- Student Life
During the Winter Break, advanced students enrolled in Florida Prep’s Mandarin language program traveled to China for a unique and unforgettable cultural experience guided by chaperones from our Academy. As part of this life-changing tour, our students saw the major metropolises of Beijing, Chengdu, Deyang, and Chongqing where they visited some magnificent sites of cultural significance and scholarly interest.
Our American travelers were surprised by the quality and scale of urban life in China. “It was surprising to see how clean all the cities in China were in contrast to New York and DC, for example. Beijing and Chengdu were very clean. There was practically no air pollution,” said 8th-grader Izán Caballero. “If you look out it’s just building after building and it's all skyscrapers. The scale of building feels a lot more dense than in the United States cities I have seen,” said Xiomara Caballero (9th grade). “At the same time,” she added, “their cities are full of greenery. In New York, you don't see trees everywhere in the middle of the urban spaces in the same way you do in Chongqing, for example. You don't have to go to a big park in Chinese cities to see trees all around.” She was also impressed by the efficiencies of urban life in China. “Even though there was a lot of traffic, it moved, unlike traffic in New York and around Virginia, where traffic can feel like it stands still. In the cities, there were so many buildings in just one small area,” she said.
The trip included stops at a number of academic institutions including Peking University and Chongqing University, as well as four of Florida Prep’s partner high schools throughout the country. For the 8th-grader Izán, this was one of the highlights of the trip. “I liked visiting our partner schools. They were very cool. Their facilities are very modern and impressive.” For Nick Kronman, a 12th-grader, this was the best part of the experience because of what he learned about culture and society in China by visiting these schools. He said, “My favorite part of visiting China was the involvement with our sister schools, and all of the wonderful people there. We got to experience the condensed highlights of their academic day. We were formally presented a handful of cultural immersion experiences in things such as calligraphy writing and traditional tea-making ceremonies. On a student-to-student basis, sitting in and watching Chinese high school classes really opened my eyes to the different level of dedication and expectations from that of high schools in the US. It was impressive to see the students work so hard to uphold a different standard.”
The itinerary on this incomparable voyage included visits to significant UNESCO World Heritage Sites, among them: the Great Wall; the Forbidden City; the Dazu Rock Carvings in Chongqing; and the museums and archeological sites at Sanxingdui near Chengdu. Our group was not to be deterred when they arrived in Beijing in December to be confronted with winter weather that brought some record low temperatures. “It was freezing in Beijing. When we went to the Great Wall, it was -1 degrees Fahrenheit and it felt like the wind could blow you off the Wall. It was very much a shock for us Florida students,” said Izán Caballero. In the estimation of Xiomara, the 9th grader, the cold contributed to making the experience even more impressive. She said, “My favorite part was going up to the Great Wall. It was a great view from there. Even though it was freezing—it was something like -1 degrees Fahrenheit—I had a fun experience. They had the stations where soldiers would stand guard. Within those stations they had windows and the views out from there were absolutely stunning. I've heard that in the summertime there are so many people at the Great Wall that it's hard to see anything. I'm really glad I got to go in the winter, even though it was so cold, because we got to see so much.”
For Xiomara, the opportunity to witness Ancient Chinese culture firsthand proved continuously astonishing. She recalled, “We went to this museum called Sanxingdui where they are doing excavations of the ancient Su kingdom. It's hard to describe how many artifacts there were in this museum. It was room after room of pottery, masks, weapons... The sheer number of pieces was insane! We went to the building where they were restoring the artifacts and there were even more pieces there for us to see them restoring. I think one of the artifacts I found most impressive was a 13-foot tall bronze sculpture of a tree. There was also a bronze statue that was close to 10-feet tall that was quite memorable.”
In Chengdu, the group also visited the Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding where they were able to see up close some of the bears endemic to China that have become national symbols. “The panda reserve in Chengdu was definitely my favorite part of the experience. Pandas are cool. I like Pandas,” said Izán. At the base, our students were also able to interact closely with the very playful and so-called lesser panda. “The red pandas were more active, so you got to see them more.”
The journey proved expansive for our American students’ worldview and it also challenged some of their cultural assumptions. Kronman said, “It was surprising to me how incredibly welcoming China was to foreigners. Before going to China I had a very optimistic and open view, but people warned me about things such as xenophobia, and a general distaste towards Americans. I experienced none of this, and people were nothing but kind and, if anything, excited to see an American.” His firsthand experience also instilled in him a positive outlook. He added, “When visiting the elementary section of our partner school in Chengdu, the children were beyond thrilled to sit and listen to us speak. Seeing this kind of openness from the youth makes me very excited about the future of American and Chinese relations.”
The intensive and immersive nature of the trip meant the experience was not without its difficulties. Xiomara said, “The trip was fairly exhausting. We woke up early the whole time we were on the trip and went to bed fairly late most days. We had so much to do on our itinerary, so we didn't get much sleep most of the time we were there and were pretty tired. And the jet lag certainly didn't help! We still had a lot of fun, though!”
In addition to the logistical hardships of keeping up with a busy schedule traveling around China, the experience confronted some of our students with an eye-opening and humbling sense of displacement. Kronman said, “It was hard to bridge the gap between cultural and language differences. Despite my fair command of Mandarin and my advanced standing in classes here in the US, I found that to keep up at a native level was beyond the books. I was more than capable at simple introductions and could uphold myself to be alone in a major city. Conversations with fellow high schoolers and their teachers, however, were challenging and motivated me to study more.” Despite the sense of disorientation, Kronman expressed gratitude for his travels in China and for the ability to develop a deeper appreciation for Chinese culture and national pride. “From firsthand experience, I learned that people in China are passionate about upholding their cultural traditions. By contrast, when looking towards the US, I feel traditions are not as strongly carried and pride in one's country can feel frustratingly politicized. Despite the significant difference in the political situation, it was remarkable to see the scale of their patriotism.”
We are delighted by the success of this experiential trip to China and the opportunities our students had to learn about Chinese culture firsthand. No doubt their views of the world have been forever and radically altered by the incomparable, once-in-a-lifetime chance they had to tour abroad with knowledgeable chaperones from the Academy.