With its hundreds of skyscrapers, a densely packed population of 7 million and dripping-wet humidity, Hong Kong will usher a group of 97 Lincoln High School students into a world few of them have experienced.
“We have kids who haven’t crossed Sixth Avenue in years, and they’re going to China. It’s crazy,” said Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, a human geography and government teacher at the South End school. “They live between Pacific Avenue and Waller Road.”
Gibbs-Bowling, last year’s Washington state teacher of the year, will not be accompanying the students, but many either are in his classes or have been.
“This will be a transformative experience for most of these kids,” he said.
Junior Haley Naparan can hardly wait: “I’m absolutely excited about experiencing a new culture. It’s a really great opportunity to see the world in a different perspective.”
The visit to Hong Kong is the first leg of a trip that will include a seven-day tour of China as guests of the government. President Xi Jinping invited the students to China during his visit to Tacoma in September 2015.
The students will leave Sea-Tac Airport at 1:30 a.m. Friday and arrive more than 16 hours later in Hong Kong after a layover in Taipei. No matter how tired and excited they might be, instead of going to their hotel rooms for a nap, they’ll take buses to the Hong Kong Sports Institute for more than four hours of activity.
“We want to keep you busy,” Lincoln principal Patrick Erwin told students and parents last week. “We want you to get to the hotel room, fall asleep and get on China time,” which is 15 hours ahead of Pacific Daylight time.
The students, who will be gone for 11 days, will spend several days in Hong Kong before traveling to China to visit three cities and historic sights, including the Great Wall, and the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square in Beijing. They also might meet Xi.
When they learned Thursday of an unexpected activity – a talent show at a school in Fuzhou, Tacoma’s sister city – a Lincoln girl shouted: “Sweet!”
Erwin said he had just learned of it that morning, and he issued a call for those who wanted to sing or dance.
For many students, the highlight will be viewing pandas at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding.
“When I told my kids about it, they just squealed,” Erwin said. “They’re so excited.”
Later, senior Katelyn Wear asked Erwin: “Are we allowed to kidnap a panda and bring it back?”
No, but efforts are underway to bring a pair of giant pandas to Washington state, and a man who is spearheading that effort, Ron Chow, a Lakewood businessman, will be going along on the trip.
Chow, whose five brothers and sisters graduated from Lincoln, recently returned from China. He will discuss the effort to obtain pandas at a news conference Monday in Seattle.
AN OFFER FROM THE PRESIDENT
In addition to Chengdu, the students will visit Fuzhou and Beijing.
Xi first visited Tacoma in 1993 as a member of a government delegation from Fuzhou, and the next year the port cities became sister cities.
During his hour-long visit to Lincoln last year, Xi invited the students to China. Erwin said it was his understanding that the president initially planned to invite far fewer students.
“We were walking down the hall and he asked me, via a translator, if my kids studied abroad,” Erwin recalled. “I said, ‘No, my kids are very poor and as a result we don’t do much in the way of exchanges, although we do have students come here.’
“And then he made the offer to have 100 students.”
The school’s students embraced Xi’s offer, and 185 of them placed their names in a lottery for the opportunity of a lifetime. To qualify, they needed to have a 2.5 grade-point average.
Last spring, the names of the lucky 100 were selected. Five of the students were unable to make the trip, while a couple of others, who had passports, were added to the group at the last minute.
“To watch the kids walk up and see their names posted was awesome,” Gibbs-Bowling said.
Just like the school’s student body, the travelers are a diverse group and what Erwin calls “a remarkable group of young people.” It includes 54 girls and 43 boys.
Some are of Asian descent — including at least three with Chinese heritage. Others are Hispanic, African American and Caucasian. Not all of them are U.S. citizens. Three hold passports from Vietnam, one from Kenya and one from the Philippines.
Vietnamese nationals must have a visa for Hong Kong, but the school district was unable to obtain them in time for the three students, so they will have to skip Hong Kong and fly to Fuzhou, the first stop inside China, several days later. They will be accompanied by Minh-Anh Hodge, executive director for global education programs for Tacoma Schools.
U.S. citizens are required to have a visa for China but don’t need one for Hong Kong, which is governed separately after the 1997 return of the British colony to China.
WHAT TO EXPECT
On Thursday, 10 Chinese students at Lincoln on an exchange program through Tower Bridge International gave the travelers a glimpse of what to expect — and not to expect.
“Can you play Pokemon Go?” one student asked.
