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Your Schools: Insights into people half way around the world

As I wrote about last month, spring break this year found me flying United Airlines for 14 hours to Shanghai, China, as a member of a week-long delegation from UW-River Falls.

Except for catching a flu bug on the plane headed to China that resulted in my confinement in a Shanghai hotel room for the first 40 hours of the trip, it was an unforgettable experience and one that I believe will pay dividends for both UWRF and the School District of River Falls.

Elsewhere in this week's newspaper is an article that tells about the 1+1+2 program being planned for the start of the 2013-14 school year.

In that program, second or third year Chinese college students from Zhejiang International Studies University (ZISU) who want to be elementary teachers in China will spend a year studying at UWRF to learn about American educational teaching strategies, as well as to improve their English skills.

These students will spend time weekly in our district's elementary classrooms to observe our teachers in action, assist students and teachers as needed, and help our students better understand Chinese culture and some basic phrases from the Mandarin language.

It's an exciting opportunity for our students to be engaged with college students from the other side of the world who don't look or speak like us, but who can help open our eyes to different cultures and ways of learning.

Several readers have asked me about my reactions to China, so I will use this week's column to highlight a few of my thoughts.

--Shanghai, China, where we began our trip, is an enormous city of over 27 million people. That city's population is greater than the entire population of Canada or Australia, and almost five times larger than the population of the entire state of Wisconsin.

Shanghai has thousands of skyscrapers, along with the famous downtown Shanghai Bund region that has been called the "world's architectural fair," with large-scale buildings and colorful lighting and signs, built in the styles of Gothic, Baroque, Roman, Classical, Modern, Renaissance, Chinese, and Western. I compared it to Las Vegas and New York's Times Square combined, only bigger and more glitzy.

--Hangzhou, China, home of the Zhejiang International Studies University (ZISU), has a population of 8.7 million, which is just under the population of Chicago plus all of Chicago's suburbs.

This is where our delegation spent most of the time, first celebrating 30 years of past partnering between ZISU and UWRF in the Experience China program, then signing an agreement to continue and expand partnering and exchange programs by the two universities, and finally followed by several meetings to work out the details of the next 1+1+2 program slated to start next fall.

--Both cities have breathtaking beauty and parks with pagodas and bridges and places for tai chi exercise and contemplation, and both have tremendous traffic and smog and pollution problems. Bullet trains between cities make travel across much of China easier -- the 120 mile train trip we took to get to Hangzhou from Shanghai took us less than an hour.

--China felt to me like a country of many contrasts and contradictions, were the very wealthy contrasted to the very poor and disabled beggars; communism and socialist policies, contrasted to rapidly growing consumerism and business entrepreneurship; city life in high rise apartment buildings, factories, and retail markets, contrasted to subsistence farming in the countryside; a plethora of tasty Chinese foods and sweets, contrasted with very little obesity in the Chinese people; single children of loving parents who honor, even hover over their child, contrasted to the government's restrictions on couples having multiple children; old Town and Silk Garment District shopping areas for buying authentic Chinese goods, contrasted with MacDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Starbucks Coffee seemingly everywhere for buying the western favorites of many Chinese; and university classrooms, where slates are sometimes still used by students, contrasted with the Smart Boards technology mounted on the Chinese classroom walls.

--Mandarin Chinese appeared to be universally spoken in the areas I visited and not the older and more traditional Cantonese.

There was less English fluency by the Chinese, including the ZISU students, than I had anticipated, since we often hear how far behind we are in the United States with learning other languages.

However, in another contrast, we visited an affluent International Foreign Language High School, where student fluency in three different languages seemed to be the norm, while my Mandarin speaking and understanding was woefully nonexistent.

--College students are universal the world over -- excited, passionate, talented, eager, industrious, friendly. The song, "You Raise Me Up," sung jointly by Chinese and American students to entertain the dignitaries at the celebration of the 30-year partnership of the two universities brought tears of joy to my eyes for the obvious bonds formed among students from opposite sides of the world.

It is very important for the future of our planet that we come to know and understand peoples of varying race, color, culture, creed, government, philosophy, and history.

--Chinese culture embraces tremendous respect for authority and the rank order of people based on age and careers. That included places at table, where glasses touch one another when toasting, positions in photographs, and who gives speeches and to whom.

--Seeing students from rural Wisconsin living and studying in Hangzhou, China, comfortably interacting with staff and students on the ZISU campus. Joint meetings of the deans and faculty members from Education Departments at UW-River Falls and ZISU that are 3,900 miles apart from one another yet both working to educate the best teachers possible for the 21st century.

Kind and welcoming Chinese hosts who were always looking out to meet their visitors' every need. And hundreds of other smaller interactions in tea rooms, market places, taxi cabs, hotel lobbies, and restaurants, all of which reminded me again of the song that has been running nonstop in my mind over the course of this academic year -- It'a A Small World After All!