A Travellerspoint blog

Military Training and Foreign Visitors

My week without a host sister

In October, all of the grade 1 students attended Jun Xun, a week of mandatory military training. The foreign students were also invited to go at first, but the school later decided that it wouldn't be safe because an American student had gone in the past and gotten sick. That meant that I had a week at school with only the other foreign students, and a week at home with only my host parents.

Because the other students were gone, we dedicated the whole week to studying Chinese. Initially we were supposed to have Chinese class every morning and practical Chinese activities in the afternoon, but only Monday actually worked out that way because a group of about 40 students from a sister school in Denmark came to visit Changzhou from Tuesday through Friday, which changed our schedule completely.

On Monday, we spent the morning studying Chinese, and in the afternoon we had to find our way to three different banks to practice asking for directions and changing money from US dollars to Chinese RMB. Luckily, my classmate Eric and I were in charge of asking directions to and changing money at a comparatively small (though still huge) private bank, where the workers were happy to speak Chinese with is; another group was responsible for the much larger Bank of China, where the workers insisted on speaking English with them.

On Tuesday, our plans for the week were disrupted because the students from Denmark arrived. It was a lot of fun having them here because it was our first chance to spend time with students our age (since our Chinese classmates are all 14 or 15), and their visit also made us appreciate how lucky we are to be staying here for a whole year rather than only visiting for a few days. We have a truly unique opportunity to experience Chinese life, and I think we're all grateful for that.

On Wednesday, we drove two hours with the Danish students to Suzhou, a city known for its canals and its silk, sometimes referred to as the "Venice of China." We visited an area that seemed to be a combination of a tourist attraction and an actual town, because there were all sorts of museums and souvenir stores and a canal tour, some of which needed tickets to get into, but there were also people living and working there.



We also visited the "humble Administrator's Garden," one of the most famous gardens in China, and a silk factory, where we saw all the steps of silk-making, from the silkworm eggs to the process of making a handmade silk mattress, which we even got to try making ourselves. If all else fails, I at least have a fallback career as a silk mattress maker.

Humble Administrator's Garden

Humble Administrator's Garden




On Thursday, we went to the 8th annual China flower expo, which happened to be in Changzhou this year. I actually went twice, once with the students from Denmark on Thursday and once with my host mom on Sunday. The flower expo had gardens representing each of the provinces in China and some other countries. Some gardens were easy to identify, like the Italy/France/Spain garden with its Roman columns and Latin words, or the Switzerland garden with its snow-capped mountain, but the USA and Australia gardens looked identical to me. The day we went with the students from Denmark, we were stopped over and over again by people who wanted to take pictures with us. At one point, one group of Danish students ran into another, and ran up to them asking for a picture with the foreigners; we got a lot of stares, but it was pretty funny.

Shanghai Garden

Shanghai Garden



Thursday also happened to be my birthday, so we went out for lunch at a small fried noodle restaurant near the school, and my friends bought me a cake. I got to celebrate again that evening with my host parents, who took me to a very nice Western restaurant for dinner. It was a lot of fun!

Birthday Party 1

Birthday Party 1

Cake 1

Cake 1

Birthday Party 2

Birthday Party 2

Cake 2

Cake 2

On Friday, we went to visit a factory owned by the parents of one of Eric's friends in the US. It was a cool experience (although I wouldn't really say it was worth being thrown up on by a stranger on the bus ride there); most of the factories I've toured before have belonged to huge companies like Boeing, so it was interesting to see how a much smaller one works, especially in China.

On Saturday, I went with my host mom to see the end performance of the school's week of military training, where the students marched around the track and demonstrated the various commands they had learned. It looked impressive and I'm sure it would have been an interesting experience, but, based on what I've heard from other exchange students who did attend, I can't really say I'm disappointed that I didn't get to go.


My host sister's week of military training couldn't have come at a more perfect time. After almost two months in Changzhou it gave me an amazing opportunity to really test my Chinese ability by speaking only Chinese with my host parents (with the occasional help of a dictionary). I spoke a lot more Chinese that week than I had previously, and as far as I know, we did just fine communicating with each other. It was even better that it happened to coincide with the visit from the Danish students, since not having normal classes meant that we could spend time with them and see many of the nearby tourist attractions that we hadn't visited yet. The next week a delegation of students from Korea visited also, but we didn't have nearly as much time to spend with them because we were back in class.

Posted by ccole 18:29 Comments (1)

Chinese National Day

Traveling in China

It seems like every other week there’s some sort of holiday, activity, or field trip (although we almost always have to make up for them by going to school on Saturday or Sunday). October 1st was Chinese National Day, and seemingly the entire country celebrated with a week off – from school, from work, and from paying tolls to drive on the highway. My host family celebrated by driving nine hours southwest to Nanchang, Jiangxi to visit my host dad’s family: parents, two brothers, and two sisters-in-law. For them, it was an opportunity to catch up with family who they only see about twice a year, and for me it was a chance to see a completely different part of China.

