I had the good fortune in October to lead a delegation of 97 students and roughly 20 adults to China. This came about as a gift of travel from President Xi Jinping when he visited Lincoln High School last year.
Travel is just that, a gift. My students had the opportunity to meet students at schools, visit great historical sites and eat some truly amazing food. Most important, many of them traveled on a plane for the first time (logging 14,300 total miles) and all now have passports, which will open up the world as they prepare for college and beyond.
I was asked by the News Tribune to write this column and reflect on the trip, and more specifically about the differences between the U.S. and China with regard to freedom of the press and human rights. They wondered if our students were aware of the differences.
In short, yes. Prior to the China trip, our students read articles, watched videos, and most of them had discussions during their AP Human Geography and AP World History classes. They had a good working knowledge of China, past and present. They knew there would be no Facebook, Instagram or Twitter in China and there would be limited options for TV viewing.
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The challenges facing a country the size of China weren't on our minds during our visit. We didn't pretend problems don't exist. I'm making the observation that when people host guests, we want them to see what's good.
As expected, we were shown excellent schools, fine restaurants and people who were very kind, gracious and generous. When I host visitors, I do the same. I want them to see the best of America, and there is much to share.
However, we did have very good conversations with some of our hosts who invited us to return and have less of a tourist trip and more of an experience to see the challenges the Chinese face.
Upon returning to Tacoma, my students have noticed many things they appreciate about home, and other things they miss about China. They appreciate the chill in the air, and the less crowded sidewalks — although they also miss the hustle and bustle of busy sidewalks in cities of many millions.
They like the comfort they find in familiar food at home, but they miss the dumplings. They really miss the dumplings.
What they liked most about coming home was seeing family and friends. What they miss are the new friends they left behind.
When asked about the trip, the students have given me the following observations. One said she was told all sorts of things from friends that made her scared of the trip, but found all of the people she met to be very kind. Other students were impressed with how studious the Chinese students are. All of our students commented on how warmly they were received and made to feel at home.
This is why we travel: to see the world and open our minds. We may not always see the world exactly as it is — heck, many of us do not see America exactly as it is — but the more we see, the more we talk and interact with people, the more we seek to understand and learn, the less likely casual judgment keeps us from meaningful discussions.
If taking my students to China helps facilitate dialogue between students who could lead the two most powerful countries of the 21st century, I’ll take it.
But there is a larger missing story in all of this. Just look what can happen when a community gets behind its kids and ensures they have a life-changing experience. The amount of encouragement and support our students received before, during and after this trip is overwhelming.
I often find myself having to remind residents of Tacoma that our city is great, and how much better it can be if we have the courage to dream big.
Pat Erwin is the principal of Tacoma’s Lincoln High School.