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"YingHua in Beijing" Honors Program Journal

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2/13/2006 - Beyond the Limai Mountains (Essay and Epilogue)

by Rachel & Lihong on 0000-00-00

Beyond the Limai Mountains
By Xie Rachel Kulikoff
February 13, 2006
I have never been a typical American kid. Now, I'm even less so--unless your definition of a "typical American kid" is a kid who has spent a semester in China.
Why would a kid like me want to study in China? First, I'm not "American" through and through. My mom is Chinese, and I have made many trips to China with her. Although many kids who grew up in America find China dirty and crowded, I have always loved the country and everything about it. I have enjoyed the time I spent with my Chinese family: my grandparents, aunt, uncle and cousin. Many of the places I have visited there are interesting and delightful: the Great Wall, the Fragrance Hills, where you can feed fish in a fish pond and watch peacocks fluff out their gigantic tail feathers, and Yuyuantan Park, where you can boat in the summer or skate in the winter.
When I heard about the Yinghua in Beijing Honors Program, where kids from the US go to Limai School, a private boarding school in Beijing, the capital of China, I was naturally curious. What are the Chinese kids like? Do two people have to share a room? What are the classes like? Will I be able to communicate with the students and teachers? How much will going to Limai improve my Chinese? I want to be able to speak, read and write like Chinese kids my age. I want to be truly bilingual. I want to make some friends in China. I was more than a little determined to attend Limai. My parents not only agreed but gave me help and support along the way.
My expectations of Limai were very high. For some reason, I believed that all the schools in China must be good, because China's students were pushed really hard to get into a good middle school, high school, and college. I had met a couple of kids who came from China to America to study for a while and admired their math skills and level of courtesy. A Chinese school might be the right place for me!
Then I visited Limai. WOW! What a humongous campus. When I walked in the gate, passing two security guards, it was like walking on a decent-sized college campus! There was so much space for just 800 kids! As I walked, I saw so many buildings, playgrounds all over, a gym, dorms, and other buildings that who knew were what? Am I ever going to be able to find my way around?
I wanted to say ��what a day�� about a million times after the first couple of days at Limai. Each dorm room, smaller than the bedroom that I have to myself at home, was shared by 6 girls, who were as wild as or wilder than all of my old classmates! We slept on "beds" that most Americans would not call "beds" for they were simply thin wooden boards with very thin pieces of bedding on top! Several times, one of my classmates" board fell, and she was stuck until the teacher pulled her out! In the dormitories, the storage space was very limited! Half of a cabinet and a small night table is all we have to put all our stuff, and we weren't even allowed to put anything on the night table except two cups, one for drinking water and one for brushing teeth. You would not recognize the 'bathrooms' either! Two "fancy" holes in the ground, without a door or curtain to separate them, make up part of the area. Two shower "heads" with water coming directly from the faucet and no curtain or wall in between, take up the rest of the space.
The classes . . . In my first Biology class, I had no idea what our teacher was talking about except when he said the English term "DNA." In Chinese classes, I had enough trouble with the modern Chinese works: too many characters were complete strangers to me, and some characters that I was acquainted with were used in ways that I didn't understand. The ancient texts were horrendously difficult. For example, my classmates were memorizing the Confucius texts at the beginning of the semester; I didn't even know their meanings until the end. In my first Geography class, we learned about longitude and latitude, but I would not have known that much if I didn't see the English in my Geography textbook. History was worse because of all these dynasties and emperors. When we learn American history in the States, we begin with the thirteen colonies; in some periods of China's history, one, three, sixteen, or over twenty different countries existed at the same time! I told my teacher once that if there was another lesson titled "bla bla bla de tong3 yi1" (the unification of . . .) or "bla bla bla de nong2 min2 qi3 yi4" (the peasant revolt of . . .), my head would explode. She laughed and said more would be coming. Even the least academic course, politics, gave me enough trouble: I didn't even know that "zheng4 zhi4" was politics the very first time, nor did I know "si1 xiang3 pin3 de2" was moral education.