For most of the drive down, we could just as easily have been driving through New York or Pennsylvania instead of Anhui and Jiangsu provinces; the landscape looked mostly the same, and we stopped at high way rest stops that were very similar to those in America, though much bigger and much more crowded.

Nanchang is the capital of Jiangxi and is about the same size as Changzhou, but since it’s more isolated from major cities, it seemed slightly less modern and well-kept. Because it was a week off for many people, the city was extremely crowded and, according to my host family, much dirtier than it normally is. My host dad’s parents live on the top floor of a building in what appeared to be a very old part of the city, with narrow, car-less roads and small buildings. Their apartment was very nice and comfortable, but its age was given away by its lack of a Western toilet.

On our first day in Nanchang, my host parents took me to a temple surrounded by stalls selling traditional Chinese snacks and artwork. It was noisy and crowded, like everything was around National Day, but it was a fun opportunity to see an aspect of China that is very different form the school I attend in Changzhou every day. I tried hot, freshly roasted Chestnuts, walked past local artists selling paintings and calligraphy, and watched a man making intricate, edible animal silhouettes out of melted sugar. My host parents showed me “stinky tofu” and jewelry made from grains of rice with Chinese characters written on them. Even though these stalls had been put there just for tourists, they were a huge contrast from the school and apartment I spend every day at in Changzhou.





On our second day in Jiangxi, we drove three hours into the countryside to visit my host dad’s extended family, most of whom had never even met Dai Ningxuan, my host sister. My host family told me ahead of time that conditions there would be “not so good,” but I had no idea what that meant. As it turns out, my host dad’s extended family lives in a few houses on a large farm, and the only “bad conditions” were the dustiness and the fact that the only water came from an outdoor pump. When we arrived, we met my host dad’s various relatives (including a distant relative who was older than Dai Ningxuan, but has to call her “aunt”), and then we spent about an hour and a half walking through the extensive fields and forests surrounding the houses. On the way back, my host dad showed me landmarks from his childhood, like the small pond that he said used to be clean enough to swim in when he visited his grandparents and an old building that he said represented the history of the Dai family name, constructed long before China switched from traditional to simplified characters.



At lunch, we ate a wide variety of things including vegetables and soup, but also including dog meat, pig stomach, and something that still had hair on it. My host sister was surprised when I told her that we don’t eat dog in the US; she says many people like to eat it in the winter, because it warms them from the inside (the next morning at breakfast, we ate special porridge that, according to my host parents, would return our internal heat back to normal). I was reluctant to try the dog at first, but I decided that it was no stranger than the pig stomach or anything else – which, of course, is only strange to me because I haven’t grown up eating it.

In the afternoon, my host sister and I hung around the farm while the adults all talked to each other. We ate delicious pomelos picked straight off the trees, fed leftover lunch to the chickens running freely around our feet, and played with the young children who were somehow distantly related to Dai Ningxuan. We watched some of her cousins catching fish that we later took home with us, along with a special Jiangxi Province chicken with black bones and black skin, which we ate in the next few days.

For the rest of the week, I went to various places in Nanchang during the day and spent time with my host family at night. One day my host mom took me shopping at an underground mall where clothing cost as little as 20 yuan, unlike the mall she’s taken me to in Changzhou, where it costs between 150 and upwards of 1000 yuan. Another day, my host sister and I went to the Nanchang museum and a building called the Pavilion of Prince Teng, a 1989 reconstruction of a building original build in 653, known for its inclusion in a famous Chinese poem.



In the evenings I either went out to dinner with my host family or spent the evening with them at home. My host dad showed me pictures of him and his brothers as kids, and in return his younger brother asked me to show them where I live on google maps. Cities in China are so big that my host family couldn’t believe that the town I live in doesn’t have its own hospital! Another night, after my host family taught me how to play a few Chinese board games, Dai Ningxuan asked me to teach her how to play chess; I did, but I warned her before we started that I’m terrible at it. I don’t think I’ve ever won a game, including the one I played against her.


I really enjoyed my week in Jiangxi. I got the chance to see a completely different part of China than the one I live in, and better yet, I got to see it from the perspective of a family who lives there. My host dad’s family was incredibly welcoming; the day before we left, his mom even told me that I was like her second granddaughter, the same as Dai Ningxuan. I also had the chance to learn and practice Chinese vocabulary that is totally different from what I’ve studied in school.

Posted by ccole 19:42 Archived in China Comments (5)

Sports Meeting

It turns out not all Americans are athletes.

