Catching up, and next adventure?

Travel4Learning Blog

I guess it was predictable that once this school year began, finding time to post the rest of my China observations and photos would become a challenge. Missing are the last 3 days of the trip, which included an incredibly scenic cruise on the Li River and Shanghai. I’ll try to remedy this very soon!

Last month (October) as a sort of follow-up to the China study visit, I gave a presentation at the UNC World View K-12 Global Education Symposium. It had been many years since I’d done a professional presentation outside of my school district, so it was a good “growing and stretching” experience. I was happy to reunite with a couple of my China travel companions at the symposium. We enjoyed reminiscing about our shared experiences and joked, “So, where shall we go next?” Soon the lighthearted joke became a real question as we started researching teacher travel opportunities for next summer.

Long story short, all 3 of us have applied for a program to visit schools in Finland, a country that’s currently regarded as global model for effective K-12 education. This evening we have a video interview with the Finnish tour leader, so here’s hoping we earn admission into the program!  I’m already excited about the prospect of diving deep into another study of a very different educational system, and learning about parts of the world I know little about.


Day 7: Different paths — College Prep and Vocational School

Before I describe our visit to two very different high schools, some more background about the Chinese educational system: School is compulsory through 9th grade, which includes 6 years of primary school and 3 years of “junior secondary school.” During the 9 years of compulsory education, all students study a similar curriculum. After 9th grade, at age 15, young people’s lives can diverge dramatically. Some discontinue their education at this point and enter the workforce, but more (89.1% as of 2017¹) go on to “senior secondary school,” which is the final 3 years of secondary education.

There are 2 tracks for senior secondary school — academic/university prep and vocational. Students’ scores on the senior high school entrance exams, called the zhongkao, determine which options are available to them. Our travel group had the opportunity to visit a college preparatory school and a vocational school on the same day in 2 different cities, which made for some interesting contrasts.

Xi'an Foreign Lang School greeting
Introduction to Xi’an Foreign Language School
World View group and some Xi’an Foreign Language School faculty

Our last activity before departing Xi’an was a visit to the Xi’an Foreign Language School, a top-ranked K-12 private school. The school is very large, with about 4,000 students and 500 teachers. About 50% of the senior secondary students are boarding. The school was founded in 1963, was one of the first foreign language schools in China, and has been affiliated with Xi’an University since 1995 (2 years after the university was founded). They offer courses of study in 8 languages: English, French, German, Spanish, Arabic, Japanese, Korean and Russian. There are study abroad opportunities for students, and they have sister schools in 8 countries, which provide teachers opportunities to visit each other and share ideas.

At this school, instead of observing classrooms, we met with some of their faculty, many of them first-year teachers. Although our group’s purpose was to learn from the schools we visited, it turned out that in the case of both schools we visited on this day, they were expecting to learn from us. We were introduced as “expert educators from the University of North Carolina,” which made me a bit uncomfortable. Perhaps they thought we were all UNC faculty? My initial reaction was, Wait, what? Nobody at home considers us teachers experts. But soon I found myself appreciating how nice it was to be treated with respect. It certainly was in line with everything I’d read about the high regard the Chinese have for educators.

Xi'an FLHS teachers2
Conferring with a first-year English teacher and her mentor
Novice teacher on right, mentor next to her

After a presentation about the school, we broke into small discussion groups. Two of us from the World View team met with a first-year English teacher and her mentor. The first-year teacher talked about the challenges of classroom management  — a universal concern for novice teachers! — while her mentor asked about resources for teaching English. Since I’m an ESL teacher, I was able to provide links to some websites that provide lesson plans, ideas for language practice activities, and collections of online language skill practice sites. I just hope that the “Great Firewall” of Chinese censorship will allow them access to those educational resources.

From Xi’an Foreign Language School we went directly to the airport and flew to our next destination, the city of Guilin. When we disembarked, I was surprised to see that the local people resembled my Southeast Asian students much more than had the people of Beijing or Xi’an. When I considered the fact that we were now located much farther south than we’d been before, I realized it made sense because Vietnam, Laos and Burma (Myanmar) all share a border with southern China.

Itinerary map
Itinerary of the UNC 2018 World View China Study Visit

It’s one thing to look at the enormous size of China on a map, but quite another to see the long distance we’d traveled reflected in the faces of the people. Geography made human and personal — so interesting!

