CULTURAL EXPLORATION OF GREATER CHINA
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Feature Journey: Susan Kelly 2013
Susan Kelly, Issaquah, General, Grade 4, 2013
  • Journey Author
  • Tour Photos
  • Lesson Plan
  • Author: Susan Kelly
  • School: Issaquah,
  • Subject: General
  • Grade: 4
  • Trip Year: 2013
  • Email:
  • About the Author:
I’m Susan Kelly and I teach 4th grade in the Issaquah School District on the Plateau. I feel honored and privileged to have been selected to participate in this year’s CE Tour to China. Our district, and particularly our school, has a high number of Asian students (32%); also our 4th grade social studies curriculum includes learning about the cultural, political, and economic relationships between Washington State and other Pacific Rim countries. This travel opportunity will offer experiential learning so that I can both better relate to my Chinese students and their families, and also to teach more authentically about China and its part as an economic leader in Pacific NW trade and world economy. I’m so looking forward to exploring both the ancient Chinese antiquities and wonders, and the modern and exciting cities of Beijing and Shanghai and also Hong Kong. Meeting and touring some with host families will inform me about daily life in modern China—which my students will love to hear about!

Personally, I’m 24 years married to my husband and have two sons, one a college student, the other a senior in public high school. Though I lived in six states and also in Okinawa, Japan by the age of 10, both my husband and I grew up on the Eastside (of Seattle). We’ve traveled with our family around the U.S., and to Europe. Additionally, I love to read, cook, ski, exercise and hike.
A Lesson Plan or Equivalent can start with different forms. Susan had started with a Trip Reflection Document that also laid out her thoughts on the Lesson Plan. This document is also a very good summary of the 2013 trip.
EDU 5937—Self Evaluation-Post Greater China Travel
When I was awarded this fantastic “cultural exploration” tour opportunity to Greater China, I felt honored and deeply humbled. How fantastic to travel and learn with four other curious, open minded, compassionate and capable teachers to better understand historic and contemporary China, Taiwan and Hong Kong firsthand! What a wonderful and rich way to genuinely promote cultural awareness, tolerance, relevance and interrelationships in my school than to visit and experience the peoples and culture that share our Pacific Rim?

Extensive preliminary planning and research with the community-based non-profit Cultural Exploration (CE) of Greater China Foundation who sponsored us, assured us all of the objectives and expectations of the educational trip in assisting us American teachers to:

  • learn more about Greater China’s peoples, history, culture and environs so that we can teach our students more accurately, authentically and with confidence
  • develop a lesson plan to enrich and enhance curriculum related to China, Pacific Rim and Asia
  • inspire students to learn about China, Chinese culture and languag
  • have a better understanding of Americans with Chinese heritage

Our nearly three weeks of cultural exploration in Greater China clearly met our mutual learning goals, and surpassed my personal expectations in delightful and unanticipated ways! Our customized tour itinerary was designed to introduce us to both historic wonders and artifacts and contemporary sights and experiences as well. Under the tutelage of carefully chosen local guides and fellow (history) teacher enthusiast, we learned background information about the many dynasties and their legacies, related structures, palaces, pavilions, gardens, temples, and more. Visits to local artisans’ studios and galleries showed us traditional art and craftsmanship--we observed Chinese scroll and finger painters, paper cutters, embroiderers, ceramicists, and also a world renowned Taiwanese kite maker! We had personal arrangements to meet, dine and converse with local residents in many of the cities we visited (Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei). These authentic conversations included some about the ways people from different cultures think about and deal with their physical environment and social conditions. These verbal exchanges made for realistic learning and increased appreciation for the Chinese and Taiwanese peoples, cultures, traditions and customs, old and new.

Being immersed and living within a different and rich culture broadened my knowledge and insights; appreciating how Chinese culture shapes the Chinese people’s lives and society. I am moved to teach about and promote civic competence; fostering inquiry, analysis, collaboration, decision-making and problem-solving as the theme of multiculturalism appears across the curriculum. My goal is for my students to recognize the importance of cultural unity and diversity within and across groups of people (NCSS, 1994).

My “Day in the Life in China” social studies lesson has my fourth grade students viewing authentic photographs, videos, and realia (souvenirs, artifacts, etc.) to help them examine cultural elements from Greater China. Students will naturally consider and discern similarities and differences about various aspects of daily life in Greater China and the U.S. They’ll realize how different world cultures address similar human needs and concerns as they view aspects of the Chinese and Taiwanese people, food, music, education, transportation, recreation and more. Authentic firsthand photos, recordings (of music, dancing, birdsong, and more) and my personal testimonies will “bring my lesson(s) to life” and inspire my students to learn more about China, its peoples, language and culture. Additionally, during our Washington State economic studies, students will better understand the significance of interrelationships between Washington and other (Pacific Rim) countries.