I felt completely lost in that first biology class. I could understand only about 10 percent of my first Chinese class, which was a lot easier than the later ones. In fact, I felt hopeless in all classes except math. How can you learn when you can't even understand the teachers or read their handwriting on the blackboard? I felt discouraged and even miserable in the classroom at the beginning of the year. But as I kept working, things gradually became easier.
In Biology, I asked the teacher to tutor me and, after three sessions, I got a 92 on the midterm test. In Chinese, I looked many words up in dictionaries, read several lessons aloud repeatedly, even during recess, and spent hours writing the characters I was expected to master. We had character tests, and the first time I took the test, I got a 51. My teacher said that I had the option of retaking the test, but she didn't suggest it. I wrote many words repeatedly and got a well-deserved 93 on the retest. The second character test was on harder words. I first got a 42, and then I wrote until my hand hurt. It was worth it; I got a 98 the second time. I also memorized "Spring," a very famous Chinese essay by Zhu Ziqing: "Hoping against hope . . . The eastern winds blow, and Spring quickens her step . . . Everything appears as if they have just awakened, cheerfully opening their eyes . . ."
The only class that got harder was math. Earlier we worked on algebra and equations; then we moved on to word problems. I was never great at word problems even in the States, and now all the problems are in Chinese. Sometimes I have to read the problem several times, and it takes me about 3 minutes just to figure out which is more than which. The hardest questions are those involving speed and time. Sure there's a simple equation: time ' speed = distance traveled. However, we often have long problems, and they require more than one step. Luckily, we don't spend all our time on word problems.
Getting used to the busy schedule was a challenge too. In the summer, the bell drags us out of bed at 5:55, and we get ready in only 20 minutes. Next, we do a variety of morning exercises and run 400-800 meters around the track. After that grueling, strenuous beginning, we go to the classrooms for morning reading for about half an hour. Finally, an hour and a half after we get up, we have breakfast around 7:20.
We have eight forty-minute-long classes every day, five in the morning and three in the afternoon. Lunch is served at 12:05, and we rest afterwards. Prior to dinner, we have one period to "relax". Most people use that period to practice piano or go to the library. If time permits, you may also go to the gym to play badminton or ping-pong. After dinner we are required to shower: in winter once every other day and in summer every day. Finally, we have three self-study periods, each 45 minutes long. We go to bed at about 9:40.
Why am I doing all this? What is driving me to study at Limai? What am I gaining from it? Well, I don't completely know yet. I hope that I'll see more than just this partial picture by the time I leave Limai. The first lesson that we learned in our Chinese class was titled "Beyond the Mountains." It was about a little boy who wanted to see the ocean that was on the other side of tall mountains. The teacher explained that the story could be taken literally but it could also be taken in some different ways. You could take the mountains as hardships or difficulties and see the ocean as your goal. I think that studying at Limai is like starting to climb mountains . . .
Do you think I'll be able to see the bright majestic ocean?
Epilogue (Afterwords)
Lihong Xie
In lieu of Limai School's daily English homework for the winter break, we suggested to Rachel that she write a piece about her first semester at Limai and she agreed. This piece took several drafts and many hours to complete: Rachel spent seemingly countless hours to her at least drafting, revising, and rewriting, and the final draft is radically different from the first. Even the title has changed more than once, from "Summary of My First Semester at Limai" to "My Days at Limai" to "Welcome Aboard the Limai Express," to the final "Beyond the Limai Mountains." She came up with the last title at the very end of this long ordeal, to link it to the new ending she gave to the piece.

Allan and I have never been satisfied with the writing curriculum at the various public schools Rachel has attended. We feel that the schools do not emphasize basic writing skills, do not give enough writing assignments, and rarely send essays home. Too many teachers assign PowerPoint projects, which require minimal writing and encourage plagiarism (taking material directly from the Web and plunking it into their slides). We have both seen plenty of bad writing at the college level. We do not have the power to change the middle school writing curriculum, but we can try to push our own daughter to work hard at it.
Although it has been painful for Rachel to go through all these drafts, we hope that she has gained some insight into the writing process: it is difficult; it requires disciplined efforts; yet it is ultimately rewarding.

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