Monday, September 22, 2008

Back to School

Now summer fun is over and my son has started middle school. It's a new school popular for its academic focus. We were thrilled he was able to get into the school, but we didn't know how much studying he'd face since we'd become used to his "fun-filled" elementary school.

Now it's been three weeks, and I am totally surprised by the study load my son has been given and how many school rules he has to follow. Every day he comes home with a lot of homework. He has so many notebooks, folders and dividers from his classes and for his homework. They make his backpack so heavy that one day he wanted me to call the AP and ask if he could let students carry fewer books! The school is also very strict compared to his old school. Students can't be late for class and they must wear the school uniform. If they're late or don't wear their uniform, parents must meet with the AP. One day after he talked in class without raising his hand, his teacher asked him to write a 500-word essay about it. (This reminds me of how we used to write self-criticism essays when we were in school.) After only three weeks, they've taken tests for their subjects and parents were asked to sign on each test!

I'm not used to this at all. In the past five years, he just had too much fun at his elementary school. He didn't have much homework and never had to write so neatly. When he talked in class without raising his hand, he either got time-out or his behavior was ignored. He had no tests except the state-wide ones. I thought that was the standard of American education - fun, fun, and more fun, plus creativity! But now I see a totally different picture of American education, and this is in a public school in New York City!

I know it sounds a little bit like he's in school in China - study, study, and study! But I really feel that's how he can learn and grow. Today I asked him how he feels about his not-so-great grades on the tests. He said he thinks it's good to know where he stands and why he made those mistakes, and that he'll learn more and try his best to improve his grades next time. Wow, that's what I was looking for all these years in his education! I feel so relieved to know he understands the importance of learning and appreciates it. I'm also glad to see a public school like his focusing on teaching and learning!


Friday, September 19, 2008

Art and the Cultural Revolution

Before I went to see the Asia Society's exhibit "Art and China's Revolution," I didn't expect it would have much impact on me. I couldn't imagine that things from the Cultural Revolution period could be an art scene exhibited in the West.

But when I visited the exhibit this week, I was totally impressed with everything I saw. All those oil paintings were so familiar to me (they were the everyday scene during the Cultural Revolution), but I'd never seen the original paintings myself and didn't expect them to be so large and powerful! Besides oil paintings, there are posters, wood prints, sculptures, water color paintings, and more. Yes, the themes of these works of art are very revolutionary, but they are all art pieces that actually illustrate the period of time we experienced. I also saw the posters that were once on the streets, at schools and even in homes, the Mao pins each of us wore, the rice bowls, plates, and other household products we used, along with all things culture revolution. Together they reminded me of the era I grew up in and the ideology in which we were trained.

This exhibit may have shown the Cultural Revolution from a perspective new to many Westerners. Having grown up in that period - even though I learned Mao's quotations by heart every day, witnessed terrible scenes on the streets, and saw my Mom, who taught at Beijing University, separated from her family for about four years (I saw her only 12 days a year when she returned to Beijing from the countryside's unversity camp) - I still enjoyed my childhood, my school, my friends and whatever I did at that time. I believe I am who I am now partly because of what I experiened and learned in my childhood.

I don't mean that I want to go back to that period, but there is another side of the story Westerners may not know. Perhaps you can start with this exhibit. Please visit the exhibit if you're in the city; if not, you can see and learn about the show from Asia Society's website.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Go to China to see the future

I have been back in New York for a week. This is the first time that I don't feel excited to be back in this energetic city that I love. Usually, when I leave Beijing, I don't miss it much. Yet even though I haven't lived in Beijing for about 20 years, this time I really do miss it. I miss the excitement of the Olympics and Paralympics; I miss the Bird's Nest, the Water Cube, the National Theater; I miss the clean and wide streets; I miss the modern and smooth subways--all the things I don't see here in New York!

While I was searching for answers about my feelings for Beijing and New York, I read Thomas Friedman's Op-Ed "A Biblical Seven Years". Friedman put all those puzzles together and made such a powerful point when he said "... go to China to see the future." Then I read another blog "Beijing Diary", with the same message: "In many circles, China has moved beyond America and other countries, in looking forward to a future that combines the very best of East and West."

I would have never expected to feel about Beijing and New York the way I do now. For me, New York is a world class metropolitan city that hardly any other city in the world compares with. But now I am not so sure about this anymore. Look at Beijing's streets, subways, buildings - the city has transformed itself into a metropolitan city in a matter of years. Beijing has built six subway lines within seven years and two more lines will be completed by early next year. Contrast that to New York, whose negotiations for the second avenue subway line are still pending after more than ten years! Beijing's International Airport Terminal 3 - the world largest single building - welcomes travelers around world with its grand and contemporary architecture, but New York's La Guardia and JFK airports welcome travelers with "dumpy terminals" and bumpy roads. And it was only a few years ago, when Beijing's streets were dirty and dust was everywhere because of the ongoing construction. But now all streets (really literally all) are so clean and many narrow streets have been expanded to boulevards, some even decorated with beautiful flowers in between.

Of course, I know we cannot judge a city based on streets, architecture, or subway, there are many other important things that we should look at, such as the living standard, education, culture, housing, food, leisure, and more. However, I think Beijing has them all or are getting there at a rapid pace now. Beijing is not the same city as the one I grew up in, nor the one that I left about 20 years ago. It has became a modern metropolitan city that I can compare with even New York. Moreover, it has the grand ancient history and culture of the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, the Temple of Heaven, or the Peking Opera.

I know it remains to be seen if Beijing can live up to these new ideals and sustain the grandness, the cleanliness and efficiency now that the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games are over. I guess only time will tell.


