Over the past month my thoughts have often turned to China as I recall an episode, a visit or a conversation while traveling with Tuxedo Park School’s 9th graders to Shanghai, Xi’An and Beijing. It is interesting to me that the trip continues to settle in, in stages, as I think about that nine-day whirlwind that had us in a constant wide-eyed state. I’ll glance at a 9th grader here on campus and be transported back to a restaurant where we sat together consuming piles of dumplings… or I think about tai chi, or a tiny fraction of the Great Wall or watching silk be spun from threads that are pulled off a cocoon. There are many sensory images and “Madeleine-like” moments, where I am absorbed for minutes at a time recalling a scene or revisiting an image in my mind. I’m no Proust, but I believe him when he wrote: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” I know those sensory images are meant to remind me to keep thinking globally: to use my new eyes to keep looking for the lessons of the trip, all that we saw and heard, all that we need to remember and integrate into our lives back at home.
We had one guide who was with us for the entire trip, a lovely man named Jackie, who greeted us at the Beijing airport and shuttled us through every experience until we departed Shanghai nine days later. In each city, there were different guides: Kai in Beijing, Jasmine in Shanghai and Tony in Xi’An. Tony gave us wonderful history lessons about the Cultural Revolution and about the “One Child” policy in China. He kept remarking that he was so glad to have been born when we was, that the opportunities available to him were so dramatically different than those available to his parents’ generation. He told us of his own aspirations in school, of what he wanted to study and think about doing in his life. He said that his parents couldn’t understand any thinking beyond making a structured vocational plan early on. They were not trained to aspire to something better for their children than they had, themselves. They had been trained to conform and to dream only incremental dreams about what was possible for them and for their family.
Marcel Proust wrote: “We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us.” Then what wisdom do we take with us as we move forward from this remarkable journey? There is so much ingrained in our American culture that tells us we can dream and achieve and reach far beyond where we currently are in our lives. So as we and our students grow, learn and interact in an increasingly global world, knowing where we come from is important. But even more important is the capacity to understand the mindset and experience of another person, from another culture—the man sitting across a dining table piled high with dumplings, the person whose story will ultimately become entangled, inextricably, with our own.