May 2008, Long Island
Summer 2007 was by all counts a highlight in both Luran and Yiran’s life. They attended the Yinghua-in-Beijing Summer Chinese Language and Leadership Institute (hereafter YiB) which was a boarding program with 3 weeks in Beijing (based in No. 4 Middle School 北京四中), 1 week in Huairou (based in Legacy Inn 新新小栈), and 1 optional week in Inner Mongolia. I participated in the Program as its Assistant Director, responsible for improving language instructional qualities, conducting field trip orientations, and communicating with parents on a daily basis. Luran and Yiran lived with roommates close to their age. I lived in a separate room on a different floor of the dorm building. This was the first big challenge Yiran and Luran have had to face in their lives and has probably given them the most enduring memory among all their away-from-home experiences thus far.
The program itself was 5 weeks long, but the preparation took one whole year. We had intentions of sending the children to this summer program back in 2006, as we felt that this would be the only program of its kind that we would feel comfortable with – it is run by Bonnie, an extraordinary individual on many levels as well as Dad’s Beida alumna. But when we broached the topic, while Luran was ready to go, Yiran started crying the moment she heard that she’d be sleeping away from home. So we decided to wait a year. And we used the waiting time to prepare the children – we made sure that they (especially Yiran) can take a shower by themselves, that they both can hand-wash their underwear and socks (as we were told that the dorm washing machines in Beijing do not accept these items), and that their Chinese language is strong enough for further immersion study. We bought a carryon suitcase for each of them and gave them ample opportunities for packing and managing their personal belongings when we took domestic and international vacations. We shared with them our trust in and respect for Bonnie. We kept repeating the message that while our bodies may sometimes not be with them, our love always always will be… So, by early 2007, Yiran was ready, at least psychologically. At school, her teacher asked the class to record milestones in their lives. For the Year 2007, Yiran put down “I’m going to Yinghua in China.”
Bonnie asked all prospective students to write an essay explaining why they wanted to attend YiB and why they should be accepted. In response, Luran and Yiran wrote the following:
我的名字是逸然, 我8岁。我来到这里是因为我能够碰到别的朋友，新的和旧的。我也能够有一些时间没有妈妈老看着我 。要是我去，我也能够去露营。要是我去露营，我可能会看见鹿。
Luran’s response was in the form of lists:
- 逸然，萝卜，和我的朋友 Gary 和 Edward都要去夏令营。
- 我喜欢 Bonnie 老师。
- 我会看地图和用指南针。 谢谢你让我去英华夏令营。夏天见！
Our original plan was that I will be with YiB for the first 4 weeks and then dad will join the children for the Inner Mongolia part when I direct my own Stony Brook University study abroad program in Shanghai. The plan was nearly aborted after dad’s leukemia diagnosis in May. But dad was insistent that life should go on, as fully and fruitfully as possible, for each and all of us. So, I declined my university responsibilities and stayed with the Yinghua program for its entirety. In the mean time, we were still hoping then that dad’s blood counts would be normalized in a few weeks and would be able to join us in China toward the end of the summer. Luran and Yiran understood that, given dad’s illness, our decision to attend YiB was not a slight one, and that we went as planned because YiB would enrich our experience, build our character, and broaden our mind and that’s what dad would like to see happen.
The 2007 YiB program consisted of 23 children, 20 from the U.S., and 3 from Beijing International Schools. Most children are aged between 9 and 12. Yiran was one of the three youngest. Luran, Yiran and six other children were placed in the Advanced level Chinese language class (although Yiran was on the border line judging from the written placement test on the first day). Their class had a masterful teacher Ma Laoshi 马老师, who taught the children everything from sentence grammar to idioms and set phrases, from reading and retelling of the Long Corridor Stories 长廊故事 to listening of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms 三国演义. The course materials were challenging. While Luran and Yiran were generally successful at browsing the materials and getting the gist of the readings, close, careful comprehension was not yet within reach. Homework was substantive. There were many new characters that needed to be copied and practiced each day but the recall rate was usually low on the next day when/if the teacher happened to check. Tests were made very lenient. The exit exam was designed for everyone to high pass; Luran and Yiran had no problem scoring in the high 90s, as did most of their classmates.
