After my visit to Hanzang City, China by Nina Sawhey

My China Adventure

After a busy start to the NUS semester, I can finally share my experience visiting Hanzhong City, China.  The hustle and bustle of the start of classes has been pushing back this long overdue update.  But alas, I am able to finish this needed blog post.  In my previous post, I had mentioned that I started working for the Design Centric Curriculum (DCC) under the National University of Singapore's (NUS) Faculty of Engineering.  In that time, I have been helping to develop the DCC teaching curriculum, focusing on students' experiences.  The program is demanding for many students, especially for those students whose home countries are outside of Singapore.  As a primary tutor for the design thinking portion of the curriculum, I feel it is crucial for the freshmen experience to be positive and personally useful. This means drawing a connection with my students and relating their work inside the classroom to their own future expectations of themselves.  

As I began my work, I started to realize that my People's Republic of China (PRC) students were having a harder time adjusting to the new learning pathways established within the program.  These students were not necessarily producing work that was not meeting academic expectations, but rather they expressed discomfort with the classroom setup and style of teaching.  Many of my PRC students struggled to draw connections with what they were learning in the classroom to their future goals.  They also expressed difficulty communicating to their parents and peers the importance of why they are taking the DCC courses.

I wish I could say in the beginning I easily eased their worries; however, this is not true.  My students felt I was an alien to their educational world.  Not only was I not a graduate of NUS, but also I was not a student from China.  Thus, I could not understand.  This further divided our trust, causing additional distress in the classroom.

Knowing that I needed to bridge this gap of empathy, I made the impromptu decision to visit China on my own with the goal to understand the pre-university educational experience.  I asked one of my students if he knew of anyone that would be willing to host me.  As it turns out, a student in my class has a father who is a headmaster of a high school in Hanzhong City.  This is the beginning of the formulation of my trip.  Word got out among my colleagues that I was visiting China to expand my understanding of my students and soon my superiors caught wind.  They were in full support.  What was at first my own fully-funded trip became financially and academically supported by my employer which meant less use of my personal vacation days and the expectation of written documentation and a possible presentation at the end.  After months of preparing, I was ready for my week-long trip at the beginning of August.

Hanzhong City is a municipality located in southwest Shaanxi Province.  The city sits near a historically significant valley located in the mountains that separate the larger historical city of Xian from the Szechuan Basin.  The Xian region remains one of the more culturally preserved locations in China in terms of artifacts and structures.  For those less accustomed to Chinese history, the Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses are found in this province.  This  cultural preservation has a lot to do with the province's location, the northern center of China, partially protecting it from the full blows of World War II and China's cultural revolution, times when many pieces of Chinese history were destroyed.  Additionally, the people of this region are primarily of Han decent, the largest ethnic population in China.  Although Shanghai and Beijing are considered the larger more developed cities, I felt that visiting a smaller city would prove to be more helpful in understanding my pupils.

I spent a week with various high school students.  Two days shadowing and following one female student and two days interviewing groups of students from various grades.  My host served as my translator as he guided me through the cities' streets, their foods, their people, and their customs.  In the day, I was learning about the history and the educational system.  At night, I was focusing on the people, the food, and the customs.  All the while, I did not speak a wink of Chinese.  Thus, I started to observe my surroundings more closely, experiencing the spaces as if I am inside a foreign film with the subtitles spontaneously turning-off and on.

There were nights where I spent hours with my new friends in the local KTV (Karaoke TV) singing popular American pop music coupled with tea and light snacks.  We had finished a full hot-pot filled with local meats, seafood, vegetables, and noodles only a few hours before.  Their food is of Szechuan influence which for many people means their food is spicy.  But regardless of the food's bold flavors and the new people, I was fully enjoying myself.

By the end of my trip, I had a clearer understanding of my students' learning experiences before NUS.  With the start of the new semester, I immediately applied what I had learned and it has helped me gain many of my students' trusts with their comfort levels apparently better.  As I set forth into starting another amazing month of teaching, I am eagerly anticipating the end of the semester where I will get to visit China one more time.  My next stop, Beijing.  I, however, have no plans to conduct a study.  Instead, I am following through with an invitation from a friend from my most recent trip.  

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