Passing Notes
Written by: Mattie

There is no question that I am labeled as “the American” in my immersion classes. This distinction makes it hard to reach out to people; it doesn’t help that I sit in the back of the room. My view consists of a sea of white and blue uniforms with indistinguishable ponytails and crew cuts. At the end of the first week, I had just started to associate faces with seating arrangements. When I got to school the next morning, the transferring of papers and water bottles confirmed my fear: they were changing seats. Now the smart girl next to the window, and the basketball star sitting in front of me disappeared back into the ocean of uniforms. Yet again, I was the sailor who had lost her bearings at sea.

In the US, I am usually first to initiate social interactions. However in China, I am clueless as to  finding common interests with my classmates. Thus, I was planning on using my desk-mate, Samuel, as a harbor. Samuel resembles a puff pastry both in personality and physique.  He is one of those rare people who can hold a genuine smile at 7:25 am. This, coupled with the fact that he didn’t end up changing seats, meant that we became fast friends.

Everyday I heard stories from my American classmates about the various Chinese kids passing notes to them, and asking for their contact information. My friends would leave class bearing gifts that ranged from keychains, to globe-sized pillows. But still, everyday, I would walk down the stairs to morning exercises alone. I started to question the reasons why my American friends were socially progressing so much faster than I was. Were the kids in my class particularly shy, or was I giving off an intimidating vibe? I could be content without presents, as long as I achieved my secret goal: to get a note passed to me in class.

Then slowly, my classmates started approaching me. It started one day, when an eager boy came up to me, asking if I watched some American wrestling TV show. Desperate for interaction, I started fabricating an incredible fascination with watching sweaty bodies get pummeled to the ground. Just as I was getting into it, the bell rung for class to start. Then physics class brought an hour’s worth of incomprehensible Chinese lecture, that served as background noise for me to reflect upon my insincerity.

The next day, I had my second interaction with a student. A girl came up to me, and asked if I liked Jesse McCartney. This was the only time that I have ever been relieved to be versed in girly, American music. After class, the students started leaking into the corridors, and with her by my side, I navigated the stream of bodies with ease; we belted out “Beautiful Soul” all the way to morning exercises.

Then today, the Jesse McCartney girl passed me my first note. I was contemplating keeping it for my sentimental box, when I decided that would be too creepy, and I regretfully sent my reply on the reverse-side. Even though I no longer had the physical evidence, I was able to mentally check off my secret goal.

I never would have thought that little interactions like these could bring me so much happiness. It has made me reconsider how we, in the US, treat our exchange students. Why is it that we expect all foreigners to be proficient in English, when people here are astounded by my smattering of Chinese? Does being a nation of different cultures rationalize our unreasonably high language expectations for these people like me? This exchange has brought me new perspective on being the outsider. Whether or not we admit it, we all have secret goals. On return to the US, maybe I can check off somebody else’s secret goals, like people here have done for me. Because I can now empathize with the BHS exchange students, I’ll try to pass on to them this feeling of being special in a foreign place, just like the Jesse McCartney girl passed my my first note.

The World of Chinese Education
Written by: Abigail

The teacher walks into the room.  As soon as they’re situated at the large gray metal desk up front they say, “上课.[1]”  Upon hearing those two softly spoken words all seventy students in the room stand up. “老师好[2]” they say, slowly bowing their heads and upper bodies. “请坐[3]” the teacher says, satisfied with this display of respect; class has now begun.

The teacher, wasting no time, jumps right in to the day’s lesson.  I zone in and out during the class.  An American like me, used to class discussion and teacher-student interaction, would never be able to maintain focus.  The students’ hands remain on their pens; questions are never asked and opinions are never given.  Their mouths only open when a desk mate’s clarification is needed or the teacher asks them to recite an answer.  Clarification is asked for under their breath, answers are given reluctantly.

Occasionally I’ll look up to see a classmate close his or her eyes for longer than a blink.  They must have been up late last night, I think to myself.  Their homework is never ending and high pressure tests are given each month.  It is this pressure cooker school system that causes the students to pay such careful attention, but the side-effect is class time slumber.  After going to school for eleven hours, the students must go home and complete hours more of homework.  Getting far less than eight hours of sleep, they wake up to do the same thing the next day.

