Diane Fleming is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at Ferris State University, with 25 years experience teaching young children and adults. She was invited to write this article after sharing her China slides with a church group. She will present a workshop on Early Childhood Education in China at the Michigan Association for the Education of Young Children conference in April. She and her family live in Big Rapids.
In October, I was given the opportunity to lead a Child Development Delegation to China as part of the People to People Ambassadors Program started by President Eisenhower in an effort to promote peace and international understanding. The delegation consisted of school psychologists, an occupational therapist, a pediatrician and educators from across the United States. Information about children, educational systems and philosophies of child development were shared with our professional counterparts in Shanghai, Suzhou, Nanjing and Beijing.
I was invited to lead the group with two and a half weeks notice, and after rushing through the process of getting a passport, and a Chinese visa, I arrived in China with very few preconceptions about the country-I hadn't had time. I found China to be a land of contrasts. From my vantage place on our tour bus, I saw new Lexis cars and Chinese min-vans, with drivers talking on cell phones, while on the other side of the bus, I saw bike carts, female street sweepers using homemade brooms and vendors carrying their wares with shoulder yokes. Restaurant choices ranged from Kentucky Fried Chicken, MacDonald's and a Hard Rock Café to noodles being fried on the street corner, and baked sweet potatoes and roasted chestnuts for sale in small storefront homes. In the cities we drove by high-rise apartments and office buildings built within the last five years while in the countryside we saw water buffalo pulling hand plows and horse drawn wagons.
My first experience with China's crowds was in the midst of several hundred people surging forward to get through customs at the Shanghai airport. China's population of 1.2 billion people influenced our tour guide's size designations for the cities we visited. According to our guide, Beijing was a large city with 13 million people and Suzhou, with 300,000 people, was only a small city. We saw several large banners with the current population census displayed since the Chinese are very proud of their efforts to decrease the population.
The Child Development delegation met with professionals in elementary schools, day care centers, universities and teacher training institutes. We were also fortunate enough to meet with the Minister of Early Childhood Education for the country of China. During our professional meetings we received a very warm reception from the Chinese educators. The thing that surprised me about our professional meetings was the amount of time and patience it takes for questions and comments to be translated. Without translators that were familiar with our educational jargon, many of our comments literally got "lost in the translation". I hadn't anticipated how much perseverance it takes to ask a question, have it translated, get an answer, have it translated and then find out you haven't accurately communicated your question because the answer you received doesn't fit the question. We quickly learned to be specific with our words and include examples in order to decrease the communication barrier. I was also surprised to learn that our meanings of educational terminology are not universal, for example the term quality education means moral education to the Chinese.
One of the similarities of the educational system we observed in China was that educators were genuinely interested in learning about the latest advances in the field. As occurs in our country, the schools in cities had more advantages than rural schools. In both countries the current curriculum emphasis is on active learning by the students. Among the differences we observed was the fact that compulsory education in China is only nine years in length, kindergarten to grade nine. We observed more emphasis on dancing, musical instruction, creative arts and drama in schools than exists in the United States. In China there is a greater emphasis on moral qualities of children for the good of society than there is on individualism. The children, with their waves and shouts of hello (they learn English in the second grade), were definitely the highlight of the trip.
In addition to our professional visits, we saw performances of the Chinese opera, Chinese acrobatics and an orchestra of traditional Chinese instruments. We toured a silk carpet factory consisting of looms set up for the hand tying of silk knots. My purchased 2' by 3' all-silk rug with a traditional double dragon design (for happiness) took three months to tie and trim by hand. We visited a Ming dynasty tomb, Tienanmen Square and the Forbidden City. At Sun Yatsen's (the founder of Republican China) Mausoleum in Nanjing, we received stares from Chinese tourists who were seeing Americans for the first time. For me, our visit to the Great Wall was incredible, because it was a much steeper mountain climb than I had imagined and because the section we hiked up on was "recently" renovated 600 years ago after having been built in 500 B.C.
We ate many interesting and unidentified dishes with chopsticks of course. I found the flavor of garlic shoots and Lotus roots to be quite good, fish-eye soup to be very strong/fishy and Peking duck to be delicious. Sizzling Rice soup, Chinese dates, and boiled peanuts were all tasty and every meal ended with watermelon.
My two weeks in China were filled with wonderful learning experiences and I'm ready to return, even if I only have two and a half weeks notice again.