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The schedule for Tuesday July 2nd included a visit to Public School 159 in Beijing, in the heart of Beijing’s financial district, the Chinese version of Wall Street.

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PS 159 is a magnet school of sorts. It attracts the best students in the region. In China, senior high school is not town-based. Rather, where you attend has to do with the zhongkao (“jong-cow”) exams taken after 9th grade.

China has a rigorous exam system designed to sift for the best, most promising, hardest-working students and push them forward. Scoring too low on the zhongkao will usually bar you from admission to an academic high school and instead push you toward a trade school, or a lower score can push you straight into the servile class.

The students at PS 159 are some of the best that Beijing, the capital of China, has to offer. It regularly competes with another school for the #1 ranking in the region.

This is nothing compared to the college entrance exams, called the gaokao (“gow-cow”). The gaoako’s are brutal. One exam which can determine the rest of your life. They’re so important that for blocks around the schools construction is stopped. “Random noise“, like honking, is prohibited.

Stories proliferate of students hooked up to IV’s of animo acids while cramming, or a one student who wasn’t told of her father’s death for 2 months, so as not to distract her from studies.

Consisting of sections of math, science, English and Chinese, the gaokao lasts nine hours over two days. Perhaps the most dreaded section is an 800-character essay that is supposed to test a student’s writing and thinking ability.

The essay questions range from the literary to the philosophical or even downright cryptic. On Chinese social media today, students from different provinces compared their prompts.

In Beijing, students were asked what Thomas Edison would think of mobile phones if he were alive today. – Salon

The roots of the gaokao are the Imperial exams of Confucius, that were supposed to level the playing field for rural students. Critics charge that the exams, which count for so much, are heavily weighted against rural students.

The New York Times states:

Nevermind that the odds are heavily against those students, since a quota system based on residency means it is much easier for applicants in cities like Beijing and Shanghai to get into universities there, which are generally considered the best in China. Peking University, among the most prestigious, does not release admission rates, but Mr. Zhong said on his television program that a student from Anhui Province had a one in 7,826 chance of getting into Peking University, while a student from Beijing had one in 190 odds, or 0.5 percent. (Harvard had a 5.9 percent acceptance rate this year.)

15 Facts about the Gaokao

We’re greeted by the principal (the Chinese equivalent of a superintendent in America) and given a tour of his school. It’s 6 stories, with an elevator.

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The foyer, with a tribute to an early leader in Chinese education

The foyer, with a tribute to an early leader in Chinese education

The super-awesome Psychology classroom, though half of American kids couldn't fit in them. The front of the classroom has stage lighting. In case anyone is a... you know... narcissist.

The super-awesome Psychology classroom, though half of American kids couldn’t fit in the desks. The front of the classroom has stage lighting. In case anyone is a… you know… narcissist.

Panorama of the gymnasium.

Panorama of the gymnasium.
Of note: this school is 13 years old with a gym that looks like it came from Hoosiers. Refer to Part 7 about construction and veneer. So much of the interior of the school looks like it was built in the 1950’s.

The natatorium

The natatorium

Ceremonial tea with the principal. On a 96 degree day.  And I'm wearing a sportcoat.

Ceremonial tea with the principal. On a 96 degree day.
And I’m wearing a sportcoat.

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Following the tour and the tea, we were offered the chance to eat lunch in the cafeteria with the faculty and some of the students. Putting myself in their shoes, I understand the reaction, but the faculty were looking at us like we were strange apparitions. We ended up eating by ourselves, the predominant reason presumably being the language barrier.

This is a Chinese school lunch. Yes, that is a block of rice. No, it wasn't horrible.

This is a Chinese school lunch. Yes, that is a block of rice. No, it wasn’t horrible.

After lunch came the part I’d been waiting for. I had an hour with a group of high school students. These students volunteered to give up some class time to meet with an interesting American teacher. Since they couldn’t find one, I did met with them. This group had all been to Wilkes University earlier in the year as part of an exchange program designed to help them make up their mind about pursuing studying in America. The trip began in California with students staying with host families for a week, then heading east.

Their English was very, very good.

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I had been warned that Chinese students can be shy, and they were. So we did some warm-up exercises, including syncopated hand claps to loosen everyone up. I began by asking them what they wanted to know from me and 20 heads all simultaneously looked at the floor.

Hoo boy.

I turned the tables, going student to student, asking them what they liked the most about being in America. And this was the spot that cemented something I’d intuited: there’s not much difference between us besides language. The answers were typically American teen. Many of them liked seeing the Wilkes-FDU basketball game. Lots them liked Disney. Many still kept in touch with their host families.

A running joke started when one boy said he liked his host family. I asked “why?”. He responded: “good looking daughter”. So anyone who mentioned the host family automatically got asked ‘cute boy?’ or ‘cute girl?’.

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The NBA is huge in China, primarily I’d guess due to Yao Ming’s time with the Houston Rockets. Whenever we encountered Chinese with limited English, we’d get asked where we were from. Answering America to a young man almost always got the response of “LeBron James!”. LeBron might be our most popular ambassador to China.