Guilin School welcome sign-001
Guilin No. 2 Vocational School welcome
Guilin School campus
Guilin No. 2 Vocational School campus is large — 17.6 acres — with few trees and Karst mountains visible in the distance

From the Guilin airport we went directly to the next school on our itinerary, the Guilin No. 2 Vocational School. The first building we walked into looked like a warehouse on the outside, and inside was a setting completely different from the academic classrooms we’d been visiting: An enormous open space with a high ceiling, a spotless floor and long rows of gleaming machines. Focused, orderly students in shop uniforms — all but one of them boys — worked in groups of 3 or 4 with what I was told were metal lathing machines. It was an amazing visual introduction to the difference between academic and vocational secondary education.


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In the same building we briefly visited an engineering class that was in an academic classroom setting with a teacher, a whiteboard, and students seated around tables working out problems in textbooks. Of the classes we observed, this was the only one that wasn’t hands-on learning.

We then walked across several large athletic fields — passing a PE class along the way — and in another building observed classes of circuitry and electronics. As you can see in the photos, all of the shop classes were large by US standards, with 40 to 50 students and just one teacher.


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Despite the high student-to-teacher ratio, students appeared to be fully engaged in their work, and we didn’t observe any off-task behavior or even casual conversations. Of course there were about 30 visitors circulating around the room, so it’s hard to know if student behavior is always so subdued. The only hint we saw of any behavioral challenges was a wall hanging with rows of pockets holding mobile phones. Many of us were amused by this — we were halfway around the world, yet it was just like home.


The last class we observed was, much to my surprise, a ballet class. I didn’t expect to see arts instruction in a vocational school, nor was I expecting to see many girls, since we’d seen nothing but boys in the previous classes (except for the single brave girl in the metal lathing shop). What surprised me even more was the fact that roughly a quarter of the dancers were boys! I took ballet classes all through my childhood and youth, and there was never more than one or two boys in a class; more often it was 100% female. As a dance enthusiast, it warmed my heart to see boys participating. I wondered if they had chosen the class, or if it was non-elective, perhaps part of their PE curriculum? Unfortunately there wasn’t an opportunity to ask about it.

Guilin School dance class
Guilin Vocational School dance class

After we finished the classroom visits, we were escorted into a conference room that had a series of tables set up in a square, microphones at each table, and a whole row of people with cameras and sound equipment. Some of them had accompanied us during the campus tour, but since they weren’t school personnel and didn’t interact with us, I’d ignored them as best I could in order to focus on the students. Once I saw this room, however, I finally understood that they were local press, and that this wasn’t going to be an informal conversation among educators.

Guilin School conference
Conference at Guilin No. 2 Vocational School

The school’s principal gave a formal address in Chinese, interpreted into English, which opened with an elaborate greeting that cited impressive stats about UNC, including the facts that there are 2 Nobel laureates on the faculty and it’s where Michael Jordan started his basketball career. (They definitely had done their research.) He then shared detailed information about the school, which I did my best to capture in notes:

  • School was founded in 1978, funded by the Guilin municipal government
  • Moved to the current campus of 17.6 acres in 2015
  • 60 courses including auto repair, electronics, mechanics, computer repair, accounting, tourism, graphic arts, among others
  • 2,500 students, 153 teachers
  • School has won awards at provincial level
  • Most common areas of study: For boys, automotive and electronics; for girls, preK education and tourism
  • School has graduated 20,000 students
  • 100% employment after graduation!

That last point is truly impressive, and we oohed and aahed. The principal then directed some questions to us basically asking, “How are we doing? What can we do better?” During our travels we’d been discussing among ourselves the fact that some of our schools don’t do a very good job of serving students who aren’t college-bound. One member of our group was a district superintendent who had told us about initiatives they’re implementing to provide technical job training. So naturally, we turned the microphone over to him to answer the principal’s questions.

Guilin school roundtable
A district superintendent told Guilin Vocational School’s administration that they’re doing a good job preparing students for skilled trades

His feedback was that they are on the right track, given how important workforce development is in both our countries’ economies. Since his school district is engaged in a similar push to augment vocational education, he invited them to visit and exchange ideas. (It’ll be very cool if that happens!) Other teachers also shared how impressed we were with what we’d observed, as well as information about vocational programs at their schools. Afterwards, the leader of our group and the superintendent participated in an interview with a local TV station.

