ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

High School Diplomacy


[photo of notepad with Chinese signatures]

DEEP IN THE REDWOOD FOREST, ZHANG CHUN XIA STANDS by a tree listening to the quiet. She is far from her home in southern China. Here in the United States she uses a name chosen in her English class at Kaiping Middle School No. 1: Surlin. She pronounces it "serene" -- a word she does not know. If she did, she might use it to describe the tree or the way she feels.

She steps from behind the tree into the trail and writes in her notebook using Chinese characters. Asked to explain what she is writing, she says, "Here you enjoy yourself alone. It is very soft here. You listen to the sounds of water. They make your heart feel happy and you feel very spiritual."

Surlin is one of 10 Chinese students who spent a day at Prairie Creek State Park and a nearby beach as part of a week-long visit to Humboldt County earlier this month, drinking in the sights, sounds and culture.

The students -- the best and brightest from the Kaiping area in the southern province of Guangdong -- have seen what we take for granted with a sense of wonder and excitement that throws the strengths, weaknesses and luxuries of our lifestyles into sharp relief.

[photo of student group]Dec. 2 Surlin joined another Chinese student, Daniel, his American host Amelia Sattler and a Journal reporter at Arts Alive! They listened to American folk music, tried an ice cream cone for the first time -- dropping the scoop of chocolate marble swirl on the sidewalk -- and then went to see an American movie.

"Daniel" is, of course, not the student's real name. In a show of cultural flexibility (and mercy for their hosts' pronunciation skills) most of the students stuck to their "English names."

Most names were inconspicuous, like Daniel or Ben, but some revealed that the students have had some exposure to American mass media. Many of the students are enamored with the National Basketball Association. One calls himself "Kobe." Another chose the name "Rock" -- it can only be hoped he had not formed his vision of Americans on the basis of the professional wrestling character of the same name.

The student's enthusiasm never abated during the week spent in Humboldt County. Attending classes at Eureka High, walking through the redwoods or touring Humboldt State University, everything was approached and experienced as a great adventure.

What were some of their impressions?

Vic Lee, a self-described "common boy" from the countryside surrounding Kaiping, said he was amazed at how sparsely populated the land is. He said that Americans simply have more space because "they have fewer population." Vic Lee was also taken with the Eureka zoo, saying that having a zoo in such a small town would be "unimaginable" in China.

China is a populous and relatively poor country, so it stands to reason that space and civic extravagances like zoos would wow the visitors. But the students also picked up on other, less obvious differences between our country and theirs. Huang Hao ling, the student temporarily known as "Rock," said that he was amazed at the roads in America.

"They are so big and so clean," he said.

[photo of students]

Arrival at the Arcata-Eureka Airport.
Left to right: Alice, Vic Lee,
Elaine and Rock.

[photo of Betty Chin]

Betty Chin and Prinicipal Yang at airport

[photo of Surlin and Jessica]

Zhang Chun Xia, aka Surlin,
greets Jessica Osborne.

The trip has meant a change in lifestyle for the visitors. In China, these students spend 12-15 hours a day engaged in school activities. They all attend Kaiping Middle School No. 1, an elite institution for the region's most intelligent and diligent students.

Like all the students who came to visit, Vic Lee is a senior. His parent's home is less than four miles from the school, but he lives on campus in a dormitory, sharing a room with 12 other students.

Senior year is spent in "graduation classes" which means he goes home once every two weeks. The classes are in preparation for an all-important examination, one that will determine his future. It is something like an American high school student's SAT college entrance exams.

"In China we have four subject tests," said Vic. "Three are a given -- Chinese, English and math. The other would be chosen from physics, chemistry, biology, geography and history. There is also art and music or P.E. My choice is chemistry.

"The exam is very important because the college chooses you. Everyone wants to go to college and works very hard for it. I'm sure I will pass but the points are most important. The points decide what school you go to. Higher points, better school. Once you go to a better school it seems that you have more knowledge. More knowledge means more contribution and that means more pay.

"I have not decided, but I think I want to work as a biologist. I think after college I will try to get a master's or doctorate degree, but," he adds, "everything is changing.

[photo of Colin]

Mr. Zhou, aka Colin, crosses Eureka street with Donna Gephart and Ben.

[photo of Surlin & Daniel]

Surlin and Daniel outside
Bon Boniere.

[photo of Ben at beach]

Ben sprints down the beach

[photo of Ben at zoo]

Ben and bear at
Sequoia Park Zoo.

"The rules in the college are changing every year. The economic environment is changing. Because we are developing our economy, there are so many things we didn't know before, so we have to try something and examine it, correct it and change it."

With their intense focus on schoolwork, it comes as no surprise that the students are very interested in comparisons between the American and Chinese educational systems.

Rock, who is described by his classmates as the top student in math and science at their school, said he thought the American students "have a lot of freedom."

"The teachers are very casual. The teacher can sit on the desk, for instance. It is impossible in China; if they did this they would be fired."

That was the first thing that came up when the two teachers, Zou Shuxiang (who calls himself Colin) and Yu Zi Peng (Mr. Yu to the students), were asked to compare American and Chinese high schools.

"Very different," said Colin. "We are always standing or walking among the students. It is forbidden to sit on a desk. It is more formal there."

The comfortable atmosphere helps students to think for themselves, Surlin said. "American students have power," she said. "They may not know what's in a book, but you can carry out what you want to do."