The last two days in September were my school's "sports meeting," a school-wide track meet and (best of all) a two-day break from classes. At sports meeting, which takes place three or four times throughout the year, classes from all three grades compete against each other in races and events like long jump and shot put. The longest race at sports meeting is 1500 meters, which my classmates consider a very long distance; girls aren't allowed to participate, and boys are required to have a checkup from the school nurse before taking part. My classmates were surprised when I told them that many people in the US regularly run distances of 5 kilometers or more! None of the races seemed long to me, so I told my classmates that I would participate in any event. Because of exchange students' success in past years, the expectations for the American students were very high; my classmates assumed (no matter how many times I told them otherwise) that all Americans are fast runners and that our class would therefore have an automatic advantage. Assuming that I was a great athlete, they signed me up for the 400 meter race and the relay. I was later surprised when I found out that some of my classmates weren't even participating in one event, let alone two.


Sports meeting began with an Olympic-style opening ceremony, in which each class wore some sort of uniform and marched around the track while putting on a performance; some carried dragons, some just marched, and others danced. I wish I could have taken pictures! My class formed the number nine, our class number, with red and white pieces of paper, and we chanted something that I didn't understand and failed to memorize even with my friends' encouragement. I know it started with "We are class 9," but the rest is a mystery.


I didn't do well enough in either of my races to run again, so I only spent about thirty minutes over the two days preparing for and running my races. I got to spend the rest of the time practicing Chinese with my classmates, including many who I hadn't talked to before. We carried our chairs down to the field from our fifth floor classroom and spend two days there cheering on our classmates, eating chocolate, and walking around the campus together.


Posted by ccole 06:38 Comments (1)

Time Off

Days away from school

While my classmates and I do spend a lot of our time in school, we've also had plenty of opportunities for fun field trips and holidays.

Two Fridays ago, my teacher took my classmates and I (minus Kaori from Japan and Andrea from Italy) to a satellite office of the US consulate in Shanghai. We met with two foreign service officers who first gave us a presentation about safety in China and then told us about their careers, one as a diplomatic security officer and one as a cultural affairs officer. We had a chance to ask them all sorts of questions, like what their favorite post was (I was surprised to find out that the answer was Cameroon) and what the process of becoming a foreign service officer was like. Unlike last year's NSLI-Y summer students, who had wide-ranging interests, I could tell that most of the year program students had seriously considered diplomacy and international relations as a career. We also got to meet the 10 NSLI-Y students studying in Shanghai with American Councils and compare our two programs, the main difference being that they life in dorms in the most populous city in the world, while we live with host families in a city of a mere 5 million, quite small by China's standards.

Last Thursday was Mid-Autumn Festival, so we had two days off from school (but we had to make up for it by attending school on Sunday). Mid-Autumn festival falls in mid-autumn on the Chinese lunar calendar (although it was about 85 degrees that day, so it certainly still felt like summer to me), when the moon is at its biggest and brightest. Mid-Autumn Festival is celebrated by eating moon cakes (yum!) and spending time with family, so I went out to lunch with my host family, spent the afternoon walking around the city with my host sister's cousin Rita, and then ate dinner at my host family's house with my host parents and sister, as well as my host mom's parents and her sister's family. After dinner, Dai Ningxuan (my host sister) and Rita and I went outside to look at the moon, which my host mom tells me was the brightest it will be in eighty years.

Mid-Autumn Festival Lunch with my Host Family

Mid-Autumn Festival Lunch with my Host Family

Hanging Out with Rita

Hanging Out with Rita

Mid-Autumn Dinner

Mid-Autumn Dinner

The Mid-Autumn Moon

The Mid-Autumn Moon

Yesterday my class of AFS students took a trip to Changzhou's museum. We traveled by public bus, so on the way we had a chance to point out where each of us lives; I think I live farthest from the school. At the museum we saw both old Changzhou (ancient art and reconstructions of the city as it was centuries ago) and new Changzhou (photos of landmarks around the city and videos about the future of Changzhou's public transportation system), which gave us a new perspective on the city that we will be living in for almost nine more months.

We have even more days off coming up soon. Tomorrow and Monday are Changzhou Senior High School's "Sports Meeting," a school-wide track meet in which I will be marching with my class and running the 400 meter race and the relay. Unfortunately my classmates are under the impression that all Americans are great athletes, and I'm not particularly looking forward to proving them wrong. October 1st is Chinese National Day, so we have a week-long vacation during which my host family and I will visit my host dad's hometown, nine hours away in Jiangxi Province. After that, the Chinese students have a week of military training, so the foreign students will have the school (or at least the grade 1 building) to ourselves.