While I zone out in my immersion classes, I cannot help but think of how very fortunate I am to attend school in Brookine.  I’m at school each day from 7:30 until 2:45 and it’s very rare that Brookline High School’s classes are entirely lecture based.  During science we do labs, in history we discuss our opinions, and in math we work in groups to solve problems.  I remember hearing Cindy’s reactions to classes at BHS throughout the fall.  She came home one day and said that in history she and her classmates “argued” with the teacher; debating, she said, was hard, but fun.  She told my family that she had never done such a thing in China.  She would always discuss her science labs with my mom and her history papers with my dad; these were new sorts of challenging assignments for her.  She told me that classes in Brookline are very different than in Xi’an.  Her descriptions of Chinese education were similar to what I’d been told by other classmates I’d had who came from China.  Cindy’s education in China is very different than mine in America on the most fundamental basis: her school is preparing her for a different world than I’m being prepared for at BHS.

I got a glimpse of this world on our first day of school.  Xiaolan showed us pictures of successful students displayed in the entryway.  These students had received high marks on the Gao Kao exam, allowing them to attend top schools.  I’m not going to argue with these results, the students did well because school prepared them.  The thing is neither of our worlds will be filling in boxes on a test.  From what I’ve seen so far, I think that the Chinese education system makes expert students, as long as they never have to think out of these boxes they’ve been prepared for.    BHS, however, prepares me for a world of asking your own questions.  Cindy and I will both enter the same world; it’s a world that requires both skills.  Because each of our educations has stressed a different aspect, we’ll enter on a level playing field.  We’ll have to work together to solve the world’s problems.

Some would say that the students at the Gao Xin School are smarter than us.  I would not argue with these people; the students here do know far more.  I have no idea what is being discussed in Math or Physics class because they are at least a year ahead.  Smartness, though, comes in all shapes and sizes.  Students at the Gao Xin School are being prepared to answer questions, while we in Brookline are being prepared to ask them.  When it comes down to it, the world will need us both.

[1] Class begins

[2] Good morning teacher

[3] Sit down

Privilege and Learning to Spell It
Written by: Celia

On the first day of class I spelt privilege wrong. The teacher had asked me to help her. I could hear everyone shifting to face me, their desks groaning. My head snapped up, it felt full of cotton. P-r-i- wait e or i- no. Uh. I attempted to write in the air, vaguely gesturing. The teacher just stared at me. Okay here goes, ‘p-r-e-v-e-l-e-g-e’. My voice trailed off on the last e, sounding tinny and far away. Looking at it on the board in big blocky letters, I knew it was wrong. Way wrong. Nothing should have that many e’s! The mechanical voice of a hand held translator cut thick through my panic. ‘Privilege- pri-vi-lege’. The translator wielding student quietly corrected me, chalk squeaking as he blotted out my failed attempt. I slunk lower in my desk and felt my cheeks flame red.

It was ironic of course, that I couldn’t spell the very thing I’m in possession of. That I sit in a class, blinking away sleep from my eyes, while my desk-mate tells me that she slept a grand total of three hours the past night. ‘Do you have this much work in America?’ I fumble. But the collective ‘oohs’ when I announce that I end school at 2:45 at home shake me further. I spend a handful of minutes in the morning trying desperately to catch the words scratched on chalkboards, and held in the mouths of students as they read aloud from their books. Then I leave, and they stay there. For hours. Later my classmates go home and work for hours more. I wear their uniform but I am not truly a part of Gaoxin. I’m looking in from the outside and it’s painfully obvious. Obvious in the way they can all tell that I don’t belong. That I’m a commodity.

And it becomes even harder to remind myself how to spell privilege, because how am I meant to remember when they are all looking at me? They want my phone number, my QQ number, little bits of me. What’s your favorite movie, snack, what kind of boys do you like? The questions range from innocuous to uncomfortably personal. I can’t breathe and no one seems to mind, because they practiced their english phrases and have found their desks again, clapping each other on the back. They don’t see me as a person, someone who might be a friend, but only as a walking talking native english speaker.  Someone to compare to their american t.v shows, and general pop culture knowledge. I have to actively remind myself that I am privileged to be here. In this very room, halfway across the world, experiencing things I will never forget. That I can in fact trade my privacy in exchange for four months of a new life.

We make and pass judgements every day. It’s how we survive. I make judgements as I inspect street food, or count the seconds flickering away before I cross the street.  And as much as we’d all like to ignore it, we pass judgements on people as well. It’s not a malicious or even conscious action. So, should I be this offended that I can just see my class mates judgements, perhaps more clearly then I am accustomed to? Yet it feels strange, to be broken down to a country. To a set of beliefs that condemn or glorify a whole sprawling mass of people, hingeing on whether I like Gossip Girl or not. When I speak, I can feel them sizing me up, aligning me with what they believe an american teenager to be. Pressing me into a mold, and surprised when I don’t always fit. Anything I say becomes a statement that reflects on my American peers, rather then an off-hand comment about my embarrassing love of One Direction. I struggle to realize that I am acting in the same way towards them. That I often see a classmate’s interest as a common chinese interest, rather then the view of one person. It’s difficult to interact with my chinese peers and not take that moment and spin it into opinion. In the same way that they come to conclusions about me, I return towards them. In some ways it is the easiest thing to do, we do it without thinking. It serves to make us feel as if we have a tighter grasp on our surroundings, that we can compartmentalize and code into rhyme and reason. It’s less scary to see many as one, but also less rewarding. We gloss over the idiosyncrasies and the traits that make us who we are.

