This last trip to Qinghai was not my typical visit. I was not there simply to see my amazing students, or some of my best friends, or even to simply enjoy the beautiful landscapes and cultural attractions the region has to offer.
This is in large part because I was not there by myself. I was not even there with the rare but not unusual advance search party of Old China Hands that, after having visited nearly everywhere else in China, decide to come to Qinghai by process of elimination.
Rather, I was in Qinghai with twenty-three 8th grade students (and two teacher chaperones) from San Francisco.
This is not as drastic as it may sound. As I work at a Chinese-English dual language immersion school, all of the abovementioned 8th grade students have Chinese speaking and listening comprehension skills ranging from good to excellent. All except for one had previously been to China, most of them multiple times. Nearly all of the students had attended a three-week language program in Beijing the previous year, which was intense in its own way: students lived in homestays and attended Chinese school (albeit with special classes and numerous field trips) for the duration.
However, no students had been to rural areas of China. One student’s brother had previously participated in a service project in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region 宁夏回族自治州, another area of northwestern China that is so well and fully off any tourist trails that, on some maps, it is fully hidden under the legend. As such, this student had an idea of what to expect. In our pre-departure meetings, we discussed everything from political sensitivities to pit toilets, from conflicts over grazing areas and caterpillar fungus harvesting to strategies for warding off Tibetan mastiffs.
In any case, my haphazard trainings paid off: flare-ups of altitude sickness notwithstanding, the kids were generally fantastic throughout the trip. We visited a number of different places, a range of villages, towns, grasslands, snowy mountain passes, and pretty much everywhere in between. And despite certain difficulties – a spectacularly unprepared trip over a snowcovered pass comes to mind – things went off swimmingly.
My main regret, however, is that I didn’t have more time to spend with my (RG) students. It was fantastic to see the kids, but most of them were in Intensive Gaokao Buckle-Down-And-Study Mode, and were evidently distracted. I constantly think about this group, my first in RG, and their futures: how will they do on the test? What educational opportunities will be available? What will be the limitations placed upon them by their teachers and families? Who will be forced into an arranged marriage and not be allowed to finish schooling? Who will succeed in the Chinese educational system; who will stumble; who will make it abroad?
In truth, I shouldn’t be worrying about these kids and their future; they are remarkably resilient and self-sufficient, and have proven their ability to deal with adversity from a young age. However, as they prepare to go out into the viciously Hobbesian State of Nature that is modern Chinese society, I can only channel my inner Jewish mother and fret over details both large and small.
Ultimately, I need (temporary) closure with this group. This is not to say relationships will end; instead, I just need closure with the class before they head off to college. As such, I might be planning a trip back sometime this summer; stay tuned.
In the end, the group of students made it back to San Francisco – not just safe and sound, but amply excited about Qinghai and China and the amazing diversity of people and cultures and landscapes and experiences and environments and individuals (among other things) that exist within that massive nation. Fpr this, ultimately, was my goal: to get kids re-excited about China and about this region. For ten years, they had received a very specific version of China and Chinese culture in school. My goal was to reinvigorate their interest by showing them the country’s vast diversity. I believe (or at least hope) that I was successful.
The week after our return, the kids all made it clear to me that they wanted to go back. Hopefully I’ve managed to hook some of them on Qinghai, or at least on China. It seems that I’ve hooked quite a lot of them on two of my favorite Chinese beverages: XiangPiaoPiao 香飘飘 (a milk tea drink), and a sparkling peach juice called Future Peach 非常蜜桃. And at the very least, they’ll be going back to Qinghai to get another taste.
I’ll be following up with the kids with some initiatives to get involved in NGO work out in QH, as well as by making short videos. We’ll see what comes of it. But ultimately, I was able to go back to a place I consider a second home – this time, with kids in tow – and make something of it. And for that, I am grateful.