Sunday, February 24, 2008

Entry Two: Getting to Jinhua

I brought my luggage downstairs with what I thought was 2 hours to spare, hoping to catch breakfast before my long train ride to Jinhua. Unfortunately, I had set my watch wrong, and was unknowingly running late. I saw the clock on the wall, quickly checked out and rushed into a taxi.

Twice on the ride my driver traveled opposite of the sign that had a train station logo on it. I was nervous, but thankfully he got me there. The train station in Shanghai felt much larger than even Union Station in D.C., and much more difficult to navigate.

Two men in blue uniforms unloaded my luggage from the taxi and took me to a booth. They insisted I pay 300 yuan, or about 43 dollars, as a fee to carry my luggage to the train. I thought that was a bit expensive and tried to refuse, but then the man in the booth pointed and said something very matter-of-factly. The only word he said that I understood was howchur, or train, and he was using directional words as well. I think his point was that I didn’t have a clue where my train was and I had better cough up the money. So I did, and I am glad. My train was N429, and no signs for my train existed until I got to the train itself. We ran up and down stairs, around corners; I was glad they were leading me, despite the price.

Finally I found myself in a train seat, sitting next to someone roughly my age and who was sleeping. The train ride was over 4 hours long, almost 5. By hour 3 I was really hungry, having missed breakfast, and then a man with a cart rolled by selling things. I successfully purchased a bowl of noodles and some water, all in Chinese. That was a relief on a few different levels.

The scenery was interesting, but it all seemed to blend together. Everywhere there was housing, but also there was agriculture stuffed in every inch that did not have a house on it. I saw cabbage patches planted under overpasses, and other vegetables growing next to dumpsters. In some locations the farmers took greater care to have clean crops, with terraces of planted items along hillsides. Construction was also everywhere to be seen, and I think I counted at least 15 coal fired plants within view of the railway.

When I arrived in Jinhua, people rushed onto the train as I was trying to pull me and my massive luggage off. Despite my desperate expression, people were not letting me by. Yet, they did not seem rude, as all were smiling at me and saying “hello.” What I would usually consider impolite was clearly a cultural difference, the first of many in the same vein that I would experience here. I began to push my way against the crowd, and finally a train security guard told people to let the foreigner through. Exhausted, I was off the train. Helen, who is basically my boss, picked me up, and off we went.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Entry One: Shanghai

I am happy to report that the flight, while grueling, was actually quite encouraging. I sat next to a middle aged Chinese woman and we talked for quite a while. My Chinese was better than her English (which isn’t a good thing), but we talked and talked with the aid of some books I brought with me; including a phrase book and a few picture dictionaries with Chinese characters. We used these books as a base for conversation for probably 2 hours. I learned that she is a pediatrician who was visiting her son in Chicago. While her trip was great, she was excited to get back to Shanghai and visit her parents. She preferred coffee to tea (a rare thing, except in the very West-friendly Shanghai), and thought it was great that I was a teacher.

I have discovered that with some patience my Chinese is not as bad as I had feared. I am not a strong speaker yet, but I know more of the language than the stewardesses on the flight, and helped my Chinese friend change her dinner, get the right drink, and stow away her luggage. I think I will make progress so long as I refuse to become shy and embrace the likelihood that I will make mistakes. After all, as the Chinese expression goes, failure is the mother of success!

My first experience upon arrival was to have the taxi ride of my life.

I had practiced on the plane how to ask the driver to take me straight to the hotel, as I was tired. Apparently I was clear enough, and he took the request to heart. We dodged and weaved through traffic, onto medians, and played a heart-thumping game of chicken with a blue truck.

The next day I walked around Shanghai, hoping to find my legs after sitting on a plane for so long. I came across a nice little shop that had coffee, and since they also had a picture menu, I was hooked. I sat alone and ate a bowl mushrooms with noodles and slowly savored a decent cup of coffee (that, mind you, I bought at an indecent price; coffee is still quite a treat in China.)

Outside the café window a Chinese couple was taking pictures in front of a new bridge, and with the Oriental Pearl TV Tower (one of the tallest) in the background. The couple appeared to be just returning from America, and quite proud of it. The woman, in her 60s, carried a bright green purse with a 7up logo. The man was wearing a D.A.R.E. windbreaker and a black hat displaying a bald eagle. Much like the city itself, they were doing everything possible to get noticed.

As I left the coffee shop, it struck me how eager the two tourists were to demonstrate they had been to America. As I walked around Shanghai I realized how in American products and advertising take center stage. Many here, and throughout China, consider access to American products as a sign of modernity and prosperity. As an American History teacher, this reminds me of how a young America once looked to Europe during our development.

Not quite recovered from the jet lag, my day ended quickly as I needed a rest. I was woken up a few hours later by deafening burst of fireworks, as the Chinese New Years Festival was in its grand finale. The sights were beautiful from my hotel window, but I couldn’t quite keep my eyes open long enough to see it all. It is a pity, this is such a beautiful city.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Can you guess what country in the world has the largest English speaking population?

The answer is… China.

Educators, administrators and community leaders in SAD 17, serving the Oxford Hills community of Maine, have recognized the increasing significance of Sino-American relations. One major question facing America today is: "How do we prepare our students for the rapidly emerging global environment that will be their world? Such a task is not easy, and requires thinking outside of the box… even outside of the country.

SAD 17 has thus developed a strong sister school relationship with Zhejiang Normal University Middle School in Jinhua, China. The program, under the initiative of social studies teacher Craig Blanchard, has benefited from the steadfast support and leadership of our high school, district and community leaders. In the past, both we and our partners in China have sent delegations of students and teachers to each other’s country and schools. Our next step creates a full semester teacher exchange program, so students in both countries can benefit from the instruction of a teacher from the other side of the planet.

That’s where I come in.

My name is Jason Long, and I am a history teacher at Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School. In 2005 I graduated from Bowdoin College and began my career as a teacher in our district. I am originally from Maine; in fact, parts of my family have lived around Portland for almost 200 years - the jetport was once our farm. While neither of my parents attended college, I nevertheless grew up in a home that valued education. It is this value that has given me every opportunity I have had so far.

I now find myself in Jinhua, China, the first teacher from our district to participate in this exchange. A teacher from our sister school, who goes by Max, is now teaching at Oxford Hills.

Each day I feel grateful to be here for this opportunity, and more and more fascinated by my experiences. There are some essential differences in the habits and culture of our daily lives, but I am most amazed by how fundamentally similar we are.

In the coming months I will, as clearly and honestly as I can, try to capture my experiences for your consideration back home. Feel free to comment and ask questions, as part of my purpose here is to try to bring China closer to you.