Sunday, April 20, 2008

Experiencing life at home

Last night, we each stayed with a host family in Xi’an, spending one afternoon and one night living with our generous hosts. Instead of our traditional blog entry, we will feature the stories of three different teachers on our trip to give you a taste of what the host family experience was like.

Dan G.
After meeting for the first time, my host father took me to the impressively preserved city walls of Xi’an. Steady rainfall did not stop us from climbing to the top and exploring the 13th century Ming fortifications. As we walked passed medieval towers and walls filled with arrow slits, my host father discussed the difficulties of teaching English in a prestigious Chinese High School. It was amazing for me to hear how school politics, unequal access to education, and standards-based learning are not unlike what we experience as educators in the United States. Sharing stories about our similar—yet in some ways completely different—school systems in such a historical setting was a surreal experience.

The next sixteen hours would hold many more adventures. From discussing the Communist Revolution with a veteran of Mao’s Red army to debating China’s role in Tibet through spirited conversation with my host father, I gained new insights into Chinese culture and history. A ten-course meal and an unfortunate run-in with a partially cooked dumpling introduced me to the finer aspects of Chinese cuisine.

This rich experience with my host family was the highlight of this trip so far and is something I will never forget.

Shannon F.
I went with my host, Bai Xiaoni, 7th grade English teacher and her husband back to their apartment. There I was greeted by her 9 year-old son, her niece and her mother-in-law. None of them speak English so it was a bit hard to communicate. My host acted as a translator for us. Shortly after we got home, three of my host's former students arrived. They had traveled 30 minutes by bus on a Saturday to meet me so they could practice their English. At first they were shy and giggled a lot. They also thought I talked too fast and had a funny accent. But since I use my hands a lot, we did fine. They even taught me how to say some Chinese words and print the characters, too. One of the girls brought a list of questions with her. She asked me them, and I asked her some my students had sent with me. After the girls left, I was instructed to rest while my host prepared dinner for me. Once dinner was ready, I was invited to the table. There they had dumplings, peanuts, cucumbers, peas, chicken, lotus root and fried mushrooms, all prepared in traditional Chinese fashion. There was also a special soup. After my host had cleaned up from dinner, we went off for a walk around the neighborhood. I was able to see part of the original Xi'an city wall. On Sunday morning, we had a quick breakfast of heated milk and bread before heading back to the hotel.

David P.
My experience with my host family will stay with me for a long time. Here I am, a stranger from the other side of the world, and my hosts welcomed me as though I was a family member that they had never met. “James” (my host’s English name), his wife “Alice,” and their 7 year-old son “Gerry” live in an apartment which they own on the eighth floor of a building that is part of a cluster of buildings that form this twenty-first century Chinese village. This complex of high-rise houses is the contemporary home of an ancient village called Li Jiao Bu, which is part of an outlying section of Xi’an called Shihlibo.

James had originally planned for all of us to hike up a small mountain about a half-hour outside of Xi’an — but the steady rain foiled that plan. Once I convinced James that I didn’t mind the rain, the two of us headed out for a walk. We went through the old village gate to where the paved road ended and a steep, downward-sloping dirt road led to a brand new multi-lane road and a paved, modern park by the Chan river. The rain had turned the dirt road to a slick, mud and clay mix that clung to the bottoms of our shoes in slabs. I began to understand, perhaps, how those beautiful Neolithic pots were made at Banpo just a few miles downstream from where we were. James remarked that having the earth of such an ancient village on ones shoes was a good omen.

We made it to the river without a complete mud bath and happily walked along the river eventually circling back to James’ home by way of the busy main street of Shihlibo. Our conversation ranged from sharing English and Chinese words for things to our shared love of hiking in mountains to contemporary Chinese religion to Chinese and American education. More than two hours after we had begun, we had made a circle and found our way back to James’ family’s home. And we had both found a friend in a former stranger from the other side of the world.

Photos: 1. Dan G. and his host at one of the drawbridges for the Xi’an city walls, 2. Shannon F. and her host family, 3. David P. and his host at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

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