Later, I learned more about the context of all this: The school was being evaluated by the government for its effectiveness in engaging the public and forging international connections, which explained the formal nature of the meeting and the presence of other visitors in addition to our group, as well as the press. The superintendent who’d served as spokesman for our group recounted afterwards that the principal had told him he’d been under a lot of pressure leading up to our visit, and that he was looking forward to a good night’s sleep once it was all over.

Group at Guilin Vocational School
World View group with some Guilin Vocational School faculty. Principal is in the front row, 4th from the right.

It felt a bit unsettling to realize that our visit to this school was to some degree part of a PR effort. Up to this point in our journey, I hadn’t sensed any direct intrusion by the Chinese government (although it was hard not to notice the security cameras in city centers — but to be fair, London now has them, too). However, I don’t think what we were shown was just propaganda to impress Americans; the Chinese government does have a real need to focus on vocational education. I’ve done some reading about economic development in China, and understand that one of the challenges the country faces, as its birth rate slows and employment shifts from the agricultural sector to manufacturing, is having enough skilled workers to sustain economic growth. So the Chinese have an imperative to improve and expand vocational education in their country. According to a recent OECD report²,

“China has made significant efforts to expand participation in secondary vocational schools in recent years in order to meet the country’s fast-evolving economic and manpower needs. In 2014, secondary vocational schools accounted for a little less than 22% of total senior secondary school enrollment in China (UNESCO-UIS, 2016).”

Much like the US, for the past few generations China has put more emphasis on increasing participation in higher education than on providing job skill training for those who don’t attend university. After visiting Guilin No. 2 Vocational School, I can say that we definitely need to look to China (and probably some other nations) to find models of effective, large-scale vocational programs for our under-served non-college-bound students.

¹Education Statistics in 2017, published by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China.

²Education in China: A Snapshot, published by the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development (OECD), 2016.


Day 6: Xi’an University and learning about Buddhism

World View group with some Xi’an University faculty
Meeting with monk
Learning about Buddhism from an English-speaking monk

On our second full day in Xi’an we had some unique learning experiences, including observing some university classes and conferring with foreign language professors, learning about Chinese Buddhism from a resident monk, and attempting the difficult art of calligraphy.

First we visited Xi’an University, where we had a tour of the campus and observed some classes. The most impressive part of the tour was an exhibition of art created by students and professors in the School of Preschool Education. We were told that some bigwigs had come to see the exhibit the previous day, so clearly the exhibit was meant to be a showpiece. The style of some of the artwork had a lot of kid appeal, and it made me wonder whether the university is training future teachers to cultivate artistic skills in young children (if so, wonderful!), or if it was just a PR show.

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Next we had the opportunity to observe some classes. The one I observed was an English translation/interpretation class that consisted of about 30 students, a fairly even mix of male and female. (In contrast, in the School of Preschool Education, we were told that all of their students are female — is that why the entrance to its building is pink?) This class was particularly interesting to me because I’ve had some training in Spanish/English interpretation, so I found myself observing from the perspective of a student.

Xi'an Univ students in translation/interpretation class
English translation/interpretation class

The lesson wasn’t just lecture; there was a variety of activities that gave students opportunities to practice all 4 language domains (listening, speaking, reading, writing). They listened to a recording of an English text and filled in missing parts of the transcript (cloze activity), had a couple of brief turn-and-talk discussions, practiced simultaneous interpretation of an English speech into Chinese, viewed a slide presentation about note-taking with shorthand, and then practiced using shorthand while listening to a speech in English. Following that, the professor asked 2 students to demonstrate taking shorthand notes on a whiteboard while listening to another speech. Each student read back their notes and the class discussed the level of detail that had been captured. The professor also provided a break between difficult tasks by having students play a memory game, which I thought was clever, because while it was a bit of fun, it was also practicing the use of memory tricks, which is another skill that interpreters need to develop. Overall I thought the quality of instruction was very good.

