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By Tammy Lane
Fayette County Public Schools
For a handful of rising seniors at Tates Creek High School, this summer’s adventure abroad fulfilled a dream inspired by a teacher back in eighth grade. “She said, ‘You have to go to China and experience it,’” Alex Gray recalled, and now they have.
Huajing Maske led the first high school study trip sponsored by the University of Kentucky’s Confucius Institute, a center for Chinese language, culture, art and business. Along with Alex, the group included Lyric Grimes, Braxton McFarland and Tatiyana Dean – all of whom she met at Lexington Traditional Magnet School.
“We immediately had the chemistry between teacher and students. It was then in 2008 that I promised these students that one day I would take them to China,” said Maske, now director of the two-year-old institute.
During the first two weeks of June, they visited the cities of Beijing, Xi’an, Shanghai and Suzhou. Alex won’t soon forget a certain 14-hour train ride.
“It was like a military ship from a long time ago, with four bunks stacked on top of each other with very little padding at all. There wasn’t any other room in the train,” he said. “I’ve taken trains in Europe, but this was nothing like Europe.”
While in Xi’an, the students stayed with host families for several days and attended a local school where they learned more about Chinese cuisine, painting, calligraphy, paper cutting and martial arts. They also toured cultural and historical sites with their Chinese partners.
“I really had to push myself and remember all the things we learned in class (at Tates Creek). That’s like survival. It’s a whole other level to ‘immersion,’” said Alex, who met few adult residents who knew any English.
“I really grew and gained confidence in my proficiency. Going back to the classroom, I’ll have a greater knowledge of colloquial elements of the language and also feel more comfortable in speaking it more fluently,” he added.
Observing his host family’s daily routine, Alex particularly noticed their focus and efficiency with household chores, homework and energy conservation despite 100-degree temperatures.
“I appreciate what little they operate on, and they’re happy doing it that way. I wish we could learn to do that here,” he said. “Definitely, this improved my cultural understanding and appreciation. You can read a book and get themes that hint at some elements. But unless you really go and are really immersed in the culture, you can’t understand.”
Maske, who launched the Chinese program at Tates Creek during the teens’ freshman year before joining the Confucius Institute, noted the importance of exposing students to other countries and widening their horizons in this 21st century global community.
“They will remember everything – from the Great Wall to the Forbidden City, from the shopping experience to their first night with the host families, from the archeological wonder of the Terracotta Warriors to the Neolithic village, from taking classes side by side with the Chinese students to sharing visits at the museums, from the Muslim street to biking on the 500-year-old city wall,” she said.
Maske also hopes the students will continue to enhance their grasp of the language through personal exchanges with new friends.
“These students are fast-learning and hard workers,” she said. “They are also ambitious, and they dare to meet the challenge. Everybody knows that Chinese is a difficult language with tones and a writing system that is totally different from any Romance language. Yet these students from a very young age made up their minds that they were going to conquer it.”
Did you know?
• The Confucius Institute serves as conduit for UK’s China initiatives and student exchange programs, conducts cultural outreaches in the community, and provides leadership and support for K-12 classrooms. For example, UK partnered with Fayette County Public Schools again this summer for the two-week STARTALK Chinese immersion camp.
• This fall, the institute will host a class for students who went on the China trip to help prepare them for the Chinese test in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at Tates Creek High School. The institute will also offer a class to prepare students for the AP Chinese test.