As warmer spring winds began to move through Beijing, I had the opportunity to travel along the Yangtze River from Yichang to the Three Gorges Dam. I was invited to join a small group of educators to visit a school and do some site seeing. I was rewarded with the trip for my work that I did in preparing some Chinese students for L.L.M legal studies in Europe and the United States. Considering that I had not traveled to central China before and heard about the newly constructed Three Gorges Dam, I considered it a great opportunity. I and another teacher from Britain flew from Beijing to Yichang and arrived about two hours later.
Yichang, an industrial city in Hubei Province, was considerably warmer than Beijing. The spring had arrived, everything was green and it was warm enough for you to could get rid of your winter coat. Compared to Beijing, life in Yichang was slower and it was obvious that the city, like much of China, was going through a massive development project. With a population of approximately 4,150,000, Yichang, the gate way to the upper Yangtze, is a major transportation port for the distribution of goods
When I looked out of one of my hotel windows, I saw buildings being demolished. However, from another window I saw the famous Yangtze, China’s longest river, a cultural highway that helps to write several chapters of Chinese history. The view was stunning because this section of the river’s banks were not crowded or cluttered with buildings. I saw the soil and the dirt, along with the rolling green hills against the back drop of a hazy sky. The Yangtze River which in Mandarin is called Chang Jiang and means long river, begins its epic journey in Tanggula Mountain in south-western Qinghai proceeding through Tibet and meandering through several other provinces before it finally empties out into the East China Sea north of Shanghai. For 3, 915 miles (6,300 km) the Yangtze flows from west to east, dividing China unofficially between the wheat growing north and the rice growing south. Approximately 500 million people live along Yangtze’s banks. Hence, the Yangtze flows through the center of the world—the Chinese world that sits under heaven.
Drawn by these images, I left my hotel room and walked down to the river to observe the sunset. There I found people carrying bundles, sitting, hanging around. I could see that they were hard workers because the men’s hands were dirty and calloused, while their faces were burnt displaying a brown or red hue from toiling in the hot sun. I noticed several men fishing, while others prepared to join them. Life seemed peaceful and slow, ebbing along like water at the shore line. No one seemed particularly bothered by my presence, so I just sat and observed the sun set, which was serene and soothing.
Several students asked us questions about our home countries, Britain and America. Many of the boys asked me: “Do you play basketball?” I told them that I did not play basketball, but that I watched some NBA games on television. I shared with them that I enjoyed playing tennis. My answer surprised them since they assumed that I had to play basketball because I am a Black man from America. Coming from their young lips, being a natural ball player –even Kobe Bryant’s cousin– is a stereotype that I could accept considering that there was no obvious malice behind it.
Some students asked me about my hair style, carefully inquiring into how did I grow and maintain my locks. I told them that locking of the hair is an ancient practice dating back thousands of years and is found across Africa, India and other parts of the world. Most of them had never heard of locks before and wanted to learn a little about it. One student said that he had said seen the same hair style amongst some NBA athletes and thought it was very cool. I asked him if he would wear his hair like that since it is cool. He responded that he would like to, but his parents would object to it because it is not Chinese.
I smiled at his answer, remembering that less than a hundred years ago, all Chinese men by virtue of imperial edict had the front of the head shaved and wore one long braid called a que. Our presence brought a foreign culture and distant part of the world right into their class room, in a way that television or the Internet could not.
As at most schools, only a minority of the students demonstrate a high level of oral English proficiency. Despite these challenges, it was obvious that our visit raised their confidence level. You could see it stretching across their faces as their eyes danced to the beats of their sentences. They were not only speaking English to foreigners, but to foreigners who understood what they were saying. In terms of their self-confidence, the exchange that we had with them was a great accomplishment. In class after class, their Chinese English teachers looked on with pride and admiration. All of that work had finally paid off.
As we toured the school, I could see that the Chinese were making an investment in the future by the quality of instruction that was offered at the school. I recall visiting an art class were the teacher was demonstrating the techniques and methods of French impressionist Cezanne. The teacher had one of Cezanne’s paintings, on an easel, while the students were imitating the technique and following instructions. Speaking in clear English, the art teacher told me that he enjoyed teaching the students some of the French Impressionists techniques because it allowed them to explore a culture that was not Chinese or Asian.
After the school visit, we had supper before boarding the boat for our journey to the Three Gorges Dam. Since we departed at night, we could not appreciate the river cruise’s natural scenery. That would have to wait until dawn.