Seeing a vast army of Terracotta soldiers, taking a bike ride around the city wall of Xi’an in the rain, feeding “cake” to panda bears — all this fun was part of the trip-of-a-lifetime for a third of the Barnard Mandarin Magnet Elementary School’s graduating fifth-grade class.
The 13-day excursion to China in June was a reward well worth the hard work students had put in since beginning the Mandarin immersion program in their kindergarten years. Barnard students spend 50 to 80 percent of their day in kindergarten learning in Mandarin, and 50 percent of their day doing such in grades 1-5.
The experience was not an elaborate school field trip, it was parent-funded and parent-organized.
Each student was accompanied by at least one parent or adult relative, and in many cases, younger siblings also attending Barnard. This added up to 15 families.
Parents worked with the Real China travel agency to put together the itinerary, which included a tour to three cities: Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu.
When their plane landed in Beijing on June 14 (they boarded the plane on the 13th, just two days after graduation), it was time for the students to put their Mandarin speaking skills to the test.
Their fluency in Mandarin came as a surprise to many natives, said Love Zubiller, one of the trip’s coordinators and parent of Barnard student, Texas. “The kids start speaking Mandarin back to them — or they order food in Mandarin, or bargain in Mandarin at the shops — and people are astounded every time!”
A schedule jam-packed with activities, sight-seeing, tours, traveling and more left the Barnard families with only one free day for personal exploration.
Typically, the days would begin early with breakfast at the hotel before hitting the road by 8 or 9 a.m. On average, Zubiller said they would visit two to three sites a day, with eating, shopping and exploring interwoven between activities.
One day, they traveled about two hours to reach the Great Wall of China, where half the day was spent climbing the wall and taking in the beautiful views. Then, students visited a museum before going out for their first and only non-Chinese dinner of the trip: pizza. (Zubiller explained that Real China wanted to let the students eat food from home at least once.)
The majority of their meals were less familiar.
“One of the first nights, they took us to a famous Peking Duck place,” she said, “and the first thing that comes to the table are these jellied-looking, triangular-shaped things … we found out later they were duck feet!”
Student Marleia Amayo described the duck feet as tasting like “top ramen noodles” before they are cooked. Amayo was on the more adventurous side when it came to trying the foreign foods. Her favorite was dumplings, she said, and her least favorite was hot pot (a Chinese cooking method involving a pot of broth or soup kept hot as meat and vegetables are added to it and cooked before dipping in a sauce).
The strangest snack she tried? Grilled scorpion. “It was really spicy, but it tasted OK,” she shared.
Scorpions and ducks aside, other trip highlights included a motorized rickshaw ride through the ancient hutong towns in Beijing, during which time students had lunch prepared for them by a hutong resident; a trip to a Muslim mosque designed in Chinese-style architecture; and splitting into groups to learn how to make a traditional Chinese meal over an open flame. (Zubiller’s family made Kung Pao Chicken.)
For Texas, his favorite part of the trip was taking a toboggan ride down the Great Wall of China after hours of climbing. Other students seemed to enjoy undertaking the responsibility of being panda bear “caregivers,” said Zubiller.
What does a panda caregiver do?
“We got to feed them, make their food and clean up, uh, their business,” Amayo explained.
Yup — the Barnard students likely didn’t expect that they’d be cleaning a panda enclosure full of scat when they arrived in China.
After the dirty details were addressed, students got to feed a “cake” of corn meal, oil, flour and egg to the pandas.
Anne Yee, parent coordinator and mother to two Barnard students and one former Barnard student, said one of the unexpected highlights were the people in the parks — they would congregate in groups to dance, beat drums and exercise.
One man, she said, was swinging tennis balls attached by strings to batons over his head. The students were fascinated and entertained, and he kindly gave each of them a turn swinging the batons.
“The stereotype is that (people in China can be) very strict and serious,” said Yee, “but we saw a lot of people having a lot of fun and really enjoying life.”
Zachary, Yee’s son, who left Barnard school during fourth grade to pursue other interests, maintained his Chinese language lessons on weekends so he could visit China with the other students. His favorite memory of China was when his dad took him out for a night on the town.
“I had 200 yuan to spend on whatever I wanted,” Zachary shared. 200 Chinese yuan is about $28.11 in American currency. Among other things, he bought a stuffed panda bear.
Chinese pen pals
Near the end of the trip, it was time to meet some “new” friends face-to-face. Barnard parents had requested Real China help link their students with Chinese students and Real China delivered. Prior to the trip, the Barnard graduates set for the trip, had been corresponding with these pen pals via e-mail for three-and-a-half months before their long-awaited meeting. A greeting of flowers, gifts and a multilingual tour of the Longjiang Road Primary School awaited the families from San Diego.
Texas praised his pen pal, whose American name is Jimmy: “His English was amazing!”
Zachary’s pen pal gave him a stuffed panda bear, key chains, paper, pens and other trinkets. Zachary brought presents for his friend, too: “Goodies from Trader Joe’s,” he said.
Of her pen pal Amayo said: “I was excited to meet her because we got to talk a lot by e-mail, but I didn’t get to see any pictures of her or anything like that.”
Her pen pal, whose American name is Mary, helped Amayo with a lesson while the Barnard students sat in on a mathematics class. Additionally, the students joined their new friends in a poetry and music class as well — each one taught exclusively in Mandarin.
But that wasn’t very different from what the Barnard students were used to. “Our kids were keeping up with the everyday students there,” Zubiller said.
Education and classes aside, this was the summer vacation that six years of dutifully practicing and speaking Mandarin had earned the students of Barnard.
“It was a two-week long, 24/7 play date,” Zubiller concluded. “It was heaven for the kids. And the parents got along really well, too. Most of us have been together since our children were in kindergarten, so we know the families really well. We like each other.”
—Barnard Mandarin Magnet Elementary School is at 2445 Fogg St. in Pacific Beach. (858) 800-5700.