When Westfield High world-history teachers Suzanne Funesti, Tom Sakole and Katie La Pointe tell their students what China is like, their knowledge is firsthand. They recently spent a month there via a Fulbright exchange program.
"I saw life in a place that was so different from my own," said La Pointe. "It was such a powerful experience. My classes are going to benefit, and so will I — for the rest of my life."
School Principal Dale Rumberger sent the teachers not just to learn about Chinese culture but, said Sakole, "to learn about their educational practices and teach them about ours."
They took a tape showing Westfield's academic programs, labs and extracurricular activities "to give a feel for a true, American high school," said Sakole. They visited three universities, three high schools and two elementaries and discovered that Chinese schools are regimented and have no extracurricular activities.
"I met a 22-year-old college girl who was concert-pianist-caliber," said Sakole. "I asked when she had time to practice, and she said Sunday, between 5-7 p.m. — that was her free time," said Sakole. "In universities, their goal is to go to grad school abroad because of the opportunities of Western culture."
And the push toward achievement starts in elementary school. "If you're the best student in class, you sit at the front of the room; if you're the worst, you sit way at the back," said Sakole. "At back-to-school night, parents sit in their children's seats," added Funesti. "It's meant to embarrass the parents so their kids will perform better."
She said parents have to buy the textbooks, but they do it willingly because they know that's how their children will succeed. One day, the three teachers were outside a high school where students were taking a national exam at the end of their high-school career to determine if they'd go to college.
"Hundreds of parents were waiting outside to see how their children did," said Funesti. There's tremendous pressure on them to succeed, she explained, because "the Chinese believe their children — especially their sons — will support them in their retirement. We talked to some kids afterward, and they said it was important to pass the test so they'd get good jobs."
"They hinge their entire lives on this test," said Sakole. "They told us some kids broke down and cried during it — the stress level was tremendous."
Money also plays a role in the quality of a Chinese student's education. "In wealthy neighborhoods, schools would have more things," said Funesti. "One elementary had an indoor swimming pool and unbelievable computer labs, and the parents subsidized the teachers' salaries."
In stark contrast was a rural elementary they visited in Xi' An, about 500 miles from Beijing. People there are farmers, and the school had mud floors, one bathroom and no heat. The 60 students sat on wooden boards at their desks. They had no books, and all their two teachers had was a blackboard — and two pieces of chalk a year.
The Westfield trio gave them pencils and paper, and candy to the children. The school and that area especially struck a chord with La Pointe.
"My favorite book is 'The Good Earth" by Pearl Buck — about a man's experiences in China in the early 20th century — and I'd visualized the entire thing," she said. "As I was looking out the window in Xi' An, I felt like I was in 'The Good Earth' — it was a magical feeling; nothing had changed. I saw farmers with their pointed hats, hoes and rudimentary farm tools."
In a country of 1.3 billion people, she explained, "More technology means less jobs, and unemployment leads to social unrest and government woes. So for Communist China, keeping hoes in people's hands is a better way of dealing with it. When we studied ancient China [this year at Westfield], I told the kids I felt like I'd visited ancient China."
And there's a real dichotomy about how America is viewed. "The Chinese government bashes the U.S. and believes it's destroying the world economy and is the cause of war," said Sakole. "But the Chinese people embrace our culture and want to emulate us; they'd come up and talk to us." Funesti said young people there weren't sarcastic or cynical, but were friendly and welcoming.
Sakole said most younger people knew English fairly well. But, said Funesti, "The village-school kids didn't know a word of English — not even 'hello.'" The teachers also visited a summer palace in Beijing, the Great Wall and an area of larger-than-lifesize, terra cotta soldiers sculpted in 32 B.C.
They went to a panda reserve in Chengdu, population 10 million, and to Buddhist, Daoist and Confucian temples. Sakole said Chinese food is better there: "I even ate duck brain and duck foot." However, he pronounced the tortoise-shell soup "disgusting."
Most of all, he said, being in China was a "life-altering experience. The deeper understanding of their culture opened my eyes to a side of China I never knew existed — the attitudes of the people, their views toward America and their burgeoning capitalistic spirit. I never equated these things with China." Also striking, said Sakole, is the huge population: "There are people everywhere."
Funesti appreciated their deep-rooted traditions and perseverance. "They have strong, cultural pride," she said. "Their cultural practices have been able to survive, despite all that's happened to them."
For example, she said, "Chairman Mao outlawed dancing. But now that he's gone, I saw elderly couples doing ballroom dancing in a park. It was so poignant to see that they — and dancing — had outlasted this idiot. So although the Communist government is still there, they're slowly letting the people get back to being Chinese."
Funesti said the trip also made her appreciate the U.S. more. "We were talked to by professors and principals, but we couldn't talk to teachers," she said. "That was too free."
La Pointe was thrilled for the opportunity to visit. "We all teach China as part of our curriculum. To have some real-life experience brings excitement and a whole, new level to our instruction. All of us were moved and touched in different ways."
She said China's evolving toward more open-minded and analytical thinking, where America seems to be moving toward more rote memorization and testing. Said La Pointe: "It's interesting to see how each country's trying to find a balance between the two."
The experience also gave her a new perspective on freedom and order. With 1.3 billion people, she said, the Chinese believe, "If people there had individual rights, there'd be chaos and no one would be safe. Is it right? I don't know. It's a moral dilemma I can give to my students to grapple with."
"There's complexity to life — not everything is black or white or has a right answer," continued La Pointe. "I'm very conservative. I believe strongly in the principles of our Constitution and in the principles of liberty and freedom. But after being there awhile, I could also see the validity of their arguments."