Xi'an Univ roundtable
Conversation with professors of Xi’an University’s foreign language department

We finished our visit with a roundtable discussion with some professors. They provided some stats about Xi’an University and its foreign language program, and answered some of our questions. Notes I took during this meeting:

  • University was established in 1993, and is the only one sponsored by the Xi’an government
  • They have 3 campuses
  • 1,000 teachers, 700 of them full-time
  • Areas of study in their department: English language, Japanese language, translation/interpretation
  • University operates on a semester system: Fall Sept.-Jan., Spring March-July, break in Feb, summer vacation in Aug.
  • They have an international exchange program in Grand Rapids, MI, and are looking to cultivate relationships with other universities
  • Employment rate of their graduates is 70%; most are employed as teachers

A teacher’s question: What is the university’s greatest challenge? Answer: Building connections for international cooperation, and the fact that some students fear going abroad. Question I asked: What do Chinese students need from American teachers when they study in the US?  Answer: They need teachers to understand their Confucian culture and how that makes them reluctant to speak in the classroom. They need lots of encouragement to take risks.

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After the university we visited Qinglong Buddhist Temple, which isn’t usually open to tourists. Our local guide, Peter, had negotiated the opportunity for us to meet with a resident monk who spoke English. The fact that we were educators may have carried some weight. We were told that it was the first time the monastery had ever allowed such a dialogue, and that this monk wanted to try it as an experiment to increase the temple’s contact with the outside world. It was a truly extraordinary experience.

The noviate monk, who used the Western name David, had been an interpreter for diplomats in his pre-monastic life, which explained his excellent English. Like a good teacher, he started our meeting by asking what it was we wanted to learn, listened to our questions, and then proceeded to answer them at length. He told us about the history of the monastery, the daily routine of their monks, his worldview as a Buddhist, and the difficult practice of meditation. He also shared surprisingly personal details about his long journey from being a family man with a successful career to taking the monastic vows. He had taken measures to ensure the financial well-being of his family before entering the monastery, but I was startled by his frank statement that his wife wasn’t happy when they divorced and that his son felt he was being abandoned by his father.

My initial reaction, as a family-oriented Westerner, was to sympathize with the son (even though he was nearly an adult by the time David took his vows), and to wonder, how can a parent choose to have no further contact with his/her child? I was taken aback by how judgemental my reaction was, felt challenged to work through my discomfort, and realized that I’d smacked up against a deep cultural divide — in other words, I was experiencing culture shock.

I listened carefully as David explained that because all lives are connected, he could do more good for his son (and the rest of the world) through his monastic practices. I reflected on this, and rested on the conclusion that although I didn’t (don’t) understand the Buddhist belief system, I could see that David was being completely open and transparent, was not motivated by ego, and was deeply sincere in his beliefs. I was humbled by the reminder that there’s so much I don’t know. And this is the biggest lesson I’ve taken away from the entire China trip: I must always remember that there are multiple truths in this world.


Day 5, part 2: The Terracotta Army Museum

Pit 1 column side view
Of the thousands of warriors, each one’s face is unique.
Pit 1 overview
The scale is staggering. It’s like trying to take a picture of the Grand Canyon.

I’ve always been fascinated by ancient ruins. Walking among things that were created by people a very long time ago fires my imagination to try to understand their worldview and what their everyday lives were like. It brings home the fact that they were real people who did real things right here, in this spot, rather than just being an abstraction of history. Archaeological sites remind me of the thrill of discovery and how much I love being a student again every so often! (Yes, I’m a nerd.)

Until this trip, I’ve always said that my favorite two places I’ve ever visited are the ruins of Pompeii and the ruins around Cusco, Peru (Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley). Now I have to add the Terracotta Warriors to the list. It’s truly a “bucket list” item!

Much like the Grand Canyon, looking at photographs before you visit doesn’t prepare you for the massive scale of the place. It’s impossible to completely capture the full scope in photos, although I tried.

While we were in Xi’an a local guide, Peter, joined us (in addition to Lee, who accompanied us during the entire trip).