Asked if they thought Americans took school seriously, a group of four Chinese students answered in unison, "No!"

"They don't study and sometimes maybe they don't do their homework at all," said Rock.

But he agreed with Surlin about American empowerment. "Our tests or exams are taken from knowledge, so we learn. But in society you need ability, and American students have that."

Surlin said she thinks that American schools are perhaps too free.

"The students do not consider their education very much. After class they won't do homework at all. The ideas are different in China," she added.

That became crystal clear to Wendy Riggs, a science teacher at EHS, when Mr. Yang visited her class. He observed a discussion about HealthPath, a new integrated program that puts EHS students on a fast track to professions in health care.

"The students had a lot of gripes," Riggs said. She said she answered their questions and picked out their concerns about the program, all the while encouraging constructive criticism.

The Chinese reaction to such open criticism was not positive, Riggs said.

"Mr. Yang walked out of the room and said, `I think there is too much democracy in the schools.' But I think it's good that kids have the right to say that."

[photo of teachers in classroom]

Mr. Yu, Mr. Yang and Mr. Zhang with Betty Chin
and EHS English teacher Mr. Miller.

[photo of Vic Lee]

Vic Lee reads magazine
using pocket dictionary.

[photo of Wendy Riggs]

EHS science teacher
Wendy Riggs

[photo of Ben at zoo]

Ben and bear at
Sequoia Park Zoo.

Riggs saw the positive side of the Chinese school system first hand when she went to Kai Ping in 1998. She came away wishing the American system resembled the Chinese one a little more closely.

"I walked into their system and said: `How can I make this happen in Eureka?' The students were perfect in every way -- they never spoke back, studied hard and studied all the time."

The road to the Kaiping/Eureka exchange started at Kwan's Restaurant in 1995. Eureka High School science teacher Bill Schaser, since retired, has long been a believer in cultural exchange. He had taken some of his students to Russia and England and was playing host to a group of Russian students visiting Eureka.

"Betty Chin (whose brother owns the restaurant) asked me, `When are you going to go to China?' I was kind of flip about it. I said, `Sure I'll go.'"

That casual conversation at Kwan's led to two Eureka-to-Kaiping trips, one in 1998 and another 1999. It took years to arrange those visits. After Schaser agreed to the idea, Chin began calling people in her former hometown. She found that she no longer had any relatives there but remained undeterred. She called educational officials, principals and anybody she thought would listen in an attempt to get permission for an exchange. At first she came up empty-handed.

"I called the principal of Kaiping Middle School No. 1, and he said he didn't think we could do anything. He didn't speak English at all and was afraid to embarrass himself. And he didn't know how they felt about Westerners coming to their town. (None had ever visited before.) He said he would write me back but never did."

But then a new principal was appointed at the school, Yang Wen Xu, a former English teacher. He sent a letter to Chin saying he was amenable to the idea of an exchange.

"I called him back and had a nice long talk with him. He asked me who I was and why I wanted to do this."

The question is important because Chin left China in the late '60s to escape the Cultural Revolution. She went as a refugee first to Hong Kong, leaving behind a brutal life, one that has left scars that remain today.

"Even so many years later," she said, "I still suffer a lot."

But she bears no ill will, she said.

"I told Mr. Yang that I respect what he believes in if he respects what I believe in, and I promised I would not discuss politics during this exchange. I also told him I wasn't angry at any people in China."

With this understanding, the two started the long preparations necessary for a group of Americans to visit Kaiping. Following the first visit Schaser and a group of organizers began paving the way for a group of Chinese students to visit Eureka. That process proved even more difficult.

[photo of potluck dinner]

Kobe and Silvan try American food
at potluck dinner.

[photo of teachers]

Yu Zi Peng, Zhang Shuxiang and
Yang Wen Xu greet a new friend.

[Photo of Surlin at beach]

Jard teases waves while Surlin snaps a photo.

The Chinese applied several times for permission to leave the country to visit Eureka. The first time they were rejected. The second time, permission was granted and later withdrawn following the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia by the United States in May 1999.

In October the exchange group began discussing how to return the $15,000 it had raised from donors like the Eureka Rotary Club, St. Joseph and General hospitals and the Andreas Wagner Foundation. But in mid-November Chinese officials contacted Schaser with the news that the trip was approved and the students would be arriving -- in two weeks. Host families were hastily called, a schedule was set up, and Dec. 1 the students landed at the Arcata-Eureka airport.

Schaser sees the exchange as the most direct form of diplomacy.

"We're connecting with people at the grassroots," he said. "We can do all this political stuff, but people-to-people connections is what it's all about.

"The students who went over with me will never be the same. Once they stepped around the redwood curtain and found out there's a world out there -- one far different from our world -- they were changed.

"And I know these Chinese kids are changed. They were changed when we went over; just the initial contact with the outside world was a big deal for them.

"When I spoke to the student body over there about the Internet, they didn't have a clue what it was. They came up to me asking me, `What is this World Wide Web.' Now they all have e-mail addresses."

Vic Lee agrees that the exchange between Kaiping and Eureka is an important step.

"I think that now is the information century so to know each other is very important. The American students have come to our school, and we had some communication. Now we come here for another kind of communication. I want to taste the real American's life. This experience is very important."

He hesitates, looking for just the right word, knowing that "important" is not strong enough. He searches on his electronic dictionary and finds a better one.

"I think our chance to come to America is very precious."


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