|My kids with two of our Chinese exchange students|
Most of our friends and family know this already, but in a little less than two months we are sending Bethany to China for Spring Break. Everyone has been incredibly supportive, although I'm sure a few people are thinking (but are too polite and kind to say), "how can you send your 13-year old to CHINA?"
Yes, Bethany is 13. She is in 8th grade. Yes, that might sound young to go traipsing all over the world without your parents. I would even agree that for many kids, it might be too young. Bethany, though, she's ready. And as much as I wish it could be all six of us, going as a family, that just isn't something that can happen at this time. So we are confidently sending her on a cultural exchange trip through her school, along with 11 other kids (7th-12 grade), five teachers and three administrators.
Some questions you may have:
Is it safe?
Keeping in mind that there are dangers involved with simply going about your life on a daily basis, we feel that yes, the trip is safe. Twelve kids to eight adult chaperones, many who have been to China before (and one - a Mandarin teacher - who is from China) is a pretty good ratio. They will be together, as a group, the whole time, and not just wandering the streets of Beijing and Shanghai on their own.
Where will they be staying?
Our school district has a relationship with a boarding school in Beijing, so the majority of the time they will actually be staying in the dormitories at the school. This will give the kids an opportunity to see first hand some of the educational differences between American and Chinese schools and educational practices, and will serve as a base for exploring the city. Because we have hosted three Chinese exchange students from this school, we know that it is very strict and that Bethany will be in good hands while staying there.
For one long weekend (three nights), each American student will go home with a Chinese student. I suppose this is the part to be the most nervous about, since everyone will be off doing different things with their host families, who may or not speak English, and we won't know what they're doing ahead of time. We also may not have contact with them for these few days. Furthermore, this is the part of the trip that requires us to take a leap of faith and depend upon the kindness and hospitality of strangers, as the parents of the three children we hosted had to do with us. My hope is that staying with a Chinese family, and really seeing first hand how people of a different culture live, will be a deeply rewarding experience for Bethany.
The final few days of the trip will be spent at (from my understanding) a kind of student hostel in Shanghai. This will be their only hotel-like experience in China, as they do some sight seeing before heading home.
What about homesickness?
Unlike the Chinese students we hosted, who were accustomed to being away from their families at boarding school, I expect that Bethany will deal with some homesickness, as well as culture shock. But one of the reasons we feel good about sending her on this trip is that she is a very independent 13-year old; capable, smart, and outgoing. She has flown alone in the past, and has spent time away from us on several occasions. The trip is two weeks, so it will be the longest she's been away from home without us, and of course the furthest, but I know that she'll be fine. I'm also pretty sure the kids are going to be kept so busy that they'll have very little time to pine for the comforts of home.
What will they eat?
The food might be a challenge. While staying at the boarding school, the group will have most of their meals there. We have been told that they try hard to accommodate American tastes, but to bring a couple boxes of protein bars just in case.The rest of the time, hopefully Bethany will get a little adventurous and try some new things, but she does like rice and noodles and Chinese candy so I don't think she'll starve.
Is it expensive?
It's not cheap, that is for sure. Since the kids will mostly be staying in our sister school's dormitories and with a host family, the greatest expense is the airfare. We have yet to be given the bottom line, but the total cost is estimated at approximately $2700. To offset the cost of the trip, we have been doing some fundraising as a group. Furthermore, Chris set up a GoFundMe account for friends and family who would like to contribute. We have been overwhelmed with the generosity of others - I must say we know some pretty awesome people!
Why do you think this is a good idea?
There are so many ways to answer this question. The world is a big, big place, but it's also smaller than we realize. Yes there are countless differences between the American and Chinese cultures, but as human beings we are more alike than different. It's easy to watch the news and form opinions and even prejudices about other people or groups of people without having any real life experiences with them. Visiting their country, meeting them, living with them, laughing with them, those things serve to bring us together, to learn about one another, and to have a greater understanding and appreciation of our differences, as well as a sense of empathy for the plight of our fellow human beings.
On a more personal level, Bethany expressed an interest in this trip a couple years ago and has maintained an interest in the Mandarin language (which she studies at school), and the Chinese culture. To be 13 and to have the courage and the desire to travel half-way across the globe without your parents is no small thing. If she has that courage, I do not want to be the one to discourage her, tell her she can't, and encourage a sense of fear where there was none. If she has that wanderlust, I do not want to be the one to squelch it.
What I want for my kids is for them to take ownership of their own lives, to believe they CAN even when others try to tell them they can't.
When Bethany and I attended the first informational meeting about the China trip several months ago, we saw pictures of the toilets (squatty potties) and the food, and we found out the trip overlapped with the 8th grade National Junior Honor Society trip to Washington D.C. (which the majority of her friends are going on). I thought to myself that she might change her mind with all of this new information. But when the meeting was over, she wanted to go to China more than ever. She was excited, and I was excited for her.
I know that as parents we can't give our kids everything they want. But when the thing they want takes courage and determination and a sense of adventure, saying yes might be the right thing to do. Saying yes this time, and allowing Bethany to have this experience, will open the world up to her in a way that never happens for most people. We believe that going to China is going to be a life changing event for Bethany.
Sure she could wait and have this life changing experience when she's 15 or 17 or in college, but I know that oftentimes the older we get, the more we get set in our ways, and the more we allow fears to take over and dictate our lives. Sometimes, the longer we wait to follow our dreams, the less likely we are to ever actually follow them. So if our daughter wants to start now, we're saying yes.