Still, I’m learning that when the girl across from me gives me a clementine, she’s not handing America a part of her lunch. She’s giving it to the sixteen year old exchange student whose stomach is growling during their lessons. That the only way to fight off my fear of judgement, is to act as Celia. The girl first and the bit of rock and water second. Privilege can come and go in mysterious ways. I’m gaining the appreciation for my own education, the wealth of opportunities afforded me in a place far from home, and the chance to really learn who I am.  I will never truly be a Gaoxin student, not all the way. But at least I can be a person, rather then a country. Someone aware of the things they have been gifted, and willing to take a bit of discomfort. Willing to look past the stares and see potential friendships. We can all forget how to write privilege sometimes, but the remembering serves to make us more mindful of the things we take for granted.

Your Inner Squishy Ball
Written by: Maya

The terminal smelled like a mix of smoke and putrid bathroom air. We still had over an hour until our train left the station to begin a 14 hour trip transporting us to our host families in Xi’an. Nine huge suitcases were stuffed in the aisle between our seats, forcing our legs to be cramped in uncomfortable positions. Anticipation gnawed at my stomach. I knew I should be excited, but our destination and the people waiting seemed like an impending doom.  As the arrival to Xi’an drew nearer, my homesickness seemed to be waxing rather than waning. I was afraid that it would cause me to clam up when I met my host family.  This, in addition to having to restart school, left me exhausted and emotionally drained.

Being pulled in so many directions made my stomach hurt. I yearned for a distraction: something to steer my mind away from the path to anxiety and confusion.  Then I noticed an old man shuffling down our aisle, his raspy voice calling out prices in the same rhythm used by peanut-sellers at baseball games. In his outstretched hand he held a small ball with two big painted eyes and stubby rubber limbs swaying and dangling around helplessly in air. At the notice of our interest, the old man hurried over to us and continued with his demonstration. He placed a shabby box at his feet.  Inside we saw dozens of identical gel-like balls of numerous colors, their eyes peeking up as they wobbled back and forth . Next, he pulled out a big piece of cardboard and squatted down next to his box. Taking the ball, he kneaded it in his hand, raised his arm up in the air, then chucked the ball at the cardboard.  We jumped at the loud slap of the collision, and stared at the splat stuck to the surface with two eyes still looking up at us. There was a moment of shock.  Then, the slurping sound quickly regained our attention.  We watched as the gel pancake slowly retracted into its original ball shape, then rolled happily around on the cardboard. The old man was a kid in a sandbox- his eyes aglow and in complete fascination with the sparkly toys that surrounded him.  When finished, he looked up at us expectantly and pointed to the “3云” (50 cents) painted on the front of the box. I jumped up and stuck my hands in to dig through for the perfect squishy ball, but pulled back immediately at the touch of cold, gooey slime. However, I was awed to find my hands were not wet and icky like I had anticipated. I was glad to pay the 50 cents for some source of entertainment, especially if it didn’t entail getting my hands dirty. Once we chose our desired squishy balls, the man carried on and the tune of his call was eventually drowned out by the hubbub in the station.

For the next half an hour, we whipped our squishy balls as if they were baseballs on different surfaces at different angles, laughing crazily at each splat.  Heads turned and watched, some amused and some annoyed, at our childish behavior.  It wasn’t until I had calmed down that I realized that at some point during the whole process, I had forgotten all about the cramped quarters and the nauseating smells. I had forgotten about the stress-induced stomachache (but instead had one from laughing so hard). In the span of five minutes I had gone from anxious and defeated to incredibly elated. All it took was a purple squishy ball.

Looking back, the simplicity that made me so happy seems silly now, but the message from the experience remains clear. During the next few months in China, situations and feelings will change in the blink of an eye. Next thing I know, I could be chucked face first into a terrifying challenge. The only thing to do is to find my inner squishy ball and embrace it: to be flexible even when I feel stretched to my thinnest, and after a rough beating, be strong and bounce back.


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