Luran and Yiran both took front row seats, were always ready to answer the teacher’s questions, and needed no encouragement or supervision to complete their written work. It takes a lot of time for Luran to write Chinese; whenever he couldn’t finish homework within self-study 自习 time, he would bring his work to the dorm and finish all the work on the same day it was assigned. Until this day, they still remember some of what they learned from Ma Laoshi. As we do weekly Chinese reading, sometimes we come across a character that mom thought is new and would try to explain, but they would interject, “妈妈，我们已经会了！马老师教我们了！” And one day we were discussing the importance of not intelligence but diligence. Yiran said, “Oh yeah, 书山有路勤为径，学海无涯苦作舟!”
During the three weeks in Beijing, after Chinese language classes in the morning, the children took a variety of culture-specific arts and sports activities in the afternoon, such as singing, Chinese yo-yo, jianzi, calligraphy, paper-cutting, fan making, Peking opera face drawing, abacus, and so forth. Yiran had fun doing all of them. Luran missed a couple of sessions due to health reasons but enjoyed whatever he did attend. (After the summer, at his 11th birthday party, Luran invited his friends to play with Chinese yo-yo in the backyard. During long car rides these days, Luran and Yiran still sing the song 朋友！) They were often praised by their teachers as being attentive and hardworking. The teachers said to mom, “您的两个孩子学习习惯真好！一看就不一样！” Mom certainly hoped that this was a genuine, objective remark.
The weekends were filled with various fieldtrips including the Great Wall, Tiananmen, the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, Beihai Park, the Bell Tower, si-he-yuan, science museum, silk factory, cloisonné factory, china workshop, etc., etc. I gave an orientation before each trip (in English so that all children can understand it) and assigned work sheets for most of the destinations. I had developed these fieldtrip worksheets and orientation lecture notes prior to the program when we were all still in the U.S. I made a point not revealing any of this to Luran or Yiran then so as not to spoil their fun during the program. And it worked. Yiran was always absorbed and active during mom’s lectures. Luran missed a couple of lectures as he was not feeling too well and but always loved the individual make-up lessons I gave him afterwards in his dorm. Both of them were among the most conscientious students who completed all the worksheets.
At the graduation ceremony (which I missed because I was attending an academic conference in Nanjing for 3 days), Yiran and three other students performed san-ju-ban 三句半, while Luran entertained the audience with his piano playing. Yiran liked the san-ju-ban so much that after we returned to the States she emailed Bonnie for a written copy so that she could memorize it and write it. Ever since the program, Luran and Yiran have been speaking more Chinese and reading Chinese with greater ease at home.
While in-class and field-trip learning did not present much significant challenge for them, Luran and Yiran had to solve some big practical problems on their own.
Their practical challenges began in the dorm. The three youngest girls were assigned to share one dorm room (while all other children have only one roommate). Yiran’s two roommates were not in the habit of completing assignments independently or voluntarily. I (or He Laoshi, as all other children, and sometimes even Yiran and Luran, called me) asked Yiran to collaborate with her roommates on the first set of fieldtrip questions. She waited, and waited, and it was almost bed time and she got very tired, but her roommates were still not ready to do any work. She completed all the questions by herself. She did not mind doing the work, but she was not happy with her roommates. And as the days went by, she found little in common with them. However, instead of being frustrated, she figured out a way to be happy. She made firm friends with the two girls in the dorm right opposite hers, who were 2-3 years older, socially sophisticated, and academically strong. She spent most of her time in the opposite dorm and didn’t return to her own until it was bed time.
In Huairou, the roommate situation presented an even greater challenge. The week in Huairou was designed as a joint one-week camp with Chinese children from China. Each of the YiB kids was paired with one to two Chinese roommates. Yiran had two roommates, both a bit older and bigger than she, one sweet and gentle with long hair, the other kind and serious with a short hair style and a strong build. For the first two days, Yiran thought that she had a girl roommate and a boy roommate. She got very nervous when she went to the bathroom and when her roommates changed in front of her. Furthermore, she was not comfortable that her roommates always seemed to treat her like a baby. They held her hand, picked food for her at the cafeteria, did other things for her without asking for her opinion, and dipped their own eating utensils in shared dishes without using the serving spoon. Yiran grew sullen. She told me that she did not like her roommates. I asked her to focus not on what they do but on their good intentions. She promised to try. But I saw her hanging out with YiB friends whenever possible for the first couple of days of the week.
