Students get an adventure, make new friends in China
By Eric G. Stark, Travel Editor firstname.lastname@example.org
It wasn't a vacation, but rather a unique adventure.
In November, Gibson C. Armstrong led a trip to China with eight teenage girls.
"What could possibly go wrong?" he says, looking back at the experience. "But I didn't hear one complaint. They [the girls] all rolled with the punches very well."
A former state representative, Armstrong, who represented the 100th District from 2002 through 2006, was one of nearly a dozen Lancaster County residents who spent 10 days in China Nov. 1-10.
Seven of the eight girls attend Lampeter-Strasburg School District (one goes to Solanco). A highlight for Armstrong, a West Lampeter resident, was visiting the Far East with his two daughters, Courtney, 17, a senior, and Kelly, 13, an eighth-grader. Courtney is taking Brian Fisher's Chinese IV class at L-S this semester.
She thought visiting China would be a good way to learn the language and culture.
For the elder Armstrong, the trip allowed him to reconnect with friends and meet new ones. His first visit to China was in 1989 with the U.S. Naval Academy, where he minored in Chinese. This was Armstrong's fifth visit to China.
Millersville economics professor Enyang Guo connected Armstrong with Wang Fang, a superintendent of the Yangpu District School System. She led a group of visiting Chinese executives who spent six months at Millersville University in 2011 studying American culture, business, government and education.
The students visited Shanghai, Suzhou ("the Venice of China") and Beijing. Highlights included seeing historic gardens; walking production floors of working semiconductor, silk, cloisonn' and jade factories; seeing the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square; visiting a government-sanctioned church; cruising on Shanghai's Huangpu River, museum tours; and (since all the students happened to be girls) lots of shopping at bazaars where haggling is just part of the purchasing process.
His daughter Courtney had an interesting exchange while shopping with a friend. The two started speaking Spanish so the shop owner wouldn't understand what they intended to offer to buy the item, but the owner switched to Spanish, too, which ended their plan.
Language can be a barrier, but if you are flexible and willing to adjust, you'll have fun, Armstrong says, noting that Chinese people are eager to talk and interact with Americans.
"In China, anyone less than 20 years old is fluent in English and can converse the language," says Armstrong, who currently works for American Electric Power, a utilities company based in Chicago.
The trip cost less than $3,500 and covered airfare, visa, tips, all meals, hotels and an overnight train ride. To keep costs down, they stayed at two Holiday Inns.
"I was not interested in spending money on a hotel; it was only for sleeping," Armstrong says.
One of the highlights for the students was their day at Fudan Experimental High School, one of several schools that Wang oversees. The school is closely tied to Fudan University, the Yale of China, and students must pass an exam to get in. Each American student was paired with a Chinese student.
Their activities included singing songs in music class, painting opera masks in art class and learning Chinese calligraphy.
The day culminated with the students cooking a Chinese dinner together in the cafeteria. While the American students struggled a little with their Chinese, their counterparts were quite conversant, Armstrong says. All Chinese students start taking English in first grade, and English is a core component of their college entrance exam, along with Chinese and math.
"Seeing the girls laugh and take pictures together and exchange email addresses at the end of the day was heart-warming," says Sandy Cramer, who was one of the adult chaperones and whose granddaughter Elizabeth Reidenbaugh was one of the students.
"The bridges of friendship really made the trip for me," Armstrong says about the girls exchanging emails.
His top four (he couldn't limit to three) things to do include the following:
1. Shanghai -- Po Dong, which is the Wall Street area in China. "You just need to drive through it," he says. "It is spectacular with number and size. They have a different perspective of architecture than we do."
2. The Great Wall is actually several walls all over China. "The amount of engineering and forethought is a testament to the ability to endure and work together. It is magnificent to see," Armstrong says.
3. Forbidden City. This is the place where the emperors lived. "It's spectacular in its scale and attention to detail," he says.
4.Temple of Heaven is in Beijing. This is where the emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties would make offerings to heaven and pray.
"Everything in China is just massive, he says. "Texas big is small compared to China. They don't build one 30-foot skyscraper. They build six at one time."
Seeing buildings is great, but if you go, find a way to get to know the people, Armstrong suggests, adding that they are the most hospitable hosts.
He said the best way to see China is to live and interact with the Chinese.
"If you go with a tour group it is all prepackaged, and you'll see China from a windshield," Armstrong says. "I wanted these kids to see what it was like to live in China.
"If you are looking for a vacation, don't go to China. If you are looking for an adventure, you'll have a fabulous time."n
Local teens welcomed in once-forbidden city.