Following the visit to Malong, the next big event that had the boys nervously excited was the day that was to be spent with the Chinese families. Unlike other situations, where less confident boys could exist behind the language skills of the more developed Chinese speakers, being by themselves would ensure that there was nowhere to hide (cue clichéd horror music from the shower scene of Psycho).
Thus, on our way to the pick up zone, we saw a combination of false bravado (picture a Chihuahua holding its ground to a Rottweiler), quiet contemplation, and straight cut fear. However, despite the fears, the boys found their time with their families to be the most rewarding experience of the trip and we have decided to share an example from one of the boys’ diaries below:
Today was the best day yet. The second we walked into the school I could tell that today was going to be awesome. I saw a young girl holding up a sign with my name in it. I approached her and introduced myself. Her name was Jessica and she was very kind.
We went to a shop and baked cupcakes and cake pops which was so much fun. We than had lunch which was Hao Chai and it was delicious. Then we went to Wu Chan, China’s oldest running market. During the trip, I chatted constantly with Jessica, her sister, her mum and her friend. Jessica became quite a good friend!
It was challenging because her English wasn’t very good but I managed to still talk with her.
We had dinner then bused back to the uni to home. She gave me a gift and we said our goodbyes. I thanked her for her hospitality and gave her some gifts.
Today it really showed me how hard it can be for others who are in New Zealand with a very small vocabulary. Today I loved it and it brought me a lot of joy. I even had a tear in my eye as it was such a memorable time. I will always remember this and will treasure it. Thanks for the nice day Jessica and Co.!
While the boys were out fraternising with the locals, the teaching staff were taken to the East Lake Scenic area. This is a massive park and nature reserve (87 square kilometres) that has been extensively developed with interconnecting paths and walkways. The place is renown for its picturesque landscapes, and on any given day, brides and grooms can be seen making the most of the stunning scenery during their pre-wedding photoshoots.
Another great aspect of the area are the plenitude of cycleways and easy to access bicycles. For one Chinese dollar, you can hire a bike for a half-hour to explore the area. Being generally a bit slower than the boys, the staff opted to get tickets on the electric carts that drove us around the lakes, and gave us a fantastic view of both the greenery and the locals.
The day following the family day was uneventful, with only a test and some shopping to break up the day. We had originally planned to leave Wuhan on the overnight train, but some struggling timetable logistics meant that there were to be some changes to the original schedule. Instead of taking the overnight train, we were now booked on the following morning’s high speed train to Beijing.
The train itself looks exactly as you would imagine, long and sleek with a tapered front end. After being ushered through ticketing, we soon discovered that the trains are not ideally set up for large travelling groups. This forced us to spin the movable rows of seats so that each pair faced each other. In the space provided behind the turned chairs, we jammed in our suit cases. While solving the issue of the baggage, we had created a new issue. The chairs, now facing each other, had limited space and we all found ourselves with interlocked knees, and zero leg room, for the five and a half hour ride to Beijing.
However, as cramped as we were, the students generally made the best of the situation, with people sharing spaces, wandering up and down the train, and sleeping where and whenever possible. This was made slightly more bearable by the spectacular sight of the countryside and cities whizzing by at some 300kmph.
When we arrived in Beijing, we were immediately ushered through the crowds to see the Beijing Zoo’s Panda exhibit. The Pandas are a major source of pride for the Chinese, and the animals are extremely comical. Like plush toys the size of a medium dog, the Giant (whoever named them giant must have had a seriously good stash of opium) Pandas rolled around, ate and defecated – much to the amusement of the boys. There is nothing quite so hilarious to a teenage boy as a Panda pushing poo off its mini zoo fort.
After viewing the Panda enclosures, we had about twenty minutes to see the rest of the zoo (for future reference, an hour at a zoo is far too little time). Unfortunately, the Beijing Zoo hasn’t kept up with the rest of the world. Its enclosures are tired, run down, and do not emulate the open spaced and unfenced enclosures of large modern zoos. It was quite sad to see large animals pacing in small spaces, and the Polar Bear looked so forlorn that many of our boys walked away feeling extremely sorry for it.
After another dinner at a nice restaurant, it was an early night for the boys. The following day was our ANZAC day and we had booked a spot at the New Zealand Embassy to commemorate the event. For the boys, that would mean a telephone call from the hotel staff at 3:30am to ensure that we were there on time!