Monday, September 15, 2008

Back to the Beach

Jeanette White is a freelance writer and editor living in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She and her husband are homeschooling two daughters who are adopted from China.

I thought long and hard about how to make Jie-Jie’s earliest memories of first grade special. In the end, we went to the beach.

For a week.

I wasn’t really that desperate to sell my kids on homeschooling. So far, they’re believers. It’s just that we waited way too long to reserve a yurt on Washington state’s coast, and the only time we could find an opening was—surprise!—the week everyone else went back to school.

The morning we packed to leave, I realized we weren’t actually playing hooky. Consider this exchange with 5-year-old Mei-Mei:

"Mom, how do you spell ‘today’?"


"T-O ... and then what?"


"D ... then what?"


"A ... and then what, Mama?"

"Y. What are you doing?"

"I'm going to keep a diary of our trip."

This would be a very long trip, I thought. Then I smiled. Her first diary! The week would be an extended field trip captured in Mei-Mei’s own words! Why hadn’t I thought of that?

Admittedly, I’d already planned some of the week’s education. I’ve nurtured the girls’ love of audio-books since they were very young, so during the drive we listened to stories told by a first-rate storyteller, Jim Weiss. The Jungle Book was the favorite this time.

I’d ransacked the public library and our bookshelves at home for field guides and kid-friendly titles about the ocean and Pacific Northwest rain forest. I tucked the books between their rolled-up sleeping bags and booster seats. Halfway to our destination, I checked “reading practice” off my mental list. That was taking care of itself.

My face lit up again when Jie-Jie and Mei-Mei requested the Geography Songs: Sing Around the World CD and then asked me to put their favorite tunes on repeat. (“Bagpipes, the Beatles and Big Ben are found in the British Isles ...”)

That evening, when I watched Jie-Jie’s face as she saw the ocean for the first time, any lingering concern about leaving the math books behind melted into the sunset. I was reminded that life’s best lessons don’t necessarily come in books marked “educational.”

It truly was a week of firsts, as the girls reminded me again and again. They spotted their first banana slug in the Quinault Rain Forest, plucked their first sand dollar from the shore, visited their first cranberry bog. They learned what it’s like to fall asleep to the sound of waves slapping the beach, and oh, they blew their first-ever bubble gum bubbles just south of Seattle. They’d want you to know that.

Already, I’m wondering if back-to-school should mean back-to-the-beach for our family next year.

Now we’re home, and my attention shifts to the stack of new school books that somehow looks even more enticing than before. Our package of art supplies has arrived in the mail, and my niece remembered to flood the Nile while we were gone, leaving the delta surprisingly green. Instead of watching spellbound as the sun sets over the ocean, I’m contemplating ways to convince my husband he’d enjoy mummifying a chicken for that ancient history project.

All the shining moments from our beach trip are captured in photos and our collective memory—which is a good thing, because Mei-Mei showed me her diary when we got home. On a single sheet of flowery stationery, she wrote: “Today I am going to the sea shore.”

On the next line, she wrote: “I am halfway to the sea shore.”

That is all. And that’s enough.

Read-Aloud of the Week:
Odysseus retold by Geraldine McCaughrean

Quote of the Week:
“How do you spell ‘Mommy loves me’?” – Mei-Mei, 5


Sunday, September 07, 2008

Beijing Olympics and Paralympics

The Beijing Olympics ended two weeks ago, but the Games are still the topic among the media and Beijing residents. We still can watch and read collections of the best performances, biographies or stories of Chinese athletes on TV and in the newspaper and magazines. Wherever you go, Beijing residents talk about the Olympics, what they've seen in person or on TV, which games and athletes they like most, and what they think the Bird's Nest and Water Cube should become after the Paralymics.

And the most talked-about is if Beijing should keep the traffic regulations enforced during the Olympics – drivers can drive only on the odd dates if their plates have odd numbers and vice-versa. People debate it on TV and radio, and send their text messages to all media considered. Of course, people without cars, which are the majority, prefer the regulation because it controls the unbearable traffic jams and keeps the air cleaner. People with cars have varying opinions: some are for the regulations, some are not. Some who disagree say they'd buy another car with a different plate number, so they can drive everyday. Then people worry this regulation would help keep many cars away from the streets if lots of people purchase two cars. People from all backgrounds try to voice their concerns and are curious to see if the Beijing government will make the final decision based on what most residents want. This decision will be made right before September 20th, the closing date of the Paralympics and the day the regulation was supposed to end.

The Paralympics started on Saturday, September 6th. Although the media shows everything about the Paralympics, it's business as usual on the streets and for people in Beijing, compared to the opening day of the Beijing Olympics. (That day, all offices were closed, all stores were closed at 3 p.m., and flights were grounded at noon.) When I told my friend I'd like to join her family to watch the opening ceremony, they even didn’t know that the Paralympics would open on Saturday. But when we watched them together, everyone was surprised, excited, and moved by the great performances. We all thought it was as great as the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. When the Paralympic flame was lighted, people were so excited to see the flame burning again.

The next day all the media showed things surrounding the opening ceremony. Director Zhang Yimou discussed his ideas and visions for this ceremony. People talk about it at home and on the streets. When I went to the Bank of China, I saw crowds of people buying the tickets for different games, and all tickets for events at the Bird's Nest and Water Cube were sold out. Now Beijing has another 11 exciting days to celebrate the Paralympic sports and spirit, which will be just as exciting as the 16 days of the Beijing Olympics.

You can learn more about the Paralympics at the official Paralympics site.

Read more about the Opening Ceremony of Paralympics (ChinaSprout will sell the DVD of Opening Ceremony of Paralymic shortly).

And you can watch some games live on or