Executive Perspective

First Impressions of China


He was smartly dressed in a starched linen shirt worn over a pair of finely creased shorts. He stood straight, with a confident expression and the slightest smile. He was at the door to the school and he stretched out his hand and said, “My name is Steven. Welcome to my school. I am very pleased to meet you.”

His English was perfect. I bent down, took his tiny hand in mine and acknowledged his greeting. “Hello Steven. My name is Dan and I am also very pleased to meet you.”

Dan DomenechDaniel A. Domenech

We were visiting the Jihong Primary School of Harbin, a 5,300-student school in this capital city in the Heilongjiang Province of China. This northernmost province borders with Russia and has a population of 38 million. I was visiting the school with a group of 25 AASA members as guests of the College Board and Hanban, a nonprofit education organization committed to provide Chinese language and culture to the world.

Steven is an 8-year-old pupil in 3rd grade. He explained to me he had learned English in Romania and was now attending Jihong Primary. He told me the school had three buildings containing 98 classes and another fully equipped building for art and physical education. He led me by the hand to the back of the building and the school yard, a cemented area approximately the size of a football field. There, my colleagues and I witnessed an incredible display of synchronized basketball dribbling by the entire 4th-grade class, all 700 of them.

Surprise Encounters
This was the fourth trip to China coordinated by the College Board on behalf of Hanban, which pays for all expenses with the exception of a $900 registration fee. Peter Negroni, a senior vice president with the College Board and a former superintendent, oversees the program. Earlier this year Peter had invited me to take an AASA contingent on the trip. Next year, probably the last week in June, we plan to take a group of 100.

This was my first trip to China and I went armed with information I had gleaned from people I knew had been there. For sure I was ready to do some serious shopping in the pearl and silk markets. I also was warned that eating would be an adventure. We all watched the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing as the television show hosts sampled the scorpions, beetles and other assorted crawly creatures regularly consumed there.

The information on the shopping and the food held up. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the hospitality and warmth of the Chinese people we encountered. I was predisposed to meet people who would be courteous but cold. I was planning to spend a week in a police state where, as guests, we would be carefully chaperoned as we were taken to see what they wanted us to see. I now have a very different impression of China.

The two major cities we visited, Beijing and Harbin, are thriving, modern, metropolitan areas, populated by millions of people, yet clean and orderly without the filth and oppressive quasi-military presence I have seen in many other huge cities around the world. As a group, we were free to come and go as we pleased, but our guides were available to assist as requested.

An Education Bridge
A touching moment caught many of us off guard in Harbin. Our tour guide there, a pleasant young man by the name of Eric (not his real name but the name he chose since none of us would be able to pronounce his Chinese names), regaled us with a poem and a song on the bus as we headed for the airport. The name of the poem was “Take Me to Your Heart,” and it expressed his wishes that, as we left him, we would take him with us in our hearts. An otherwise funny guy, Eric could not contain himself at the end of his song and began to cry. Like Eric, all of the people we met were warm and caring.

I was invited to attend a meeting with Madame Liu Yandong, the highest-ranking woman in the Chinese government. The Chinese minister of education reports to her. Madame Liu gave us an hour of her time during which she presented a sort of Chinese State of the Union address. We were impressed by her frankness. She made it clear she highly supports the Chinese Bridge program sponsored by Hanban and firmly believes education can bridge the cultural and language barriers between our two countries. While acknowledging the significant differences in our histories, values, styles of government and cultures, she believes as we better understand each other, those differences can be overcome to establish a collaborative and harmonious relationship.

This form of education diplomacy could serve as a model for us with other countries.

My hat is off to Peter Negroni and the College Board. What they are doing in China will have a significant impact on our relations with that country. China is an emerging world superpower. It is in our best interest to learn their language and to gain an understanding of their culture. For more information about the Chinese Bridge project, visit http://professionals.collegeboard.com/k-12/awards/chinese.

Dan Domenech is AASA executive director. E-mail: ddomenech@aasa.org