Tidewater Traveler - November 2008
George W. Sellers
Six waiters are standing shoulder to shoulder about six feet from our table. One holds a pitcher of iced tea; another steadies a coffee carafe, cradling it with a towel. Two others are holding hot dishes destined for the lazy Susan in the center of our large round table; and the last two are prepared with extra glasses and silverware to be placed where needed. But the waitstaff is not serving; it is waiting – not waiting on us – just waiting. They are still; there is a reverence on their faces; their heads are slightly bowed as though waiting for someone to finish saying grace over the meal.
I am a little puzzled by their posture, because no one at our table is actively speaking a dinner blessing. Though we have not offered a group blessing over our meals, several individuals within the group have been comfortable enough to bow their heads and quietly give thanks; but no one is doing that at this time.
At the moment we are all cleaning our hands. At the orientation meeting before leaving for our China tour, I had suggested that packing a tiny container of Purell hand sanitizer might be a good idea, knowing that soap and paper towels may not be readily available in the public restrooms. It had become a group joke that every time we were seated for a meal all the ladies rushed to be the first to produce a bottle of hand cleaner and share it around the table. Each of us having received a small puddle of the substance, we are now in unison briskly and methodically rubbing our hands together, palm to palm, in front of us. Interlocking fingers, rolling one hand into the other, it takes half a minute or more of rubbing until the clear gel has evaporated, leaving clean, germ-free hands.
Ahaaaa! It has just occurred to me that the Chinese wait-staff has misinterpreted our group ritual of hand-cleaning to be some sort of religious practice. Others at the table apparently have the same realization. As the hand-rubbing stops, the waiters spring to action.
We all stifle laughter so as not to offend our hosts because they have displayed respect for our ways. We have just seen further evidence to dispel the misconception held by many that the Chinese people are cold and disrespectful.
After lunch our small group boards pedal rickshaws – pedicabs. A bumpy ride of about ten minutes and our young cyclist/cabbie pulls to the side of the street. He dismounts and beckons for us to step out onto the gravelly surface. To reach this point we have bounced through several narrow alleyways known locally as Hutongs. Each Hutong is bordered on both sides to the edge of the riding surface with gray stone walls, having glazed tile overhangs.
The driver gestures toward a gap in the wall on the right-hand side of the alley. I step over a twelve-inch-high threshold, brush past massive wooden gates and enter a large tile courtyard. Stepping beyond the drab perimeter wall, I am completely unprepared for what I see and hear.
My ears alert me first to playful yells and screams, and the slap of small sneaker-clad feet running haphazardly. It doesn’t take long to realize this is not a typical tourist stop. I am standing in the very midst of hundreds of brightly dressed elementary school children who are yelling, running, throwing balls, playing pat-a-cake. It is a mid-afternoon break. The children appear to be as young as kindergartners and as old as fifth- or sixth-graders.
Had I been given the opportunity to anticipate this visit, I might have envisioned miniature Mao-like school uniforms, olive green with red trim. Instead, the scene is filled with bright reds, yellows, blues and greens. Some of the children wear simple blue denim uniforms, but many are sporting gay, bright colors. Several are dressed in fashionable sweat suits. One of the older boys wears a Chicago Bulls NBA warm-up suit, and quite a few of the younger students exhibit Mickey Mouse on their chests. Care Bears sweatshirts seem popular among the kindergarten-sized set. I do not consider anyone to be poorly or shabbily dressed. Literally, every foot in the courtyard is wrapped in a Nike, a Reebok, or a very good clone.
In addition to the sneakers, every student in the courtyard is accessorized with a red neckerchief, the symbol of the Red Guard and a reminder to me --- George, this is not the Eastern Shore. But, nearly every face wears a smile. The students around me understand and speak English very well. I am equally excited by what I do not see. There is no pushing or shoving - no fights. I hear no back-talk or sass. Absent are second, third and fourth requests from teachers because of non-compliance. I see no bullying. I also realize that school children behave differently in the presence of visitors. But what I am seeing seems genuine – not staged.
With the simple ringing of a bell, the chaos of play snaps to silence and orderly lines form. A young lady with a hand-held microphone steps to a small stage and speaks a crisp, clear command in the Mandarin language – she says it once. I am clueless, but the masses respond in unison by re-forming from their tight class blocks to measured open ranks that fill the entire courtyard.
Then a boom box … patriotic music? Maybe … there are several unison claps, followed by a few measures of military-style marching in place; and then the routine takes a calisthenic flavor with stretches, bends and jumping jacks. In a row across the back of the courtyard teachers and staff also participate. Another voice command at the conclusion of the routine, and the “troops” return to tightly packed class units of about 25-30 students. Each block of students has a peer leader who shouts instructions and suggests minor realignments.
As the students file out of the courtyard to return to academics, I look into one of the classrooms adjacent to the courtyard. Though the temperature outside is near freezing, the classroom doors and windows stand open. About 25 desks face a chalkboard and teacher’s desk. Each student desk is draped with a neatly pressed, medium blue table cloth, and writing supplies are uniformly arranged on each desktop. Three steam radiators punctuate the far wall.
Walking back to my pedicab I realize that I have just witnessed a vivid illustration of modern China’s communist/capitalist hybrid. Not many years ago every student would have been issued a personal copy of Chairman Mao’s “Little Red Book”; no more; now, every student learns English beginning in their first year of school. Uniforms – no more – western styles abound. Communists? Yes. And don’t forget it. But some individual freedoms are permitted. I am encouraged because when freedom and individuality are tasted they will flourish and grow. Another misconception dispelled.
When I return to China in September 2009, I hope to visit this school again. Will you join me?
May all of your travels be happy and safe!
George Sellers is a Certified Travel Counselor and Accredited Cruise Counselor who operates the popular travel Web site and travel planning service SellersTravel.com. Comments or suggestions about Tidewater Traveler articles may be directed to George@SellersTravel.com.