U.S. Presidential Scholars Student Leaders Exchange
by Emma Townley-Smith
2012 YoungArts Winner in Writing and U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts
This summer, I had the opportunity to attend an exchange program led by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. The Committee selected twelve U.S. Presidential Scholars by application for their leadership skills and for their potential to learn and grow from the experience of cultural exchange and education. Through a series of meetings, sightseeing trips, and homestays with Chinese families, each scholar was able to gain some unique insight into Chinese culture and politics, and how these relate to the growing social, political, and economic ties between our two countries. Initially I wasn’t sure what to expect from our Student Leaders Exchange (SLE), but in light of the two weeks in Beijing, Changsha, and Xi’an, I consider my exposure to China to be one of the most formative of my educational experiences.
It was in the homestays with our Chinese families that I felt the most hesitant to venture out of my comfort zone. My host mother in Changsha spoke about as much English as I did Chinese, which, to be generous, was not much. As I stared out the window of their car, bringing me to their home for the first time, and watched the cranes, taxis, and omnipresent poplar trees go by, my host sibling and mother talked, and I understood nothing but my name weaving in and out of the conversation. I wasn’t sure what they knew about our schedule, or my allergies, and I longed for an opportunity to start the deep, cultural-exchange sort of conversations that I had perceived as being the most important part of the trip. As it was, we had a smartphone translator application and a few nouns. After some short introductions, we ate dinner in near silence, because we had already exhausted our limited vocabulary in each other’s languages. I worried about all the ways in which I might offend them without knowing – what I said, what I didn’t say, or the way I excused myself from the table. Most of all, I braced myself for disappointment, because I concluded that no real cultural exchange could come from a situation where we couldn’t even comment on our differences in experience.
Fortunately, connecting with people doesn’t have to be about sharing words. There can be a certain kindness and intimacy in feeding the turtles together, or in sharing an umbrella in an unexpected rain. We put so much emphasis on language and culture as our primary means of understanding each other, and I wrongly assumed that the disparity between us would leave us staring at each other blankly for the three days we shared. Forced to adapt, I learned to open myself to this community that welcomed me so kindly into their home, and into their country. I prepared dishes with my family, joined them for a walk by the river, and played piano duets with their daughter. In the evening, I had tea with my host mother, and though she could not explain the tradition in English, she poured tea over clay sculptures of animals and people and let the steam rise around us. “For you,” she said, and added a bird to the Buddha, frog, and person bathed in chamomile. On a field trip to the Yuelu Academy, a local woman saw how much I enjoyed playing with children, and gave me her baby boy to hold, reassuring him in my arms that I was another one of his sisters. We explored the renowned academy, learning about the Confucian principles that influenced its development, and I got as much from interacting with locals and tourists as I did from listening to the Song dynasty history lectures of our tour guide. On the last night, as my host mother and I watched shirts dance on clotheslines from the fourteenth floor window of the high-rise, I marveled at just how much at home I could feel on the other side of the world.
In Beijing, as representatives of top American students, we were given the opportunity to meet with Chinese government officials in ministries analogous to the U.S. Departments of State and Education. We were able to discuss the issues of U.S.-China exchange students, North Korean policy, education for migrant children, and pollution and environmental challenges, among others. Regardless of our own political views, listening to the full rationale behind some domestic and foreign policies helped explain their necessity in the eyes of the Chinese government. Understanding more about the internal challenges that China faces and the perception of this growing world power from the inside helped us to understand the logic behind current policy and, like in America, the slow and steady path to betterment that is aided by people like us.
We had plenty of opportunities to see Beijing, but what touched me most about our experience there was not the awe-inspiring sights of the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, or the Olympic stadium. Rather, it was when we walked out to our bus near Tian’anmen Square, and the flowing channels of tourists parted around figures sitting on the sidewalk. People with missing limbs and heavy burn scars camped on chairs, blankets, and the ground, warbling and asking, from beneath swollen eyelids, for help. Some of these people drew portraits or wrote people’s names in Chinese characters, taking care to create these objects of beauty inches above the damp concrete. They reminded me of the homeless that ride the city bus home with me from school each day, who sleep with their heads cushioned against the tinted glass. There is one man who asks all of the students to give him a high-five when they see him, because it brings him so much happiness, and another who misses the ‘60s, when it was still okay for him to be a shoeshine. This ever optimistic, human desire to improve their lives, compounded with our policy discussions in the ministries, made me realize the universal nature of the problems that we face at home and overseas. In China, these poverty-stricken people drew small crowds who were willing to give them a chance to share their talents. At home, though I see less public care, I know of multitudes of projects dedicated to occupying and housing these people so that they don’t have to take to the streets. Comparing the best elements of each situation, it becomes apparent that we have something to learn from each other, whether that manifests itself as philosophy on poverty, or a system that helps protect those that can’t avoid it. I have never been a politically oriented person, but seeing global parallels and talking to people who dedicate their lives to the infrastructure that guides ours has made me realize how important it is to be involved in a community, whether that is local, national, or international. It could be through policy, technology, education, or outreach. It is important, above all, to be aware of the possibility of making a difference, and I credit this trip with gifting me with that.
