I DON’T know where to start this story. The usual rule is that an introduction should be 25 words or less, with pretty much everything encapsulated in that tight and punchy summation.
But this is a story I’ve lived and one that has immeasurably changed me. It’s not something that is easy to whittle down.
I caught a glimpse of the future. I can tell you something too: it’s not so bad. With the quality of the children we have in our midst – both here and overseas – we can aspire to something grand. The world can and will be a better place.
I was part of a Leongatha Primary School party – 20 present and past students, an equal number of parents, a contingent of teachers and principal Rob Higgins – that took a two week trip to China. Our students were ‘embedded’ at the Changshu Experimental School (located in the south-eastern part of eastern-China’s Jiangsu Province) for four days.
Changshu boasts more than a million people, but we were something of a curio. In fact, I saw only two other westerners in the time I was there. People stood and stared at us but instantly smiled when we greeted them: “Nῐ hᾰo.”
Our students and teachers made the front page of the Changshu Daily, with a story (not sure exactly what it said) and colour photo.
We saw the tourist highlights too: the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, and the back street markets of Beijing, Suzhou and Shanghai. Not to mention those truer versions of China: the beggars with lost limbs; and the strange culinary delights, which included spiders, chickens feet, crickets, dogs, cats, mice and scorpions (though maybe these creatures really are just for the tourists, for I certainly didn’t see any Chinese people eating them).
The biggest highlight, though, was the transformation of our kids from small town innocents to world travellers. In truth, they were probably more adaptable to our strange new environment than most of the adults.
Their Changshu buddies, who they’d already come to know through emails and Skype-ing, became instant friends. They were waiting at the school for us as we arrived by bus, with placards saying ‘welcome’. More than a few of us came over a little misty at the sight.
Over the next four days our children would come to know they’re buddies intimately. The Aussie parents too would get to know the families of our children’s buddies, dining and sightseeing with them. The thing that struck me about the Chinese people – aside from the breathtaking beauty of the women – was their friendliness and relaxed charm. They observed traditions, but were remarkably like Australians in temperament.
International media reports dwell on crackdowns and imprisonments – which I don’t doubt occur – but the overwhelming feeling in China is one of optimism. China is not the closed society you might imagine, but a modern one where fashion and technology dominate.
Our official “welcome ceremony” at the school was headed by the ever smiling principal Mr Bo, who talked up the credentials of his school through an interpreter.
“Guest from Australia, we will have a great welcome for you,” he said. And he was true to his word. The welcome never stopped.
LPS principal Rob Higgins told me the success of the trip “exceeded dramatically anything we’d hoped for”.
“When we walked into that dumpling making session at the end at the farewell dinner at Changshu Experimental School and there were Aussie parents and Chinese parents with their heads down, busily communicating, it was a really good indication of how close everyone had become,” he said.
“The fact that the school wants us back there every year is great. We achieved all our goals and had a good time as well.”
Mr Higgins said he believes that parents and children had grown throughout the experience. It was a claim that was irrefutable. I saw it with my own eyes, especially through observing my daughter Amelia. I felt the change within myself as well.
When we left, tears were shed in Australian and Chinese eyes. The friendship will continue. I’d go back in heartbeat, and I know I wouldn’t be alone. There’d be a planeload of other Aussies along for the ride. Changshu is half a world away, but not in our hearts and minds.
By Matt Dunn
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