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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine July/August 2004
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Teen Travel

Teen Travel in China

More Than a Spring Break, Trip Becomes a Mission

The author (center back) arranged a memorable trip to China for interested high school students.

The China trip did not disappoint. From the initial planning to safe arrival back at Reagan, we hit no snags aside from current events—skirting the Iraq war on the way over and the SARS virus on the way back. More than a spring break vacation, it felt as if we were on a mission to Beijing and Shanghai. And that mission was, quite simply, to become world citizens.

For my high school students, Ryan Flynn, T.J. Boyland, Ryan Farishian, Robbie Knouse, and for Robbie’s Aunt Ann and me, meeting the people was a top priority. We found a kindred spirit in Sheri Yi, president of Culture To Culture International (see below), the organization that facilitated our adventure. She arranged visits to a prep school like our own, a martial arts academy, a kindergarten, a recreation center, and a nursing home. At all these places we found the door wide open. They seemed to be as curious as we were.

Some of our times deserve special mention. The opera mixed mythology with screeching farce. The wushu school put on a show of hand-to-hand combat right out of Crouching Tiger. The Children’s Palace produced tiny musicians to mimic Mozart. The Forbidden City had 9000 rooms to see. The Mausoleum of Mao Zedong—what can you say except there he is in a crystal sarcophagus, the founder of the People’s Republic of China, lying down as if taking a nap.

Yu Yuan Gardens, a Ming Dynasty jewel in the heart of the city. . .tea ceremony in quiet harmony with dao. . . reception in the home of a local family, with our hostess stacking 40-fresh-cooked dishes on the lazy Susan.

Language study fascinated us too. We learned to get around and communicate at least the basics. Some of us got to the point where we could recognize distinctive characters on the billboards.

We played badminton in the park with locals (and got crushed), studied calligraphy with little kids and old masters, drove hard bargains with street vendors, made dumplings from scratch in a grandmother’s kitchen, cruised the mouth of the great river that divides China, and burned incense at the Jade Buddha temple.

We were fortunate to have guides who were willing to talk about anything that was on our minds—from the intrigues of Chinese politics to how to get the laundry done. With Charley Sun and Lili Xiao by our side, we really made sense of it all.

After only 11 days in the Middle Kingdom, we came away with the feeling that peace on earth depends on personal exchanges like these. And it’s heartening to know that the Chinese are just as excited about us. They say: “In America, even the moon is rounder.” With 1.3 billion friends like these, it could be the beginning of a very good century.

Organizing a Trip for Teens

Every trip begins with the question, “Where do I want to go?” Since I am a high school teacher, I have a pool of prospective fellow travelers sitting in front of me every day. The agreement is this: I will organize the trip for you; you cover my expenses. This time the answer to my question was. . .China.

I set out to find out all I could about where to go in this vast land—what to see, whom to meet. Guidebooks in libraries were a good resource, as was the Internet. I also talked with Chinese friends and the few Americans I knew who had actually been there. With the help of their suggestions, I compiled a list of where to go and what to do.

Next I got in touch with Culture To Culture International of Fairfax, VA. Sheri Yi, the president, was open to all my ideas, added a few of her own, and had the logistical knowledge and “can-do” attitude to make it work.

Sheri and I agreed upon a comprehensive package at a reasonable price, which included airfare, hotel reservations, tickets, transportation, and fees for such essentials as visa applications. All in-country expenses were covered except spending money and a few lunches.

I then made posters using Microsoft Word and downloaded a catchy picture of the Great Wall to put at the top. On the posters, I outlined the proposed agenda, with a short description of the reasons why each place on the list was “must-see.” I put the posters at strategic spots around the school and waited for students to come to me with inquiries. Once our group came together, I held classes in culture, history, geography, and basic Mandarin, so the students could better appreciate where they were going.

Spring break arrived and away we flew. About 18 hours later (including two layovers), our guide was waiting for us at the Beijing airport. He became our best friend and was particularly patient at the beginning as we recovered from the 13-hour time difference. The same red carpet was rolled out in Shanghai. All the details were taken care of by Culture To Culture, allowing us to glide effortlessly through the custom-made itinerary. And, of course, we came up with a few new ideas once we got there.

Contact: Culture To Culture International, Sheri Yi, President, 4157 Chain Bridge Rd., Fairfax, VA 22030; 301-254-8122; ctcinternational@bigplanet.com.

BILL MOHAN has been teaching Latin and Greek at Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, MD for 18 years and he is the Transitions Abroad Teen Travel Editor.