Peter used to work at the site, so he was able to share a lot of detailed information about the history, discovery, and excavation process — it was perfect for an archaeology fan like me! So many facts about this place boggle the mind:

  • Of the thousands of figures they’ve excavated and re-assembled so far, no two are alike. (See photo at top)
  • The quantity of artifacts still unearthed is probably greater than what they’ve uncovered so far.
So much still to excavate
  • It takes many months to reassemble each life-sized warrior from thousands of shards. They’ve set up a “field hospital” for the archaeologists to work in, complete with gurneys, delicate tools, bright lights and magnifying lenses.
Reassembly lab aka field hospital
Field hospital
TCW horse reassembly closeup
Reassembling horses (next to field hospital)
TCW reassembly closeup
Reassembly in progress
TCW Pit 3 archaeologists
Archaeologists working in Pit 3, which was opened more recently than Pit 1.
  • Some of the figures still have visible paint when first uncovered, but unfortunately exposure to air makes it fade and peel off in a matter of minutes.
  • They haven’t even touched Emperor Shi Huang Di’s tomb, which is buried under man-made hills. They may not do so for another hundred years, when archaeological methods are more advanced, because they want to ensure that they don’t inadvertently damage it during excavation.
Emperor Qin's tomb under hills
Qin Emperor Shi Huang Di’s tomb is under these hills. It’s been mapped with sonar, but currently there are no plans to excavate.
  • Peter believes there is likely another set of warriors on the opposite site of the emperor’s tomb, because if the purpose of the warriors is to protect the emperor, it doesn’t make sense to leave one flank unprotected. It’ll be interesting to see in time if he’s right.

Nothing more I can say that can’t be better conveyed with images, so I’ll conclude with some more photos.

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Day 5: Elementary school visit – Xiahe Village Primary School

Before describing our first visit to an elementary school, I need to share some background information about primary education in China that our guide, Lee, provided us: The first thing to know is that the labels “preschool” and “kindergarten” mean the opposite of what they do in the US.  In China, kindergarten is for children ages 3 to 6, is usually full-day, and it focuses on self-care skills and socialization. Basically it’s a combination of what we in the US call daycare and preschool. At age 6 Chinese children start elementary school, and the first year focuses on academic foundations, much like American kindergarten does. However, their name for that first year is preschool school.

According to Lee, preschool school students learn basic math and phonetic reading using pinyin, which is Mandarin written with Latin/Roman letters. They don’t start learning Mandarin characters until 1st grade. (As a reading teacher, this fascinates me, so I’ll explore it more later.) Chinese elementary schools typically include preschool school through grade 6.  Now on to our first elementary school visit…

Xiahe Primary School is a public elementary school that serves a somewhat rural community, about 40 km outside of the city of Xi’an. I say “somewhat rural” because the school is near the famous Terracotta Warriors museum, which has affected this former farming village profoundly. The 1974 discovery and ongoing excavation of this enormous archaeological site exposes them to the wider world in way that most other rural areas don’t experience. After all, not many Chinese villages can say that a US President has visited them, as Bill Clinton did in 1998 in one of the first stops of his state visit to China.

When we arrived, the principal told us about the school’s history. It was founded in 1896 by a man who was a scholar and practitioner of Kung Fu, because he was concerned about the high rate of illiteracy in the area. The school was previously located on land that is now part of the Terracotta Army Museum, and initially it served about 20 students. Education in those days consisted of copying, memorizing and reciting ancient Chinese poems; there was no instruction of mathematics and the like.

Over time the school grew to about 100 students. Originally it was private, but in the 1970s it was converted to a public village school, I gathered around the same time that they moved the campus to its third & present location. Currently the school has 15 teachers and 147 students, and there are 7 classes that range from preschool school to grade 6, one class per grade.

After the principal’s introduction, we all went into the 4th grade classroom. A couple of teachers from our group were invited to give a mini-lesson to the class, and the students sang a couple of songs for us, one in English and one in Chinese. In the Chinese song I noticed a word that sounded like “mama” repeated frequently, and one of our guides confirmed that it was a song about appreciating one’s mother — interesting to hear that “mama” is universal! After that, we each sat with a student for some one-on-one interaction.

Last of all, a group girls performed a dance and song. I filmed it, but it turns out I can’t post videos on this site, so here’s an image captured from the video.

