My name is Elizabeth M., and I have been in INTL’s* Chinese immersion program for ten years. As part of the program, the school organizes exchange trips to China every two years. This year, in 8th grade, I participated in the exchange trip to a boarding school in YunNan, China. INTL’s Chinese immersion program has enabled me to have experiences beyond the normal tourist encounters.
When we arrived at the boarding school, the students and teachers of the boarding school greeted us. Students from nearby classrooms bravely shouted out the English phrases of “Hello” and “Welcome.” Their hospitality and friendliness amazed me, and I felt honored to be their guest. We soon met up with our twelve new “sisters” for the week. Throughout the week, they guided me around with unparalleled patience, answering all of my questions.
Elizabeth M., pictured with her new friends from China
During the week at the boarding school, we participated in classes with our new sisters. Classes at the boarding school were vastly different from classes at INTL. First, class size at the boarding school averaged 60 students, while class sizes at INTL average 15 students. I also noticed that the classes at the boarding school focused on memorization and repetition. For example, during morning English classes, the 60 students would recite the current vocabulary lesson in unison, multiple times. In contrast, classes at INTL often emphasize critical thinking and creativity. Finally, one of the most bizarre things I witnessed at the boarding school occurred during math class. The class had just taken a math exam in the morning. That afternoon, the teacher announced the grades one by one and had the students come forward to receive their tests. Then, the teacher demanded that the lowest scoring student pay the highest scoring student a few yuan, enough to buy three lunches. I was astounded when the student compliantly paid the money. Although there were many differences in teaching methods, I still enjoyed all of the classes I attended.
In addition to participating in classes, I also had the opportunity to teach English classes. I remember one day in particular; the English teacher asked my friend and me to visit another class to teach English. After a brief introduction, I was astonished when the English teacher left the room. I stood in front of 60 high school students, contemplating what I should do. I soon realized that the students lacked proper English pronunciation. My friend and I improvised a lesson plan of tongue twisters. After many laughs and tongues twisted, the students finally learned how to say, “Irish Wristwatch” and “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” I even learned a few new Chinese tongue twisters myself.
Outside the classroom, we became instant celebrities. We took pictures, filled in contact information, and signed autographs. The school’s students even bought us little gifts of pencils and notebooks.
As part of my studies at INTL, I learned about the Gao Kao. The Gao Kao is a national test for high school students in China, and it determines the university one is invited to attend. Although I was familiar with this concept, it was not until I visited the boarding school that I understood the gravity of this exam. When we arrived at the school on the first day, I noticed bold characters, three feet tall, proclaiming: “58 days until the Gao Kao.” In addition, a bulletin board in front of the main classroom building listed the top scores of the previous year’s exam. Also, by speaking with a couple of high school students, I learned of the enormous pressure to succeed on this evaluation. I had not realized how much of an impression this exam left on me until I reflected back on this moment. I do not remember what date we left the school. However, I do remember there were 52 days until the Gao Kao.
My experience in China was enriched because of my existing understanding of the Chinese language and culture. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to learn Chinese at INTL from a young age. I hope the insight I have gained from this year’s exchange trip will prepare me for a successful international career.
*In 2020, the International School of the Peninsula (ISTP) formally changed its name to Silicon Valley International School (INTL) to better reflect its bilingual programs, location, and international values.