Nope. Not in China. It depends on Google Services to run properly, and Google is not available in China.
When the Chinese students were asked what they liked best about China, one boy responded, “Chinese food,” drawing laughter.
Most meals are served family style, and the Lincoln students will have an opportunity to sample different types of Chinese cuisine — and try their hand at using chopsticks.
Andy Chang, who will be accompanying the group and is the owner of East Asia Supermarket near the school, provided chopsticks and a package of instant noodle soup to each student to allow for practice before the trip.
Rebecca Field, director of Tower Bridge’s Washington division, warned the Lincoln students not to be afraid if the Chinese invade their “personal space.”
“Strangers, especially because you might stand out as different, are going to come right up to you,” she said. “Some may touch you, because they want you to speak to them. Some may touch your hair. You may draw a crowd. If one person comes over to you, then five people, then 10, then 50.”
And Erwin warned against complacency when crossing a street.
“They don’t stop for people crossing the street, so you have to time it,” he said to laughter.
They will soon find out for themselves, thanks to the Chinese government, which will bear most of the Lincoln group’s travel expenses, including airfare and lodging.
PICKING UP THE TAB
“I’m incredibly thankful for the generosity of the Chinese government,” Erwin said.
To cover incidental expenses, the Tacoma School Board approved spending $3,000 from a school district account dedicated to helping with travel and study abroad.
The tab for the Hong Kong portion of the trip, including airfare, is being picked up by the Lakewood-based China-U.S. Students Exchange Association. David Chong, a 1986 Lincoln graduate who lives in Hong Kong, is chairman of the nonprofit; his cousin, Chow, is a director.
Chong is an entrepreneur, his cousin said. He’s also a member of the governing board of the Washington State Panda Foundation.
“David said it was the kindness of the teachers at Lincoln High School that created the conditions for which he was able to graduate, so he’s forever been indebted,” Erwin said.
Despite the support of the Chinese government and Chong, the students faced financial obstacles, including the cost of luggage and passports. For applicants 16 and older, passport fees total $135.
“I paid for 11 passports myself,” Erwin said, “just because the need is there.”
The school district will be sending 17 people on the trip, including Erwin and Hodge. The others will be two Lincoln vice principals, 10 faculty chaperones, two district staff members from the Public Information Office and school board member Catherine Ushka.
At a meeting last week, parents and students expressed concerns that most travelers to foreign destinations would have: Is the water safe to drink? (Plenty of bottled water will be available.) Will they be safe? (As guests of the Chinese government, security won’t be a problem.) How can electronic items be charged? (Converters, from 220-volt circuits in China, will be available at hotels and can be bought before the trip.)
Alicia Dorman, a junior, had a couple of personal ones: “My biggest concerns are A, getting lost, and B, eating some spicy food and my face goes numb.”
The latter is a possibility if she eats the peppercorns found in Sichuan cuisine in Chengdu. They could cause a tingling, numbing sensation on the lips and tongue.
That won’t be the only new experience for Dorman. She’s never flown before.
The trip, her stepfather Maurice Davis said, will be a great experience for her.
“I’m proud of her,” he said. “She’s a great kid. We’ll miss her.”
Sierra Wood, a senior, who is looking forward to learning about a different culture and examining the architecture in Hong Kong, said her mother was “nervous at first, but she sees how important it is to travel.”
‘YOU’RE VERY FAMOUS HERE’
Wherever the group goes, the Chinese will know who they are. Thanks to a Chinese table tennis company, Double Happiness, they will wear shirts identifying them as Lincoln High School students.
But it won’t be just the shirts that will make them recognizable. During a visit to schools in Beijing and Shanghai last spring, the Chinese greeted Erwin like a rock star.
“We know who you are, and you’re very famous here,” they told him, thanks to Chinese press coverage of Xi’s visit to Lincoln. “We love President Xi, so we love you.” And, he said, the Lincoln students will become just as famous.
In Fuzhou, they will visit a school and historic sites; in Chengdu, the highlight will be a visit to the panda reserve; in Beijing, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and 2008 Olympic Games venues will be memorable stops.
Hodge has some advice for the students: Practice eating with chopsticks. And learn to bow.
“China is very big on politeness, so bowing is very appropriate,” she told the group at a meeting last month.
“They’re going to love you, because you’re going to be great ambassadors, not only for Lincoln High School but for Tacoma and for Washington — actually for the United States, as well.”
During the trip
Updates on the Lincoln High School trip to China are available on:
Facebook: Lincoln Expeditions