By Jessica Oates
Days after returning from their trip to China, a group of Robbinsville High School students already were dreaming of going back.
Traveling from Beijing to Xi’an to Shanghai, lessons came to life for students of Sue Kanagawa’s Chinese language classes and members of the school’s Chinese Culture club.
It was the first time that Robbinsville High School students had the opportunity to take the trip since 2008, the first time Kanagawa traveled to China with her students and the first year that the Chinese Language Program was offered at Robbinsville High School. She is from Beijing originally.
“In 2008, China hosted the Olympics, so I thought it would be an exciting time for my students to visit,” she said. “This year, so many of my students showed interest in traveling that I thought it might be time to go again.”
Kanagawa started planning for the trip in May 2013, helping her students and parent chaperones obtain the proper travel documentation and work out all the details of traveling with a group of 28.
It’s evident that the students and their parents will be forever grateful for the teacher’s hard work, dedication, and enthusiasm. Gathered around her classroom late one April evening, all were abuzz with tales from their adventure, eager to share their memories of the disparate land they just returned from.
The students started their tour on April 3 in Beijing, where they visited a local school and visited such sights as Tiananmen Square, Summer Palace and the Great Wall alongside their trusted guide, May, from the Explorica travel company.
At No. 166 Middle School, the students partnered up with Chinese students and spent the afternoon together.
“They were very friendly,” freshman Lindsay Whitcomb said.
Some of the students spoke fluent English while others had a more limited grasp of the language. Since most of the Robbinsville students speak elementary Chinese, this made for some creative conversation.
The biggest difference between their school and No. 166? The uniforms Chinese students are required to wear.
Probably the most awe-inspiring part of the trip was the trek to the Great Wall, which was even more impressive than the students imagined it would be.
“It was a long walk to the top,” senior Jolia Thadal said. “Almost two hours.”
“It was exhausting,” sophomore Sterling Aronson said.
Still, they all agreed that it was magnificent—and worth the effort.
“I will never forget how I felt when my phone rang at 3 a.m., and it was my son [Chris] calling to tell me that he was at the Great Wall of China. I was so moved that he was getting to have this experience,” Trish Heller said.
At the Temple of Heaven park in southern Beijing, students joined senior citizens in their morning exercises.
“It’s common for senior citizens to practice tai chi and dances in the park,” Kanagawa said. “They were excited to see the students and to teach them. We also played badminton together.”
But the Robbinsville crew still experienced its fair share of culture shock. The students traveled on an overnight sleeper train from Beijing to Xi’an, an experience that made waves with the students. The train had very small compartments, with hard beds and a distinct, not-too-pleasant smell.
Arrival was an adventure, too.
“When we got off the train in Xi’an, there was a group of people there handing us maps,” Thadal said. “I realized they were trying to distract us and take our train tickets. When I didn’t give mine up, the lady who had been trying to take it started slapping me as I walked away. But it made no sense—our tickets had already been used.”
Then, they grabbed breakfast at the only eatery in sight—KFC.
“Everything had corn on it,” junior Alexander Zoltanski said. “It wasn’t the same KFC that you’ll find in the US.”
Indeed, the trip was not without its challenges. The students quickly learned to take every opportunity they could to use a “western” style toilet. Once they left the hotels, they couldn’t be sure when they would find another.
Traffic proved to be another obstacle.
“When we first got to China, our tour guide May introduced herself to us on the bus,” freshman Christopher Heller said. “One of the first things she told us was that the traffic lights were just a suggestion. We soon saw that she wasn’t kidding.”
The students quickly became bargaining experts, practicing their negotiation skills in various shops around Beijing and Shanghai.
And they soon found out authentic Chinese food isn’t the same as the local take-out place in New Jersey. Freshman Dylan Scholl lays claim to having tried the most exotic dish—jellyfish.
“At our first meal in Shanghai, we went to a restaurant for lunch and we were very hungry,” Scholl said. “The waiter brought out a bunch of different food at once. There was something on the table that looked like noodles, so I took some. It wasn’t bad, but it turned out to be very crunchy. Eventually, our tour guide came over and told me I was eating jellyfish.”
The students enjoyed their favorite meal of the trip at Bianyifang, the oldest Peking roast duck restaurant in Beijing. It was founded in 1416 during the Ming Dynasty.
“The chef brought out the cooked duck and cut it in front of us,” senior Erica Brower said.
The dinners were all family style, and the restaurants would serve food continuously. It allowed the group to sample new dishes, like lotus flowers and lotus root.
Senior Shreya Muralidhara celebrated her 18th birthday while in Shanghai. Similar to the way that Americans celebrate their birthdays with cake, the Chinese celebrate with special noodles. The noodles are extremely long, based on the Chinese tradition of wishing the person a life as long as the noodles.
“They were so long, you couldn’t eat them with a spoon,” she said. “You had to use chopsticks.”
They also learned that each place specialized in certain products, like silk, jade or pearl.
“But I learned that they value these things for more than their material worth,” said Kanagawa’s daughter, Christina. “It seemed like the people related to them spiritually.”
The people in China treated the group with kindness, respect and a bit of curiosity.
“At least 63 people tried to take pictures of us, or with us,” Zoltanski said.
Most people there spoke enough English to understand the group, and there was always a helpful passerby who could assist in translating in circumstances where someone didn’t speak English.
Yet, the cultural differences are vast, as Kanagawa’s son Branford observed.
“I learned the difference from here and China is humongous,” he said. “We visited some families in different villages, and I realized life comes so easily for us here and in many ways we are lucky. In other places, it can be a struggle just to survive. I think after this trip I will have a more sincere appreciation for certain things in my life.”
The students had many reasons for wanting to take the trip, but the common denominator was a desire to learn.
“I thought it was cool to go away with people from my school who I didn’t know well and become friends with them,” Jessica Orlak said. “If I had gone away with people who were already my friends, I wouldn’t have spent time getting to know anyone else because I would have been too busy talking to them, and I would have missed out.”
Kanagawa said that she admired the way her students came together and supported each other throughout the trip.
“It’s not easy to travel so long on a plane and try so many new things,” she said. “I think all of the students grew up a little bit after this trip. And I couldn’t have done it without the parents.”
She also thanked her husband, Tim Kanagawa, for being a dedicated photographer throughout the trip and capturing what are sure to become some of the students’ fondest memories.