Ginormous Yao Ming billboard on Wangfujing Street in Beijing.

Ginormous Yao Ming billboard on Wangfujing Street in Beijing.

The kids were awesome. They wanted to know about life in America. Many of them were concerned about security, given the recent bombings in Boston and the constant crime news that’s part of our media culture. Part of what I told them was that the America seen on the news is not the America they’ll experience. Sure, there are bad people in every country and every culture. But most Americans are the same as most Chinese: kind, hospitable, and generally happy to share their country and their culture.

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Then they got to see The Video. In the first week of June, as the China schedule firmed up, I went around to a bunch of the juniors and taught them a greeting in Chinese that translated to “PS159, Pennsylvania welcomes you”.

Their projector system wouldn't work (somethings never change from country to country) so we wanted it on an iPad. However, we also gave them a Flash drive copy, which the principal wants to show in an assembly at the start of school next year.

Their projector system wouldn’t work (somethings never change from country to country) so we watched it on an iPad. However, we also gave them a Flash drive copy, which the principal wants to show in an assembly at the start of school next year.

It was a hit.

It was a hit. Also note the snazzy uniforms. They were a source of great school pride.

The PS 159 visit was set up by a woman who is in business helping Chinese families set up American educational experiences – either senior year in high school or college. She wanted to take us out to dinner on what was our second-to-last night in China.

We suggested something casual. ‘Casual’ to me meant ‘let’s go to a restaurant and order off a menu’, which was something we didn’t do in China with the exception of the ‘Italian’ restaurant in the hotel or KFC.

Casual to her meant renting an ornate private room at the Grand Hyatt and hosting another roundtable dinner. Our 5th.

This looks like a nice casual place. Just like TGIFriday's. Or not.

This looks like a nice casual place. Just like TGIFriday’s. Or not.

It’s not that these dinners aren’t impressive, but I’ve learned a lesson. What we assume is something wonderful about our nation’s culinary culture might be weird, or awful, to someone else. The lesson is: ask ahead. Don’t assume they’ll like it just because you do.

Our hostess ordered for everyone off the menu, as is the norm. We were told that all of the side dishes came with the main dish; supporting acts, if you will. Not speaking Chinese, we didn’t know what the main dish was, which wasn’t a problem because we didn’t know what most of the dishes were.

At this point in the trip – and if this sounds ungrateful, I apologize, it’s not meant to be – the food adventures were getting old. I wanted predictable. This dinner was not predictable – it was dish after dish of “I hope I can find a slice of pizza later”.

And then this arrived. It’s a “sea cucumber” served on a bed of tofu.

But it’s not a vegetable.

Note to consider: of the Americans on the trip, I’m the pickiest eater. However, I think I was a real trooper in China. I tried things that I never would have thought I’d put in my mouth.

This was a step too far.

I looked at Melanie, who’d flipped hers over to find the bottom was what I would kindly refer to as “hollowed out”. Also called eviscerated. Mike was cutting his apart and pushing it around. And Kerry just looked at me with a halting ‘uh-uh’.

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Sea “cucumber”. IT’S A SLUG!

It was some sort of sea-dwelling slug, and a line had been crossed.

Chicken cooked and served with the head still on, looking back at you? OK, if that’s how it’s done here. Peel and eat shrimp with the head and antennae still on? Sure, if that’s the custom. Random bits of unidentifiable stuff at the bottom of my soup bowl. Sure, I’ll just sip the broth and roll with it. Duck tongue? Eh, OK. My wife will eat it. But this? Nuh-uh.

What we didn’t know until our hostess suddenly jumped up and announced she was going to get her car was that this was the main course. As we gathered our things, the waitstaff began boxing up the slugs cucumbers. These were going home with our hostess because they were about $175 EACH. U.S.

Right. I’m sure we came off as ungrateful barbarians. Not every cultural bridge can be crossed at once

Moving on, we went to the Laoshe Teahouse for a variety performance. Each act was between 3 and 10 minutes with an MC introducing each. As it was all in Chinese, I didn’t understand a word of it. But as much of it was acted, I didn’t need language for a lot of it.

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After a musical performance worthy of Yoko Ono (the verdict on good or bad is up to the listener), a big dude came out and balanced flower pots on his head. And tossed them. With his head. And caught them. With his head. And spun them. With his head. Dude was awesome.

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There were a couple of comedians doing slapstick, a mock fight…

The Chinese version of the Wiggles....

The Chinese version of the Wiggles….

Then there was the amazing Chinese Sichuan opera face-changing. Two dancers wearing layers of masks. They change them by (apparently) snapping their heads fast enough that you can perceive the change, but cannot catch how it happened. Freaky and very, very cool.

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In 1994, former President George H.W. Bush visited Laoshe Teahouse, an event commemorated by a statue of him greeting the Teahouse founder.

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This is China.