Xiahe student dance
Xiahe students performing a traditional dance

Day 4: First school visit – Jun Yi High School

Jun Yi High School is a private boarding school in Beijing. It is a “senior middle school,” which is equivalent to grades 9-12 in the US. The school has about 500 students who choose between the national program, which prepares them for study at Chinese universities, or the international program, which prepares them to attend university in the US.  This school is expensive; tuition is about $30,000 in US dollars, but they do have a scholarship program. During our visit, we met some teachers and students of the international program. Some notes I took during the director’s introduction:

  • All instruction is in English.
  • There are 2 paths students can take: Complete 2 years of HS there and then 2 years at a community college in the US, or 3 years of HS there and then go on to a 4-year American university.
  • Most content teachers are international; teachers of English specifically are from the US.
  • Students’ daily schedule is long: 6:30am wake-up call, exercise before the morning classes 8-11:30am, a 2 1/2-hour break in the middle of the day (includes lunch), afternoon classes until 4:40pm, another 2-hour break (includes dinner), and then study hall and “other activities” 6:40-9:15pm.
  • In response to a question about school sports, the director said they offer baseball, swimming and horseback riding. However, given the rigorous schedule, it wasn’t clear to me when students have the opportunity to practice sports (or any other extracurricular activity, for that matter).
  • In the classrooms, computers are available generally only to teachers, but students do use computers for TOEFL prep.

After the introduction, we had the opportunity to visit some classes; the one I observed was World History. It was a very small group (4 students), and the instruction was textbook-based. A bit to my surprise, the American textbook they were using is one that is used in my school district, Modern World History: Patterns of Interaction, published by Holt McDougal. The students’ texts were black and white copies (in violation of American copyright law no doubt, but who’s going to enforce it outside the US?), but the teacher had a color copy that he projected on a screen so that students could see color keys on maps and graphs.

Students took turns reading paragraphs of text aloud, and the teacher led students in interpreting and analyzing the information. He asked students critical questions based on maps in the text to help them understand each countries’ situation. My Asian students are usually reluctant to ask questions, so I was a little surprised that these students seemed to feel comfortable asking questions to clarify their understanding.

After observations we had time to talk with some students. I had an extended conversation with a 16-year-old boarding student who is from a more rural part of the country. She is there on a scholarship and expressed some reservations about the rigor and trajectory of her education — she lamented the lack of free time to draw and play music. The students’ oral English proficiency was very good, and they had many questions about schools in the US.

My general takeaway from this visit is that the school demands academic excellence, and that the students feel great pressure to live up to expectations. Look at these motivational posters hung in the hallways, illustrated with pictures of American universities… no pressure, right?

Once we completed this school visit, we headed to the train station to take a bullet train to Xi’an. We traveled 670 miles in about 5 hours! (Roughly the distance from New York to Cincinnati.) Oddly, it didn’t seem so fast when looking out the window, but there was a monitor in the train car that posted current speed.

Train to Xi'an
300 kilometers/hour = 186.4 miles/hour

Days 2 & 3: Wall-to-wall tourism

June 17 and 18 were jam-packed with amazing tourist experiences in and around Beijing. We were shepherded by Lee (Li), the Chinese guide who accompanied us throughout the entire trip. His English was very good, and as a native of Beijing he was extremely knowledgeable about all of the sites we visited. He also shared fascinating insights into the Chinese perspective on history, traditions, social change, education, and life in general.

On the first morning we visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. A few shots of these:


In the afternoon we visited a silk workshop, and then did some shopping at a large indoor market of vendors selling all sorts of gifts and souvenirs. We capped off our first full day in China with a Beijing duck dinner.


Next morning the bus took us outside the city to the Mutianyu Section of the Great Wall. A chair lift took us partway up; after that we had to climb a LOT of stairs to get to the highest watchtower. Such iconic views!


Going back down was unexpectedly exciting because we had the option of taking individual toboggans instead of the chair lift. Here’s a tourist shot they took on my way down:

toboggan ride

After lunch we explored the Summer Palace, which is actually a garden (the name in Chinese translates to “summer garden”) and Houhai Lake — both beautiful.

In the evening we walked through some hutongs, alleys that wind through old, traditional-style neighborhoods. I was strongly reminded of neighborhoods in Latin America, where each house is surrounded by walls and has a courtyard in the center. Walking by we could occasionally glimpse through an open door to see home interiors, each its own little world. I didn’t take photos because it felt like it would be an invasion of privacy.

Day 3 wrapped up with a dinner at a private home in the hutong area, followed by a night-time walk through a shopping district.

The following day was our first school visit, which I’ll discuss in detail in the next post, since learning about schools was the meat of this trip.