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China through the Kaleidoscope of a Curious Traveler

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From Tucson to Changsha:

China through the Kaleidoscope of a Curious Traveler with 18 Exchange Students

Edip Yuksel

(You may see our China photos at )

I went to China knowing only one Chinese word, nǐ hǎo (hello), and after two weeks I returned with only one additional word, "xiè xiè"  (thanks, which is pronounced 'she-ay, she-ay' with falling tone on the first word). That is it! For someone who is a polyglot and teaches both at college and K-12, this performance in acquiring another language might be considered disappointing. Since English is chronologically my fifth language, I had little motivation to add a sixth language in my linguistically tortured and fragmented brain. Instead, I focused on other things. Though I did not dare to penetrate the insurmountable walls of Chinese calligraphy and tones, during a short trip I learned a lot about Chinese people, their country, their culture, and about us.

As a Kurdish-Turkish-American author/philosopher/educator/activist, as a curious adventurer with too many hyphens and slashes, I decided to share with you my observation through my seasoned kaleidoscope.

Our Aquiline, Straight, and Hawk Noses Standout in China

Together with four other parents and teachers, I accompanied 18 exchange students, including my 13 year-old son, from Accelerated Learning Lab in Tucson, to Lushan International Experimental School in Changsha for a two week academic and social adventure. Our exchange students, whose ages ranged between 8 and 16 (with average age of 11.8, median of 12, and mode of 9), were academically way ahead of their peers here and abroad; six of the students had taken six semesters of AP classes and tests in Calculus, Physics, and Biology, besides History, English and Chinese. They had already received college credits while they were in Middle school. The team in which my son was a member had just received first place in Algebra at the annual Math Fair competition organized by the University High among Middle school students, beating other top schools in Tucson. Two years in row. They won first, second and third prizes at Arizona's Science Olympiad in numerous categories and demonstrated similar performance at Language Fair competitions in Turkish and Chinese. The elementary students were no different. For instance, the 8 years-old girl was finishing the intermediate algebra. This trip was a reward for their extraordinary academic accomplishment. So, we considered ourselves lucky for traveling with a group of academically and behaviorally excellent group of kids.

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The moment we arrived to Changsha we noticed that we were noticed; indeed very much noticed by the Chinese. When we walked, they turned their heads and occasionally stared at us. When David, the headmaster, told us in advance that we would be treated like rock stars, I thought he was exaggerating as he occasionally does. However, it was an accurate description of Chinese reaction to us, and it was an understatement regarding their reaction to some younger students, especially the blond ones; they felt that they were like Pandas in the San Diego zoo.

The stares occasionally were accompanied by action by the most assertive ones who attempted to talk to us. Ironically, many of those confident Chinese could continue only a few words beyond their initial reaction to our inquiry about the level of their English: “I know little.” Then you ask, “Is there a restroom around here?” “I know little.” Where is the bathroom?” “I know little.” You will soon learn that the word “bathroom” is not included in their short list of English words, neither “around” nor “here”! All they knew was “I-know-little” and it was indeed very little.

Unlike the USA, China is very homogenous. Westerners are easily noticed here. From an animated description of a Chinese woman who was watching us together with others in awe, I learned that their Foreigner Diagnostic Algorithm (FDA) has a very simple formula, which I will call: Pinocchio Identification. In their eyes, we are people with vertical (if you wish, you may read it snobbish) noses! There are two categories of people: those with flat noses and those with pointy long noses! We belonged to the second category. As we confuse Japanese with Chinese, they also confuse Mexican and Anglos, Turkish and Italians; they appear to be blind to some of the visual clues easily recognized by us.

Chinese are Slim, but Horizontal Growth might be in the Horizon

On June 2nd, I wanted to get some fruits and a few bottles of water nearby my hotel, which is at a major crossing. I could not find a grocery store on the street; most were fashion boutiques, restaurants, or banks. I decided to use the underpass to cross to the other side. Well, suddenly I found myself, like Alice in Wonderland, in an underground market, as big as the Super-duper Wal-Mart, perhaps bigger than that. I was very excited and started to buy some familiar fruits and snacks, and a few more that I had no clue about. I was going to let my taste buds experience new things. There, I searched for diet soda--you may not believe it, but the spirit of my dietitian wife has followed me till here--but the word “diet” and its Chinese equivalent does not yet exist in their daily language. They are slim people; I rarely saw an obese Chinese. It is either because of their diet, or their tradition of eating slow with those uncooperative chop sticks. I do not know.

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However, this fitness might soon become an old glory. Already, the golden ark of McDonald’s, the red hut of Pizza Hut, and the goatee of the KFC are blinking and winking in major corners of the city. If the Chinese do not pay attention, they might soon import our obesity in addition to paying us hefty franchise loyalty. I remember reading an article in Time magazine on Wal-Mart’s expansion in China. The reporter directed a loaded question to the director of the China operation, which I paraphrase: “Wal-Mart is carrying junk food and fatty snacks. Wouldn’t those items harm the health of Chinese population?” The leader of Wal-Mart’s Chinese operation did not lose a beat, “Well, no problem. They will learn through experience. And we will also open up a new shelve selling diet products followed by exercise equipment. The business will be good!”

Being in China and personally experiencing the fact that they are humans like us, with families, feelings, concerns and dreams, I am disturbed by the audacity of financially attractive, yet morally questionable business plan of that Wal-Mart top manager.

Right Foot, Left Foot. Chicken Foot, Pig Foot. Here Comes Chinese Food!

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EDIP YUKSEL, J.D. is a progressive American-Turkish-Kurdish author/philosopher/lawyer/activist (too many hyphens and slashes, I know). His recent English books "Quran: a Reformist Translation", "Manifesto for Islamic Reform", and "NINETEEN: God's (more...)

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