An important part of the program was leadership training. Bonnie gave the children much needed, timely lectures on leadership qualities and profiles and asked them to articulate and reflect upon their difficulties and think of ways to overcome these difficulties in light of leadership skills. After one such session midweek, Yiran felt better and came to understand that her roommates probably had the best intentions even though they may be following a different set of cultural norms. She was able to interact with them a bit better during the rest of the week and even spent one whole evening chatting and sharing their respective home experiences.
Luran had some serious problems to tackle too. His roommate AX at si-zhong was a very nice boy, but he had one big problem: he was glued to TV. AX couldn’t wind down without TV till late at night and couldn’t do anything without watching TV first. Luran generally does not watch TV; the only TV programs he watches at home are NOVA and occasionally some important news. He could not sleep when AX was watching TV. For days he couldn’t sleep well at night and felt especially tired during the day. The deprivation of sleep clearly aggravated his health. It got so bad that he would need to miss class for half a day each week, just to catch up on some sleep. One night he was so tired and he couldn’t sleep and he cried, with big tear drops rolling down his cheeks. Tian Laoshi, the male resident teacher, came downstairs and knocked on my door. For that one night (the only night during the entire program), Luran slept in my room in the extra bed… About the middle of the second week, Luran eventually worked out a compromise with AX. AX could continue watching his TV as long as he turned on “mute” and Luran would use a bed sheet to separate his bed area from the TV to block out light from TV. The three weeks’ stay at si-zhong was tough for Luran. Up until that point in his life, his living and sleeping condition had been ideally suited to his needs and preferences. Having a roommate like AX was certainly challenging to him, physically, and mentally too.
The roommate situation got much better for Luran during the week in Huairou. Whereas most YiB children (including Yiran) appeared to be going through some adjustments with their local Chinese roommates, Luran and his Chinese roommate Wang Haoyang just hit it off! They were on such excellent terms that Wang Haoyang said to me, “老师，你看，我们俩形影不离!” I believe a very big part of the reason is that Luran speaks Chinese well and that he is always willing to speak Chinese. (This is very important. In general, YiB children’s Chinese is far better than the local children’s English. So, if the YiB child is reluctant to speak Chinese, that would probably mean the end of the conversation.) The two boys were always seen sitting next to each other, in the cafeteria and on the bus, chatting constantly. During one of the Outward Bound activities that required the collaboration of an American team and a Chinese team in the building of a bridge, Luran and Wang Haoyang each represented their respective team as the communicator. At the end of the Huairou week, Luran and Wang Haoyang received the only “Best Partners” award in the camp that had a total of 58 children (both from YiB and from local areas).
There were other problems at the dorm. The dorms are designed for adults. The shower head was so high that the young girls in Yiran’s room could not use it. In the beginning, Jenny (another YiB assistant director) helped the girls with their showers each day. The weather was so hot and the kids sweated so much. I was very concerned with their hygiene but tried not to say a word. Then Gong Laoshi, the head resident teacher, lowered the shower head (by using a rope and some tape). One day, I was told by Bonnie and Yiran that there’d be a surprise for me—it turned out that Yiran and the other two young girls were doing a good job taking showers by themselves! So there was a lot of learning for me to do as well: Lesson No. 1: Learn to let go of my children.
All along I was worried that Luran, more than Yiran, might find it particularly difficult to get along well with other children, as he is so distinctly unique on many levels. I was proven wrong. While many children in YiB formed small (and sometimes exclusive) groups, Luran related to everyone easily and equally well. Yes, as usual, he was constantly sharing his views and thoughts vehemently, but he never held bad feelings toward anyone. One child in the program was very bright but socially challenging and seemed to be always marching to the beat of a different drum. No one seemed to enjoy his company or association. But Luran did not see him any differently and in fact had a good time with him: the two would sit next to each other in cafeteria and in restaurants, chatting about history and weaponry and sharing bouts of laughter while playing verbal games of pretend world wars. For days, I noticed that that child never smiled except when he was chatting with Luran.
