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photoLiberty Bell High School students John Sinclair and Patti Watson just returned home from studying in China.

Distance Learning
Exchange students home from China

The first three Liberty Bell High School students to study in China on a student exchange program say they have returned to the Methow Valley with new insights into Chinese culture.

Katherine Tannehill, 17, John Sinclair, 17, and Patti Watson, 16, attended Beijing Royal School, an English-language boarding school of 2,000 students located in the northern outskirts of Beijing. While they studied there, three Chinese students from Beijing Royal School - Jinjia Shi, Jiaying Teng and David Na - attended Liberty Bell, the first Chinese students to do so. (read about them in our previous story here >>)

Though the local students from a rural high school of just 175 students faced formidable culture shock, they described their experience as highly worthwhile and say they hope to return to China.

“China is in the news almost any day and is growing rapidly. Being able to possibly communicate with China and understand a bit of what life is like in the country is fantastic to me,” said Tannehill. “I would just like to encourage anyone else who gets an opportunity like this to jump at the chance.”

photoEveline Wathen teaches Chinese at Liberty Bell High School and coordinates the Chinese exchange student program with Bejing Royal School.

The most apparent shock was the sheer number of people, the students told Grist. They were as astounded by the number of people on the streets of Beijing as their Chinese counterparts were by the lack of people on the streets of Twisp and Winthrop.

They quickly learned that Chinese don’t require the same personal space as Americans. They became accustomed to having people standing very close during conversations, they said, and they learned not to expect strangers to speak to one another on the street.

Watson said it was a new experience for her to realize she could pass 8,000 people on the street and “none of them cared about me at all…I really missed being recognized and supported.”

And while the Chinese students marveled at the Methow Valley’s clear skies, the Liberty Bell students were impressed by the scale of China’s air pollution. They took a five-hour bullet train ride westward across rural farmland communities to Xi’an. “It was polluted the entire time,” said Sinclair, with visibility about 100 feet. “At first I thought it was fog.”

“We did have some clear skies, two or three days, after rain,” added Watson.

Watson and Tannehill both said they were surprised by how “modern” Beijing is. China became an industrial nation very rapidly in just four decades, Sinclair noted, “And they left a lot of people in the dust.”

The Chinese seem “more family oriented” than Americans, said Sinclair, who added wistfully: “I really liked the food. It was delicious.”

photoKatherine Tannehill was one of the three exchange students who attended Beijing Royal School, an English language boarding school in the northern outskirts of Beijing.

“I loved being able to take the subway anywhere I wanted,” Tannehill recalled. “I was so independent and didn’t have to tell anyone what I was doing all the time.”

The most striking cultural difference he observed was the absence of American-style individualism, Sinclair said, citing as an example Beijing’s massive uniform housing developments where “the buildings are all the same.”

“We felt so safe there,” added Sinclair. “Even walking around at 4 o’clock in the morning I’d never worry about getting mugged… There’s a massive police presence but they don’t do anything,” he added, mostly because crime typically is limited to petty theft.

Their school day began with breakfast at 7 a.m. There was time off for lunch and dinner, but some days they were in class until 9 p.m. “American education is less lecture-based and more interactive,” said Watson. Typically they spent two more hours per day in class than they do at Liberty Bell, she said.

photoOne of the posters made by first year Chinese language students at Liberty Bell High School. The exchange students are in their third year of Chinese language study and felt they were competent enough to manage basic survival while in China.

The classes were taught in English by teachers from the English-speaking nations. Their Chinese classmates were sent to the school by parents who want them to have a good grounding in English so they can qualify for entrance to American universities, according to Eveline Wathen, who heads Liberty Bell’s Chinese language program. The Liberty Bell students also had Chinese language instruction while at the school.

Typically the Chinese students were striving to be “the perfect student - diligent, respectful, quiet,” said Watson. “For me it was hard to make friends,” she added, attributing that partly to the Chinese students’ intense focus on their studies.

The Liberty Bell students, who are in their third year of Chinese language study, say they feel “competent, not fluent,” in Chinese at this point. If they were alone on a street in China, they’re confident they know enough to manage basic survival, they say.

But they’re quick to point out that mastering just basic Chinese reading and writing means recognizing 50,000 characters in a language that has more than 400,000, not to mention having a keen enough ear to distinguish differing meanings in verbal tone.

Even so, Watson says, “I studied both Spanish and Chinese and Chinese is easier for me.”  She hopes to get a degree in English literature and plans to continue studying Chinese in college.  Sinclair, a musician and composer, plans to graduate from Liberty Bell a year early and study music. Tannehill said she expects to attend college but has not decided what she’ll study.

Liberty Bell exchange students pay for their plane tickets and food at the school but lodging and tuition are free under the reciprocal student exchange agreement between the Beijing Royal School and the Methow Valley School District.


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