This specific fourth grade lesson plan features two of the Ten Thematic Strands in Social Studies—culture and global connections. Learning about culture helps us to better understand ourselves, as both individuals and members of various groups, and also to understand multiple perspectives, so we can better relate to people in our nation and throughout the world. Study about global connections increases awareness about the important and diverse influences between world societies and teaches about interdependence and the significance of global understanding (NCSS, 1994). The study of both social components is very natural and developmentally appropriate for my group of culturally diverse students! Sharing about this special exploration in Greater China with my learners, and prompting realizations and similarities will have personal significance for my students with the learning that comes from increased multi-cultural awareness and travel. Ideally my students will also be inspired to become worldly life-long learners and travelers and be motivated to seek out, connect with, and consider multiple perspectives of other cultures in our dynamic global environment.

I believe my firsthand perspective, increased mindfulness, newfound relationships and knowledge about Chinese peoples, traditions, beliefs and customs, will also help me better relate to my many American born Chinese students and their families. My elementary school’s Asian population is about 32%; many of my students are of Chinese heritage and speak Chinese at home. My travels abroad taught and showed me some about how Chinese people live, eat, pray, educate, recreate, earn a living, care for family, transport, and more. I saw how proud, hard-working, polite, friendly and traditional the Chinese people are. I watched multi-generational families picnic and sight-see together. I witnessed numerous games of Chinese chess or mah-jongg between seniors being played; couples ballroom dancing to recorded music, singing alone or in special groups. I learned that traditions, superstitions, colors; including numbers, animals, Chinese zodiac, and much more, serve as expressions of culture and influence behavior of people living in Greater China. I saw how industrious and driven many of the Chinese people are. Visiting different schools in different cities showed me many similarities but also differences. Many China and U.S. schools both desire similar character traits in students that we both include in our missions and display in our school entries—honesty, integrity, perseverance, etc. At the elementary level we both value a varied academic curriculum including art, dance and drama. Differently are the mandatory exams at the middle and high school levels that often mandate the educational path of the Chinese or Taiwanese student. The opportunity for university or higher education is important to many Chinese, yet may not be accessible. Some told me why some Chinese or Taiwanese move to America. I saw examples of how experiences may be interpreted differently by people from diverse cultural perspectives and frames of reference. I also learned that many Chinese value the same things that I do!

Before my trip abroad, my exposure to China was largely what I heard or saw in the media, dated textbooks, the Internet, and some from my students of Chinese heritage. I visualized that arriving to Beijing, I’d immediately be immersed in a larger, more concentrated version of New York’s Times Square (how does one even conceptualize cities with more than 20 million people?). I expected a complete and total man-made sensory overload with intense heat, looming brown sky cover, enormous and unimaginable skyscrapers, colorful and overbearing assorted neon signage, crazy dangerous traffic, and “wall to wall” impersonal people pushing about hurriedly. I anticipated electronic communication to be minimal and monitored, that Chinese media would feature biased positive news and that in an effort to be industrious to survive and succeed, the Chinese people (Taiwanese to a lesser extent) would feel pressured to work and produce at the expense of joy, time with family, recreation and leisure.

Instead, I pleasantly discovered China to be different than what I imagined in many ways! I experienced an unforeseen and certain connection with nature and China’s people-- unexpected intimacy and charm--familiarity, closeness and understanding of sorts. We arrived in China at night and experienced traffic very similar to many American cities, including seeing large vehicles—Audis, Mercedes, BMWs and large Buicks. In the early morning following, as a fellow teacher and I went out from our hotel in our refurbished hutong area, our breaths were taken away and eyes widened as we were introduced to the “Greatness” of China! We heard birds singing their morning song, we saw wide clean alleyways with colorful and luring shop windows, mom-and-pop restaurants abound, and…nary a soul in sight. The beauty of the green trees, large and bright flowers, blue sky, birdsong, and attractive alleyscape with home entries and structures with traditional Chinese detail was overwhelming and filled me with an immediate sense of closeness and affection. Eventually our morning walk included residents or vendors arriving to their storefront riding trishaws loaded with their ware. We warmly exchanged smiles and “Zaos” (“Good Mornings”). This unexpected scene of nature, open boulevard space, cleanliness and tidiness; smiling, joyful, proud people, would continue as an unforeseen pleasure and delight throughout our trip in Greater China.

