A school trip to China should be one of the highlights of any student’s middle or high school career. It speaks for the way China is perceived in the western world that schools abroad would even think to offer such activities and that students, more and more, are receptive to them. The main point, that China is a force to be reckoned with, seems to be arriving in the heads of people. However, because most people involved in the planning and execution of such trips are either westerners with little to no clue about how China works and, in admission to this fact, delegate the organization of a truly unforgettable experience to those who may know more about it, i.e. travel agents, Chinese teachers or even a first generation Chinese parent who takes the time to organize. Let me start off by applauding all involved parties for their pioneering spirit. However (and this is a big however), despite the apparent goodwill of all parties involved, there may be much room for a more professional take on things. Unfortunately, I even have to exclude the travel agent’s Chinese partner here as they may have tremendous experience in taking around foreign tourist groups but not in the case of school trips. There is a significant difference here: tourist groups visit China with the purpose of taking nice pictures, sampling the food and having a story to tell. School groups should have an academic component. Students should be given a chance to encounter the real China and thereby make a decision if this could be for them in the future, be it for career purposes or something else. Therefore, you do not offer a student group on an educational tour the same services you offer a tourist group. And it would be my argument that a partner school on the ground in China is better suited to cater to the needs of a school group than a travel agent would ever be.
Beijing: for many a long flight away
Enter your trusted partner on the ground
If this blog entry is starting to sound like an advertisement, it may be because it is. However, the reader will hopefully realize that this is not a simple business proposition (“you give me students; I give you a good price”) but a plea to decision makers to actually make the right decision. The world needs a generation of people that actually understand and genuinely respects China for what it is more than ever. A generation that appreciates China for its brilliance but can objectively judge China for its many shortcomings without resorting to the official lines being fed to us by the media on a daily basis. For this, students need to be led off the beaten track and introduced to the real China. To be sure, touristic activities still need to be part of the curriculum but they should be woven into genuine activities that will bring the real China out in what you see, touch, smell and hear. As a small example, the Sinology Institute prides itself in its applied curriculum for student groups. That means that students learn something in class and then go out to apply what was learnt right away. For example, students will learn numbers and how to buy things at the vegetable market and walk to the nearest such market to try their luck at communicating with the vendor. The teacher will stand by the student’s side to make sure things run smoothly and the student does not overpay. In the end, the student will be proud to have used Mandarin Chinese in a real life situation and walk away with a reasonably priced bag of bananas.
Visiting the old Beijing neighborhoods
The same principle holds true when participating in our favorite activity: the Hutong walk. Depending on the time of year, you will find old Beijingers lining the small alleyways bursting with historical charme. You will come by small shops and restaurants, DIY stores, bars, hairdressers etc. Students are encouraged to strike up a conversation with any person of interest. There is no guarantee that the person spoken to will take the time or has the patience to indulge the student’s questions but even so there is a lesson to be learnt. In China, not everyone will pretend to be your best friend just because you look foreign. This just happens on the above mentioned beaten track where people think they can make a sale. Chinese and especially Beijingers have their own style and way of dealing with people and it is far from the always-smiling stereotype we may have been led to believe. Only like this will students learn that in order to get things done in China you either get ready for or walk from it. Whichever it may be, it will not be the smooth sailing experience of an ordinary class trip. Truth be told, your students will be the better for it.