Luran befriended another very special child JR as well. JR was one of the very few in the program who do not come from a Chinese speaking family background. Not only is his proficiency in Chinese minimal, but also is his general exposure to the world and world knowledge. When it became clear that JR had never heard of the Jewish Holocaust, everyone sneered at him. Luran did not. Instead, he defended JR, “That’s ok. There is so much to know. No one knows everything.” JR’s roommate in si-zhong did not like him. Big-sized children excluded him in their activities; small-sized children did not welcome him. His shoes were giving him trouble and he often came to me for band-aids. As I applied antibiotic cream and band-aids to his ankles, his was tearful and told me that everyone was mean and that nobody cared. I said, “That’s not true, we care…” And he interrupted me, “I guess not everyone. Luran is pretty nice to me.” JR attended the last week in Inner Mongolia. Bonnie was relieved that Luran was on board too; otherwise it’d be hard to convince any other child to share a room with JR. On the 8-kilometer rafting trip along Hulahula River bordering China and Mongolia, Luran and JR shared a raft. Toward the end of the trip, when everyone else already got on the bank, the two of them were still stuck at a “Y” section of the river – it was obvious to all the onlookers that JR was making the wrong moves. Eventually Luran single-handedly (despite JR’s “help”) steered the raft in the right direction and finished the trip. The moment they got on the bank, the other children started shaming and teasing JR, to the point that he was in tears. Back on the bus, while JR was still in tears, Luran said to him, quietly, “It’s ok. You didn’t do it on purpose.” I was sitting in second row right behind JR and feeling very proud of Luran. Later in a private moment with me, Luran said, “JR is not a bad person. He is just different. I don’t know why nobody likes him.” I have often lamented on Luran’s seeming insensitiveness towards others’ feelings. But this time, I came to see that his “insensitiveness” can be pure and free of bias and thus beautiful too. Hence my Lesson No. 2: Don’t label my children.
Another surprise for me was that one of the youngest girls (one of Yiran’s roommates) had a crush on Luran. For the longest time, I held secret worries that Luran won’t be able to find a wife :) ! He is so very special that he’s like from a different planet—will there ever be a girl who is wise enough to see through all his apparent silliness and appreciate his essential qualities, kind enough to help and nurture him, and smart and pure enough to share his joys and passions? I was surprised, amused, and I must say consoled when I found out that AG, a precocious 7 year old, fell in love with Luran. Luran loves to talk, about science, history, the world, anything from dirt to divine. AG basked in his verbosity and knowledge. She gazed upon him, and smiled beautiful smiles. One day, May and Ruiduan (two older children) pointed that out to me in whisper, “Look, He Laoshi, they are so cute together!” The even bigger surprise for me was that Luran knew about AG’s affection for him and was totally cool about it.
Yiran’s best friend in YiB was Jessica, a girl who attends international school in Beijing. In Huairou, Jessica had to be picked up by her parents mid week and leave the program early. Yiran was crying the whole day. Jessica left on Wednesday. Yiran fell sick and felt feverish on Thursday—I suspect Jessica’s departure might have a little bit of something to do with this. The weekend after Huairou we all returned to Beijing and stayed at 科技大学. Because Yiran was sick, she slept in my room with me, and we had the same rooming arrangement during the 5th week as we traveled in Inner Mongolia as well. Yiran was somewhat torn during the last week. She obviously enjoyed the comfort of staying with mom (especially when she was still sick and needed medication), but she was also hoping to room with the other girls on the Inner Mongolia trip, May and Shannon, as that would be more fun. Remembering how she was so clingy to me just one year ago, I was pleased to see that YiB had enabled Yiran to want to room with friends more than with mom.
Overall, Yiran was well liked by everybody. The bigger girls in the program showered her with kindness and she clearly enjoyed their sisterly affection. Chloe liked to have Yiran sit on her lap whenever she got a chance. Shannon liked to fix Yiran’s pony tail. Ruiduan helped her climb the wild Great Wall 野长城. May and Shannon let Yiran lie next to them in their beds in the sleeping cart on the train. In addition, Yiran also received her share of affection from the boys – two boys in particular, JS and ED. JS (whom Luran befriended) appeared generally quite anti-social, but somehow he fell for Yiran. He offered Yiran his favorite potato chips (junk food not allowed as per YiB rules). He briefed Yiran on activities that she could not attend. And when his feelings were inadvertently made public (I just figured out how as I am finishing this piece of writing: JS was telling everyone that he had a secret but that no one should know about his secret. However, everyone could tell from his deeds what his secret was), JS was so hurt that he cried. When Yiran was sick toward the end of the 4th week, JS would come to my room, ask how Yiran was, and offered his own Tylenol—a most remarkable gesture of care and concern that was otherwise hard to imagine to come from him. ED liked Yiran – many children knew this all along; but the word didn’t reach me until the end of the 4th week, when ED spent 200 Yuan and bought a newly published Harry Potter #7 as a gift to Yiran. When he learned that Luran had also bought a copy, he said he would just lend his copy to Yiran to read, so that Yiran did not have to wait for Luran to finish the book first. Like Luran, Yiran was also aware of the boys’ affection but was completely cool about it. I was the last one to find out all this. Hence my Lesson No. 3: Don’t assume “mom knows best”.