Posted by ccole 22:52 Comments (1)

Changzhou Senior High School

My life at a Chinese high school

I only started school at Changzhou Senior High School last Monday, but it already seems like I've been studying here for much longer than a week. Changzhou Senior High School is the best school in Changzhou and one of the best in Jiangsu, China's most densely populated province, making it one of the best high schools in China. While this means that I have a great Chinese teacher and classmates who are eager to help me learn Chinese, it also means that my classmates spend quite a bit of time in lessons and almost as much time studying. There are 14 hours between the time my host sister and I leave for school in the morning and the time we arrive back home in the evening; I actually spend the majority of each weekday at school.

Changzhou Senior High School

Changzhou Senior High School

Changzhou senior high school has eight class periods per day, and the other foreign students and I (which includes the 5 NSLI-Y students and two AFS students from Italy and Japan) spend four of them with our Chinese classmates and four in our own Chinese language class. In our language class, we learn 10-15 new words every day using dialogues, videos, speaking practice, and quizzes. Our Chinese language teacher, Li Laoshi, has taught NSLI-Y students for three years and says she is sure that by the end of the year we will be able to pass the HSK 5. The HSK, or the Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi, is the official Chinese language test for foreigners, with six different levels of proficiency; level 5, which indicates the ability to read magazines or newspapers, requires knowledge of 2500 words using 1711 characters. At this point I don't even know all of the characters required for HSK 1, so HSK 5 seems impossible, but Li Laoshi says she isn't worried as long as we work hard throughout the year.

When we don't have Chinese class, the rest of the foreign students and I spend the day in classrooms with our Chinese classmates. I a m the only one in class with my host sister; most of the other host siblings are in "international" classes including AP classes taught in English, so taking classes with them would not be much different from going to high school in the US.

Our school day begins at 7:00 AM. With the exception of classes that take place in labs, outdoors, or in special classrooms, students in Chinese high schools stay in the same classroom all day as different teachers come and go. Rather than eahc student having a different schedule, the different classrooms have their own specializations. My host sister is in one of the best "study" classes, while some students are in international classes that prepare them for the SAT rather than the Chinese gaokao, and some classes have more specific focuses like athletics or art.

From 7:15 to 7:30 is a "morning reading" period, during which students read aloud from their textbooks to try to memorize information. After that, each class is 45 minutes long with 10 minute breaks in between. At 9:10, there is a 30 minute "big break" that is used on Mondays for a flag raising ceremony and the rest of the week for morning exercises, during which the boys do kung fu and the girls do a sort of aerobic dance exercise. Twice during the day we have ten minute breaks during which the Chinese students listen to a recording of the loudspeakers that instructs them to rub their eyes in different ways to alleviate the exhaustion of hours of studying; I still haven't figured out exactly what to do during that time.

Halfway through the day, we eat lunch in the cafeteria, which has 3 floors for the school's 2000+ students, who all eat lunch at the same time. The higher floors have better food but are much more crowded; the third floor has lines that stretch all the way across the cafeteria.

After lunch, from 12:30 to 1:30, we have another break during which students are supposed to nap, but most study instead. My afternoon classes always include PE, during which we usually run a lap on the track and then have time to do whatever we want, like play volleyball or badminton. This week, my friend Caroline and I showed some of the Chinese students how to thrown a frisbee, which they thought was really fun. Realizing that the students at my school have no idea what a frisbee is makes me wonder what kinds of things people in other countries take for granted that I have no idea how to do.

My other classes with my Chinese classmates include history, math, music, English, Chinese literature, and an assortment of science classes. During classes that I don't understand and silent study times, I have more than enough time to study Chinese and do whatever else I want. In the last two days, I've done all my Chinese homework, read the entirety of The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, written most of this blog entry, and studied lots of Chinese. In classes like math and physics, I can figure out at least some of what my teachers are saying based on what they write on the board and the English terms they mix in with their Chinese. This morning my math teacher was teaching set theory, and I understood almost the entire lesson even though I could only understand a few words of what she said. At one point I even understood a question that she asked, and I probably could have answered it! I have found that listening to math and science classes is a great way to practice Chinese, because it mixes what I know with knew and unfamiliar vocab. The same is true outside of school; last week my host sister explained that Jiangsu is the most densely populated province in China by asking me if I knew the physics equation ρ = m/v, and last night I explained to her the meaning of the word finite, which I would not have been able to do if she didn't know the symbol for infinity.

At the end of the school day there is a 45-minute required study period for the entire school, and then school ends at 6:00 PM. A few students leave at 6:00, but most stay later; some live in dorms at the school, and others, like my host sister, stay for an additional optional study period until 8:00. We eat dinner in the school cafeteria, then she goes back to our classroom for self study class and I spend the next hour and a half relaxing and studying with the other American students. We finally get home at 8:30, 9 hours before getting up for another school day.

NSLI-Y Students Relax After School

NSLI-Y Students Relax After School

Posted by ccole 06:53 Comments (4)

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