can be a burden on that teacher who always has to plan a trip (and what happens if they ever retire?)! The short lead-time for the trips makes it financially difficult for some students to participate.
In 2019, we will have a group of teachers work to develop a system that makes international travel predictable, meaningful and affordable for BFA Fairfax students. If a student knows when they enter high school that a trip to Spain will be offered during their Senior Year, they can plan accordingly. It has to be a system that is not dependent on a particular teacher. The Spanish teacher can’t be responsible for every trip to Spain. Other teachers will need to take their turn-perhaps the Spain trip can be ahistorical journey led by a Social Studies teacher. Once the system and structure for a trip is established, shifting the focus should be relatively easy. As the work of this group progresses, we will share details here.
So that’s what I learned on my trip to China. I met some great people, learned so much about Chinese culture and history, ate fantastic and exotic foods, and got to see pandas. We visited large cities(Chongqing has 35 million and Chengdu has 30 million) and small cities (Xichang has just 3 million people). We spent a lot of time in airports and also rode the “Bullet Train.” It was an eye-opening adventure that I hope to help our students experience.
John Tague is the High School Principal at BFA Fairfax. You can follow him @jtague252