Visit to the land of many people
Teacher with ties to Conant High School makes trek East
Rob Huckins, a former Conant High School teacher and graduate of the school, hiking the trail to the Great Wall of China.
Rob Huckins towers above a group of Chinese tourists in China.
Rob Huckins on the walkway of an open market in Tianjin.
Rob Huckins at the main site of the third-century B.C. Terracotta Army in Xi'an.
Last April, I traveled to China as part of a cultural exchange contingent from two New Hampshire high schools — Merrimack and Hollis-Brookline — made up of five adults and 10 students. Our first week was spent in and around Tanggu, a coastal city of roughly half a million people located in the Tianjin municipality, a two hour drive south of Beijing. While the students lived with host families and attended the Bin Hai Foreign Language School each day, the adults toured various schools in the area. During the second week of the trip, students and adults traveled together to various sites in Beijing and Xi’an before returning to the United States.
Memories from the experience will stay with me for a long time to come. The sight of over a thousand students in lines, their blue track suit uniforms all visually forming a dark sea of sameness. Only their shoes, all of them peeking from underneath dark blue and white striped pant legs, offered some measure of quiet rebellion, their bright colors clearly visible. We ate a home-cooked dinner in the upper floor apartment of the school’s principal and his wife that rivaled any American Thanksgiving. We were treated as family, an experience both humbling and joyous.
The sight of the Great Wall unfolding over the horizon was awe-inspiring. The McDonald’s near our hotel in Tanggu had workers on mopeds and bicycles who delivered. The grocery store in Tanggu blared “Call me maybe” more than once during our time in the city. The film “Titanic” was showing in multiple movie theaters. The 798 Art District unfolded like an urban Chinese SoHo.
We heard of the horrific Boston Marathon Bombing when we got up one morning. I think being in China during such a monumental event was both a blessing and a curse. It spared us from a constant barrage of news coverage and allowed us a reprieve from what people at home were experiencing. But a feeling of helplessness permeated the days following the bombing, one which lessened once everyone knew their friends and family were safe.
I struggled to remember even the simplest of Chinese expressions, even after studying my limited list of “helpful terms” on the flight to China. Any successful conversation was a credit to our hosts — not me. We climbed the Great Wall. We walked amidst the ancient Terracotta Army. We went to Tiananmen Square and strode silently by an entombed Mao Zedong. We explored the Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven. We took in the serenity of the Summer Palace. I walked the City Wall in Xi’an after traveling by overnight train to and from the city. We were besieged with numerous picture requests from people everywhere we went.
I saw students and adults in a completely different way and was thankful for their companionship. We had a lot of fun and would travel with each and every one of them again without a second thought.
There were many adjustments to be made while visiting China. We were told to only drink bottled water. As a result, tea was available in fairly large quantities, although we had a generous supply of bottled water given to us all day long. For many visitors, the lack of any extended privacy in China can be wearing. Crowds roam along like an enormous hermit crab. Homes are much smaller, often making average homes in America seem like gratuitous and meandering castles.
Often, it is said that trips to faraway places are life-changing experiences, that when one undertakes something like this they will never be the same. In some ways, this is overreaching. I returned to my life after the two weeks were over and was happy to do so for the most part. I certainly missed my family during the time I was gone. But I also missed the trip as soon as it was over. The experience made me appreciate and love my American roots even more than before.
Mostly, I will remember China for one thing: the people. Our hosts and guides were among the most generous and consistently patient people I have ever encountered. There were gifts, food and smiles at every turn. I learned to love chopsticks and divorced coffee for the most part. The Chinese people rank among the most gracious I have ever met. They always spoke of your comfort, not theirs. We were given more gifts by our hosts than we could ever repay, so much so most everyone in our group needed to buy an extra suitcase to get their new treasures home. Vastly more important, all of us made friends and personal connections, which will not soon be forgotten, surely taking home the most valuable souvenir of all.
Rob Huckins recently published an e-book about his experience in China, entitled “Two Flags in China: A Travelogue.” He is a social studies teacher at Hollis-Brookline High School. He graduated from Conant High School, where he later taught for eight years. He lives in Milford with his wife and two children.