Though I didn’t have access to Facebook, I was able to communicate easily and immediately with my husband and sons back home via phone texts. At night I’d research about daily sights or about ideas or facts that came up during the travels and experiences of the day. Ipad access to the Internet was non-problematic in each of our hotel rooms, including the mainland. Daily newspapers, available in both Chinese and English versions, featured headlines similar to what I see in our U.S. newspapers—the discovery and discouragement of corruption and misuse of money and power amongst nation officials; and also about the dangers of “brain drain”—the possibility or likelihood of losing some of the nation’s scholars and intellects to other countries (America, in this case; to China, in our case!), if the country’s education and related businesses don’t work to better retain and support these academic citizens. At each popular scenic highlight in Beijing, Xian, Shanghai, Taipei and Hong Kong, we saw foreign and local tourists with their families. Most sights were on spotless expansive grounds with articulately and beautifully designed gardens and landscapes; many with pretty natural or man-made lakes with attractive arched bridges and assorted boats. Much of the natural beauty was enjoyed uninterrupted and without crowds. Even in much busier, more bustling Hong Kong, I found nature to be prevalent within the city; certainly out among the nearby plentiful islands. In downtown Kowloon Park in Hong Kong, I watched a woman sitting alone on a park bench singing with her sheet music, a mother playing with her toddlers near water’s edge, flamingos grouped together enjoying their morning wade, huge public swimming pools being readied for their next shift of swimmers. Again, unexpected nature and intimacy within Greater China!

Equally meaningful and significant were the special relationships we shared with the local residents that we met through the CE board. Though strangers to us, these Chinese and Taiwanese friends and acquaintances so strongly support CE’s mission to assist American teachers to teach more accurately and authentically about Greater China, they welcomed us with open arms, literally! We were treated so hospitably with delicious and lavish local specialty foods; open, honest conversations, heartfelt exchanges and invitations to return to visit. In Beijing we were generously hosted by a family that lives in both Beijing and Washington State, where their only child, a middle school daughter attends a private prep school in Tacoma. We enjoyed a large hotpot dinner in fashionable Houhai, with plates piled with paper thin slices of beef, pork, duck, lamb and more. Dialog about possible future government in China, the education systems in China and America, Daoism and Buddhism and more, made us feel very connected culturally and socially despite the distance between us. Following the extensive dinner we were treated to a nighttime boat ride with accompanying Chinese musician who serenaded us with her traditional Chinese seven-string zither. Definitely a charming, rich and memorable example of closeness, understanding and cultural unity.

In Taipei, we were spoiled by local friends of a CE leader, and very active in the arts and museum community. We were privileged to have a VIP tour of the National Palace Museum followed by a fancy lunch with a museum director at the adjacent Silks restaurant. Our group of nine was treated to a delicious multi-course meal featuring foods resembling some of the famous antiquities we saw in the museum, including the popular jadeite cabbage, soup served in a tureen similar to a bronze one, the life-like Meat-shaped stone and an assortment of hand shaped desserts displayed in a curios shelf. Conversation amongst us all was easy, natural, light-hearted and flowing.

The significance of the cultural connections for me with the local people and the physical environs within each city persuaded me to slightly alter my itinerary in Hong Kong. When I arrived on Day 16, I decided that instead of seeking out two planned temples in Kowloon, I would spend one day traveling out to the neighboring island of Cheung Chao. I took a leisurely, but crowded, local ferry boat about 10 km. to Cheung Chao, an old-time fishing village popular with locals and tourists, with swimming beaches and waterfront seafood restaurants. I walked on the beach, ate noodles and Taiwanese shave ice at a local family’s windsurfing café, visited the ancient Pak Tai Temple, and strolled through the many alleyways with mom-and-pop shops and foodstuffs. Walking, watching, and smelling, listening, and tasting — celebrating a different kind of Hong Kong, was just the personal and sensorial experience I was seeking for my last day in Greater China.

This special CE cultural trip was truly amazing and an exploration on many counts; my suggested alterations are minimal. More time at the awesome National Palace Museum in Taipei, to more fully enjoy the marvels there—the porcelain, paintings, and more, would be worthy (probably skipping the visit to the National Academy of Educational Research in Taipei -- we learned much more about Taiwanese education from the teachers, directors or principals at the schools we visited, as we shared similar goals of smaller class sizes and more!)

Overall, the customized tour was well organized and designed to best meet CE’s goals. Many of Greater China’s ancient history and contemporary sights were showcased, and balanced with opportunities to meet and interact with locals and also to have a little bit of time on our own. We especially value the personal relationships we developed with the locals-both the families and school contacts. A huge kudos to CE for affording our travel by van with personal guides, thus providing us with a very different and more relevant cultural tour than if we were corralled and limited by a commercial tour. We appreciated being able to freely talk about what we were seeing and experiencing and also adding stops if feasible (the National People’s Congress building near Tiananmen, the Confucius Temple in Shanghai, etc.). We also preferred dining at small local restaurants to taste native specialties. Both the cultural exploration tour experience and the supportive relationships I developed with my fellow traveling teachers will forever positively influence my teaching, curriculum and relationships with my students, families and colleagues. Appealing to my heart, my head, and my soul, this extraordinary experience will extend well beyond the classroom for many years ahead!