(Ex)Changing Places

China ExchangeYou by now know that the Parent Imperfect lives in the land of mixed feelings about the school that both Vince and Connie now attend. One thing I like about the nation’s oldest public school is the increasing realization that a great 21st century education must be a global education. One way this is happening is through increased attention to exchange programs designed to create real relationships between the school community and schools in other countries.

We just hosted an exchange student from Beijing, China in our home for a quick visit of a little over a week. This is part of a growing relationship between Boston Latin School and Public School #8 in Beijing. Before coming to Boston, the students spent a week visiting sites in DC, Philly and New York. In truth, I was the booster of this idea. I thought we would all enjoy and learn from getting to know someone from another country.

I’d love to post a lot of photos and personal info about our fascinating guest–a tenth grader at Public School #8–but her parents were quite clear with the school the didn’t want photos of their daughter sprinkled across the Internet. For that reason, let’s call her, Pei.

Pei lives a big apartment building in Beijing with her father and mother, who work for the government. Both parents are very busy with work, so Pei has had to be extremely independent from an early age. She spends much more time with her Mom than she does with Dad, though she missed them both very much on this trip.

Like all who go to her school, Pei worked very hard to prepare for the entrance exam that got her into P.S. #8, which one of three top high schools in her city of 20 million people. Like everyone else she knows, Pei is an only child, due to the government’s “one child” policy. This is changing, so women of her generation will have the option to have two children, if they so desire. Pei didn’t think that she would take advantage of the change.

For our guest, her time in Boston seemed like a vacation. At home, she arrives at school at 7AM and is there until 6PM. They have an optional day on Saturday, but no one wants to “get behind,” so almost everyone goes to school six days a week. The often get out “early” on Saturday…at about 4PM. Take into account the fact that her round trip travel to school is almost two hours, and you have a youth who doesn’t have a lot of time to worry about not having access to Facebook.

Pei was very friendly and easy to have as a guest. For different reasons, neither Vince, nor Connie was the perfect student for Pei to “shadow” in school, so she spent most of her time in school with a senior who volunteered to accompany her all week. She had three main comments about the education at BLS (the senior taking her around had 3 AP classes on her schedule).

First, Pei couldn’t believe the pace. She said she could never keep us with running to classes the way BLS students do all day, and it seemed to her that the school didn’t really want the students to eat lunch, so they gave them a lunch period that is impossible.

Next, she didn’t think the classes were that rigorous. The Calculus class (AP, I believe) was similar to her tenth grade math class the year before. She sat in on a couple of Mandarin classes and recommended that Connie choose another language to study.

Finally, she was amazed at how “creative” the BLS classes were. I tried to talk her away from this one, but she was very clear. Chinese classes were all about “Remember…remember…remember and then forget about it forever.” She was amazed and very drawn to the way that some of the BLS teachers wanted their students to think, rather than just remember. I wanted more detail about exactly what classes/teachers she was visiting.

Pei was very polite about everything in our house, and never complained about anything. Clearly, our food was very new and not that exciting for her. She was very excited to make some dumplings for us (and her) even though we didn’t really have the ingredients she wanted. Also, we probably heat our home less than her parents do. She never asked us to turn up the heat, but she spent a lot of time on the second floor, the warmest (or, maybe least cold) part of the house.

Our kids were very polite and interested in Pei, but were not quite ready for the adjustments required by having an exchange student in our home. We probably learned more about ourselves during the trip than Pei did.

China Exchange 2Pei seemed pretty uncomfortable with the feeling that she was imposing on us…especially the kids. On Friday, she gave us a scare when she fled the school on her own, not wanting to make the kids adjust their plans to help her get home. I’m not sure we’ve yet gotten the full story of how this happened. I was ready to call out the National Guard when Pei texted me from Roslindale Square. She had found her way home very well (with the help of the Charlie Card provided by the program), but hadn’t been able to signal the driver when she wanted to get off the bus at our street. Sensing my angst, she was profusely apologetic about having caused me stress. It’s true, I could only imagine telling the BLS people that we had lost our student, and had no idea how to find her.

We were told very clearly that we were to avoid political discussions with these kids. Her ears did perk up when she heard that I work at a human rights center, and I thought she was going to ask me about it. But she never asked me or Liz anything about our work, and she didn’t have a lot to say about her parents’ work, either. One time, she came to me as I was reading an article in the New Yorker about the emergence of Waldorf Schools as an option for China’s economic elite. I showed her the article and, after glancing at it a moment, she quickly concluded:

“Oh, these are foreigners coming to change China’s schools,” and she gave me the magazine back.

“I’m not sure,” said I, “I think that an Australian originally introduced the idea, but this is about schools run by Chinese.”

“No, I know these schools. They are foreigners.”


We hoped to be able to take Pei to a couple of museums on her last day with us, but she had other plans. Relatives had given her a long list of items that they wished her to buy for them here. Ironically, almost all of the items were manufactured in China. This did not phase Pei in the least.

“A foreign company makes them in China, then sends them to the U.S. Then the U.S. sends them back to China and they cost twice as much.”

And so it was that we spent out last day together running from mall store to mall store with our Chinese guest, in search of many imaginable, and several unimaginable, goods. The whole trip had been so packed that she hadn’t had any time to shop. The malls are probably every bit as much part of U.S. culture as the Science Museum, but it was not the part that I had hoped to have her see on that day.

When the time came for her early-morning departure to the airport, Pei was definitely ready to go. She was very gracious about how great it had been to stay with us, but she missed home. She had never spent such a long time away from her family, and she longed for something familiar (like some good Chinese food).

In theory, Connie and Vince are now eligible to be part of BLS trips to China. Not likely, but stranger things have surely happened.


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