As far as Luran and Yiran are concerned, the most important lessons they received during YiB were not the language or culture lessons but the leadership training sessions that Bonnie gave them. Till this day, they still remember this: When things get tough, we ought to think (1) whether we can make direct changes, (2) whether we can make indirect changes, and (3) whether we change our perspectives. Throughout the program, Bonnie gave the children ample opportunities to reflect upon their circumstances and their behavior, to apply the principles she gave them, and to make a difference.
All three of us also learned that health is of paramount importance. Luran tried very hard, behaved responsibly and well, but just could not keep up with all the activities. Yiran was very spirited and strong all the way through the program but also fell sick at the end of the 4th week when she developed fever. All the teachers in the program reminded me that Luran and Yiran need to be stronger physically.
Yiran learned that she can make wise decisions. As I mentioned before, the day we returned to Beijing from Huairou, Yiran was sick and needed to rest in bed, eating little, drinking 佳得乐 jia-de-le (the Chinese version of Gatorade) and taking Tylenol every four hours. She moved in with me. The night before the trip to Inner Mongolia, I was contemplating cancelling Yiran’s participation. I would stay with Yiran in Beijing, and Luran would join the group trip by himself (Luran handled himself so well for the first 4 weeks that I grew very confident in him). When Yiran was sleeping, I asked for Luran’s opinion and he said no problem at all. But when dad called the next morning, he reasoned that since it looked like Yiran was having a viral infection, while it’s not getting much better very soon, it wouldn’t get much worse either. He suggested that Yiran herself decide whether or not she wanted to go to Inner Mongolia. I remained entirely neutral and left the decision to Yiran. And Yiran decided YES, even though she was still on Tylenol. So later that day, we all flew to Hailar. That turned out to be a great decision made by Yiran. Otherwise she and I would have missed the splendor of Inner Mongolia.
I learned that I should suspend my judgments on the children. Both Luran and Yiran surprised me in a number of ways during the program. In addition to what has been described above, Luran would volunteer to sing a long Chinese song (朋友) solo in front of a big audience of 60-70 people in Huairou!!
I also learned that I can make grave mistakes. I was supposed to bring a friend’s child back to the U.S. For some reason, on the day of travel, I could not find the child’s relatives who were taking him to the Beijing International Airport from their hometown in Shijiazhuang. We waited and waited at the airport but just could not find them. The mistake was that I did not phone his relatives on the day before travel to confirm the specific meeting time and place. And, what was worse, on the day of travel, I did not have any means of communication; I had returned my cell phone to my college friend who lent me the cell phone during our stay in China. So we left without our friend’s child, who had to fly by himself the next day. I miserably failed our friend’ expectations and nothing can ever repair that mistake of mine.
It was a total of 7 weeks in China including the 5-week Yinghua Program and 2-week visits with family and friends in Shanghai and Beijing before and after the program. This was the first time I single-parented the children for an extended time. Dad gave each of us a walkie-talkie, which we kept in our pouch and turned on and set to the same secured channel whenever we had to be separated for while (e.g., when Luran had to go to the bathroom in the huge and crowded Beijing train station while I needed to be with Yiran and all our luggage). We packed emergency money and phone numbers of local relatives and friends in the children’s pouches. Dad and I were in touch a couple of times a day via MSN instant messaging, Skype, and emails. Dad called Yiran and Luran when he could catch them in their rooms. Each night I would write a report of the day and email it to dad who would then post it on the YiB web for all the other parents to read. Many a night I felt so wiped out but the thought of dad waiting for the daily journal and being the first one to hear about our activities kept me going. Because I had access to a wireless online card, I was able to be in touch with dad from anywhere, even on the train or from any hotel in Inner Mongolia. So dad was actually in close touch with us, except that he was not entirely with us.
When news that dad couldn’t make the China trip reached us (during the 2nd week), Luran understood that it was in the best interest of dad’s health and accepted it quite calmly. Yiran took it differently. She was sad and in tears. I knew that we were taking this trip not just for ourselves, but also for dad. Our YiB 2007 experiences have enriched us all, dad included.