Teachers broaden cultural horizons with trip to China

By Sammy Roth

Twelve faculty members toured China during spring break, learning about Chinese history, air pollution, art and authoritarian rule, among other topics which they hope to incorporate into the Harvard-Westlake curriculum.

Accompanied by Dr. Yunxiang Yan, the co-director of UCLA’s Center for Chinese Studies, and a faculty group from John Thomas Dye School, the group toured for 10 days, visiting Beijing, Kunming, and Shanghai.

The trip was paid for entirely by Walter and Shirley Wang (Walter ’13), who also arranged for the dozen teachers to take a lecture series on China at UCLA, Head of School Dr. Jeanne Huybrechts said.

Director of Studies Dr. Deborah Dowling, who went on the trip, said that being guided by Yan added a unique element to her experience.

“Having as a tour guide the head of UCLA’s Center for Chinese Studies was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It was just extraordinary,” Dowling said. “To go around China just by yourself with a guidebook, you’d see lots of interesting things. But to go around with a world-renowned anthropologist, whose expertise is Chinese society, culture and history is just extraordinary, you learn so much.”

The other 11 faculty members, all of whom teach at the Middle School, said that they can apply much of what they learned in China in their classes.

History teacher Stephen Chan said that he will be able to use pictures he took on the trip next year in his seventh and eighth grade classes, and history teacher George Gaskin said that experiencing first-hand the social conditions in China will help him teach students about the implications of political upheavals in China.

“I am sure that the quality of my teaching on Chinese history will be significantly improved because of this trip,” Gaskin said. ”The history came alive to me on this trip, and it is my hope to pass that on to my students when we study Chinese history.”

Biology teacher Sandra Wolchok said she learned a great deal about what China is and is not doing to fight its widespread air pollution.Dowling too took note of the pollution, saying that it was impossible to ignore.

“It was absolutely shocking,” Dowling said. “The pollution was astoundingly bad. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Visual Arts teacher Katherine Palmer said that being seeing centuries of Chinese art gave her ideas for new projects for her students.

“As a teacher and an artist, the trip has given me a greater appreciation for the rich history of art and the hand-made artistry of China,” Palmer said.

English teacher Stephen Chae said that experiencing China will help him teach the book “Animal Farm,” much of which concerns totalitarian authority.

“At various points throughout the trip, it became even more apparent that China is a state-controlled nation,” Chae said.

Teachers also spent time as normal tourists, visiting the Great Wall of China and the Olympic Water Cube, and shopping. But for Dowling, these tourist attractions were much less interesting than discovering parts of Chinese society which challenged her assumptions about what is normal. For instance, she said, Chinese etiquette dictated that waiting in a line can involve pushing and shoving.

“There was no sense of rudeness or aggression or anger involved at all; that was just the etiquette,” she said.

Even more surprising were the toilets, which required that people bring their own toilet paper. But Dowling said that she did not consider these differences to be for the worse.

“They’re looking at things from a different perspective,” Dowling said. “They have different definitions of what is good and what is bad, and how things ought to be.”