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Two Bedford County teachers were able to spend a week in China last month. They hope they’ll be able to use what they learned to help their students.
The opportunity came through an invitation from the Office of Chinese Language Council International’s North American office, located in Vancouver, Canada. Though the session was intended for teachers of Chinese language, Ashlie Hirschman and Rhonda Luckie were still invited to attend even though they do not teach Chinese. They are both still in the process of learning the language.
Both teach a middle school level world cultures course which has an emphasis on China. Luckie said that this emphasis is because the school division is thinking about offering Chinese at the high school level at some point. The idea is to generate interest in such a class. Luckie teaches at Forest Middle School and Hirschman teaches at Bedford Middle School. Luckie also teaches civics and economics and Hirschman also teaches eighth grade Spanish.
Hirschman began learning Chinese last year and Luckie began her studies in the language this year.
Chinese is a tonal language. In English, the tone with which a word is spoken does not change the word’s meaning. Chinese has four different tones and each one gives a word a different meaning.
“The tones haven’t been as difficult as I thought,” said Hirschman.
“One thing we found difficult is the characters,” Luckie said.
Unlike English, Chinese does not use an alphabet. Luckie said that each Chinese character represents a syllable. It gets complicated because one syllable could be represented by several characters. The correct one depends on context. There are more than 6,000 chinese characters.
Obviously, you aren’t going to get a computer keyboard with 6,000 characters on it. Luckie said that, in order to type on a keyboard, they use a writing system called Pinyin. Pinyin uses Roman alphabet letters to spell the Chinese syllables. They then use a computer program to convert the Pinyin into Chinese characters.
Hirschman and Luckie ended up in China for a week because an announcement about the program was e-mailed to the school division’s central office. The central office, in turn, forwarded it to them. They applied and were quickly accepted.
Both teachers had to get passports. Luckie had never been out of the country before. Hirschman studied Spanish in the Dominican Republic and also spent some time in Brazil. However, her passport had expired and had to be renewed.
Then, they needed to get a Chinese visa. The only way to do this was either to go personally to the Chinese Embassy, in Washington, D. C. or use a travel company. They both ended up utilizing the latter option.
After traveling to Newark, N. J. they boarded a flight for Beijing. The plane flew east, over the Atlantic, Europe and most of Asia. Their return flight from China also flew east, over the Pacific Ocean.
“We went around the world,” said Luckie.
Beijing is literally on the other side of the earth, so both teachers suffered serious jet lag. Hirschman said that, after her return to the U. S., her a.m. and p.m. were reversed for some time.
They didn’t get to go to the Great Wall, but they did get to go to the Forbidden City. This was the section of the city where the Chinese emperors lived. Hirschman said that a fellow teacher from North Carolina, who grew up in Beijing and knew the Forbidden City well, acted as their tour guide. As a result, they learned a lot of details.
They also had a tour of Beijing’s old city, with an American teacher acting as their guide. Luckie said that part of the city was a very old section with many tiny shops. Many places had a high, rounded threshold in the doorway that you had to step over to enter.
“We also learned to barter,” said Luckie.
“We had some people helping us,” added Hirschman. “They’d say, ‘No, they are taking you.’”
Luckie found it interesting that some places would accept American dollars; others accepted only Chinese currency. Still others accepted Visa and Luckie said she used her credit card a couple of times.
They had good food. One dish was Peking duck. Hirschman said the duck meat is wrapped up in something like a Chinese tortilla with cucumber, onions and duck sauce. Another dish, according to Luckie, was dumplings filled with vegetables or meat. You dip them in a type of vinegar that is different from any varieties we have here.
“It was awesome!” she said.
Another was called “hot pot.” This was a pot of broth set over hot charcoal that kept it boiling. You dip meat, such as slices of lamb, vegetables or tofu in the broth and cook them right on the spot.
“We also found KFC and McDonald’s there,” commented Luckie.
These familiar names featured a number of unfamiliar items. Chicken is served with rice and sauce. They had tea with tapioca rice balls at the bottom. They also had custard pies filled with fruit-flavored rice in the center.
Luckie said that McDonalds had a chicken leg sandwich. They also deliver. People could call in orders which would be delivered on bicycle.
And, they learned something to beware of.
“If you order water, you are going to get it hot unless it’s in a bottle,” said Hirschman.
Luckie added that they went to one place that offered two beverages — hot soy milk or beer.
The conference sessions were difficult because they were not really geared toward people just beginning to learn the language. Everything was in Chinese, but there were some people who helped Luckie and Hirschman, although the people conducting the conference did seem to expect relatively fluent Chinese speakers. Hirschman said that she felt like one of her 8th grade Spanish students would probably feel if she found herself in a room full of fluent Spanish speakers.
The teachers made some observations while there.
Hirschman noted that, unlike her experiences in the Dominican Republic and Brazil, people in China were not very accommodating with foreigners who don’t speak Chinese well. She said that, in the two Latin American countries she visited, people were genuinely pleased that a foreigner made the effort to speak their language, even if the foreigner didn’t do very well.
“They [the Chinese] weren’t very forgiving if you didn’t speak the language,” she said. “They were not as friendly and willing to help you.”
Luckie noted that there is a big gap between the wealthy and poor that does not appear to have a middle class to fill it. Hirschman noted that the poor in China live in third world conditions.
They also noted that Sunday is just an ordinary working day. In fact everyday, including Saturday and Sunday, is an ordinary working day.
“Nothing ever shuts down,” observed Hirschman.
“We wondered, ‘When do they ever rest?” said Luckie.
The teachers noted that they couldn’t get on Facebook, or You Tube, or any social networking site. Hirschman said that she was planning to blog her experiences while there, but was unable to do that as there was no blog access.
“They filter a lot of stuff,” said Hirschman. “They also filter their history.”
They also noted that there is no freedom there. Hirschman said that she already knew that, but didn’t expect to personally experience it in only six days.
“When we were in the conference, I felt like I was being watched to make sure I was doing what they told me to do,” she commented.
Luckie said that they have all gone to teachers’ conferences and sign in to receive credit for being there. At the conference in Beijing, she had to sign beside her name at each session.
“They keep track of where you are,” she said.