I found other parallels and surprises in my experiences with Chinese art. I was able to attend a concert by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra, see a traditional Chinese opera, view contemporary art galleries and exhibits, and enjoy multiple performances in music and dance by my Chinese peers. Though we may perceive Chinese art as different, with traditional styles of dance and music or instruments that are unfamiliar to Americans, we share in common a passion for excellence and in eliciting an emotional response from our audience. I saw more outdoor, interactive art pieces and landscapes in the Beijing visual arts district than I did when I visited similar places in San Francisco, but both places shared a movement toward experimental, ambiguous pieces made out of unusual materials or containing abstract patterns and blocks of color. Though the costumes and wooden clappers accompanying the opera were unfamiliar to me, the plot reminded me of Twelfth Night, and the absolute joy accompanying the curtain call was a feeling that could be shared by any American student in a play, at an art exhibition, or at a poetry reading.
In many ways, arts education suffers in China as it does in America -- an emphasis on math, science, and standardized test-taking skills in the education system can sometimes leave little time for students to pursue their interests in the arts and humanities. During a dialogue that I had with Chinese high school students, they were mystified by the idea that I attended a conservatory for creative writing, and that I dedicated much of my time in high school to improving my writing skills. In America, an arts background can contribute to students’ college applications and aid them in gaining admission to choice schools or conservatories. The Chinese college admissions system, however, is based purely on students’ scores on the gaokao, a test somewhat analogous to the SAT, but which covers more academic subjects, is more memorization-based, and almost completely dictates what educational opportunities are open to Chinese students depending on their score. Modifications to this test-based system may be negotiated in the future, because policymakers are aware that the gaokao is not a perfect system, but until then, arts education is being debated as much in China as it is at home. Though the debate is different because of the context of our different educational systems, I found it encouraging to see the recognition of parallel problems in the lives of our Chinese counterparts, and to remind myself that most young people have the same ultimate goals: do something we love, and to that end, find success, whether that means campaigning to change global affairs, achieving financial security, reaching artistic achievements, or some combination herein.
In Xi’an, our last city and homestay, we visited the famed Terracotta Warriors. I was expecting that the army and the detail and care with which each soldier was created would astonish me. It did, but what struck me more was the passion of our tour guide, who had previously worked in the government, but chose instead to teach people like us about China’s history. The delight with which he described the process of unearthing each statue with care and the reverence that he had for the still sealed tomb of the Qin emperor was contagious. The wonder on the tourists’ faces, many of them Chinese natives, was obvious. A writing teacher that I had used to joke that there are no heroes in America, because we are too ready to find flaws in everything and disregard our history. Being surrounded by the tide of determined stone faces and the passion of our tour guide, for whom reverence for history is such a large part of his everyday life, education, and moral expectations, was a refreshing experience.
I think everyone is skeptical at some level when told that a mere two-week trip will change their lives. I assumed that I would learn a little more about international relations, pocket a few stories to tell my family and friends, and take some pictures on the Great Wall. The Student Leaders Exchange was so much more than that. No history textbook can quite explain the hum of a dozen traditional Chinese yo-yos on a Saturday morning, the cascade of camera flashes in Tian’anmen Square after dark, or the quiet reverence with which some Chinese tourists wait, for hours on end, for a glimpse of the face of Mao Zedong in his mausoleum. The trip piqued my interests in politics, cultural studies, and the Chinese language in ways I never could have anticipated.
In its way, SLE impacts more than just a handful of American students and Chinese families. The students of both nations bring home a fresh perspective on our international relationship, which is shared in their families, classrooms, and communities. The trip may inspire them to keep in touch, form partnerships, seek internships, and find opportunities to build upon the connections that SLE helped establish for them. Several students who participated in our exchange this year expressed a desire to return to China during college, study Mandarin as their foreign language, or volunteer in educational programs that would help spread in the U.S. the insights we gained during our travels. On the whole, SLE is setting the stage for hundreds of small, person-to-person connections to grow into the strong and vital international partnerships that will be influencing our countries in years to come.
I owe so much to those who planned the trip and accompanied us to China, because they have given me more to explore, ponder, and namely, write about, than I ever could have asked for.