Summer is a great time for taking epic adventures that stretch one’s sense of what is possible and transform one’s identity. Two groups of Holderness students have started the summer off right—one with a trip to Europe and one with a trip to China. What makes the trips even more powerful and memorable is the generosity of the Holderness families who have welcomed the travelers into their homes and shared their food, stories, and culture. Neither group will be home for another week, but we asked both students and faculty to share some of their mid-trip reflections with us. Here’s what they had to say:
Reflections from China
Director of College Counseling Bruce Barton
Flying over the top of the world and landing in China is a transformative experience. Not only does the plane need to bend over the globe, but the individual, at least this one, needs to have their sense of place and identity bend as well. One is constantly impressed with the volume and scope of what you see in China. Let's take Beijing, for example. In so many ways, Beijing is bigger than one's imagination. Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City dwarf and delight at the same time. While visiting these places, it's hard not to feel in the presence of something powerful and meaningful while at the same time recognizing one's complete insignificance and powerlessness. The size of these places alone will take your breath away. And then, to step into the stream of humanity, as we did, and walk through these places is to be regularly reminded of just how many people there are in the world and how utterly microscopic one human being really is. To be among the few and not the many is also equal parts exhilarating and unsettling. To be stared at, to be asked to pose for a picture, to be smiled at by young children who see you in a funny hat--these experiences simultaneously give you a feeling that we are all alike and that we couldn't be more different. Wondrous, amazing and dizzying all at once, that is China.
The third city on our tour of China was Xi'an--a city with a population of 12 + million people. That's roughly NY and LA combined or the entire population of the state of Pennsylvania. It's big and varied, and if the truth be told, I had never heard of it before (shame on me). Our time was spent in a variety of places--not the least of which was a trip (about an hour outside the center of the city) to the Terracotta Warriors--a national treasure of carved figures created and buried underground as a mausoleum for Emperor Qiun Shi Huang in 210 BC. The warriors were discovered accidentally by a farmer in 1974. That farmer is still around and has a presence at the site, selling his story which now takes book form and posing for pictures for a price, a piece of economic reality that wasn't so cool except that there he was in the flesh and blood.
The warriors themselves are majestic and incredibly detailed, having been painstakingly pieced together over the last forty years because a succeeding emperor had his army smash every one of them in an HD display of mind-numbing ego and hubris. The work is ongoing, and so a trip around site one (roughly the size of Gillette Stadium minus the stands) reveals hundreds of the warriors in formation while hundreds of others are in various stages of discovery (unearthing) and rebuild. One can walk around a raised walkway (12 feet wide) that goes around the perimeter of this enclosed space and looks down at the figures and the work. Of course, you are with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of other people, caught in a kind of crowd flow you enter into and exit from with some agility and careful preparation.
The warriors are something I had long looked forward to seeing, and they did not disappoint. While they came into being out of a distorted and perhaps even twisted sense of raw power and self-importance, the work of the artisans who built them, the workmen who installed them and then built the structure that enclosed them stands as a monument not so much to a great emperor but to the ability of the average person to create something beautiful and lasting that people more than two thousand years later can be awed by.
China is so much different I than being in the US; ancient buildings are part of the culture, they are everywhere, and they really appreciate their history here. Apartments look like ancient Chinese buildings I’ve only see in books and paintings.
Being in a China is such a different world than southern New Hampshire. For one, my hometown has 1,000 people in it; Beijing alone has 24 million. It feels like New York but with a solid chance that everything is fake, the food is way different, and there are even crazier people in cars and on bikes, which I didn't think was possible.
Towards the beginning of the trip we visited these beautiful structures that surrounded a small lake. We walked inside open buildings with the most beautiful and intricate ceilings. We followed a path along the entire lake; it was amazing to see just how detailed these buildings were. As we walked, we could see many people were enjoying the day just as much as we were--laying in the sun and enjoying the beauty of the day. I have had so much fun in China so far; it is so different than any other place and culture I have ever experienced. I have gotten so many opportunities to try so many new things. I have eaten many new foods and seen lots of beautiful ancient architecture. I have loved being here and know that going on a trip like this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
On the second day of the trip, also our first full day in Beijing, we went to the Summer Palace. On the walk to the emperor’s chambers, there was a beautiful view of this body of water. We actually were going to try to ride a boat, but it turned out to be too windy. It was quite pretty because of how sunny it was, and there was a clear view of the mountains in the distant background. We had a short walk up a few flights of stairs to get to the living quarters. From there we could see the city and a bird’s eye view of the whole lake. It was a pretty surreal moment to see how pretty the surroundings were and how lucky we are to be on such a great trip.
Upon visiting China, the prominent ideas of style, especially demonstrated through architecture and layout, immediately served as a gateway to understanding Chinese culture, despite the absence of words. Each aspect of the ancient architecture was carefully chosen for both function and form. For example, the Forbidden City holds 9,999 rooms because 9 is a lucky number in China. The number 10,000 feels full or at maximum capacity and feels almost as though you are at the minimum again rather than the top; therefore, 9,999 allows room for growth.
The carefully chosen style of architecture is not limited to the ancient but has modernized heavily over time. The city of Beijing is different than US cities both in its immense size, but also the diversity of the buildings in an area. It is not unusual to see an ancient monument next to an extraordinarily modern building next to what seems to be a less expensive apartment building. In American cities, most of the nice expensive buildings are clustered—Manhattan—while the less expensive buildings stay together as well.
One of my favorite activities that we did in Beijing was visit students’ houses. I enjoyed this because we were able to see the typical lifestyle that our Chinese students live at home. Honor and I were invited to Sergio Yap’s (Class of 2019) house which was about an hour outside of the city. On the way there, Sergio told us about how outside of the city, most people live in gated communities. Once we arrived at Sergio’s home, we were welcomed by his mother, father, and soon-to-be Holderness ninth grade brother Sam. We enjoyed a Singapore barbecue and his mother taught us how to make dumplings. After a traditional meal, Sergio and his brother taught us how to play a Chinese card game and how to ride mopeds, which is the form of transportation that he and his brother use inside their community and sometimes even on the road. My experience at Sergio’s house gave me a better understanding of a typical day for our Chinese students.
We are more than halfway through our two-week China trip, and I continue to think about the life and culture in the different parts of this diverse country after traveling from cities, such as Beijing, to more rural areas like Pingyao. Having been adopted from China when I was only 10 months old, I keep finding myself thinking about and asking what my life would have been like had I not been abandoned outside of a gate when I was estimated to be only three weeks old, had I not been found by a guard because of how loudly I was crying, had I not been put in a Nanchang orphanage, had my mother and father not come to bring me back to America with them, had people such as my orphanage mother and adoption agency not seen hope in me. As we travel further South to areas such as Pingyao, Xi’an, and Guilin, and closer to my birthplace, I feel myself asking those “what if” questions even more.
This is my first time back, and I am being hit with a mixture of emotions. We have all learned, laughed, and been exposed to what feels like a whole new world. Visiting the Forbidden City, the Great Wall of China, the Silk Market, and enjoying traditional meals has taught us all more than books could. Simply experiencing Chinese culture and seeing traditions executed first hand makes Chinese culture seem even more ancient, detailed, and complicated than anyone could ever tell you. However, while all of that has been enjoyable and I have created fond memories visiting some of the world’s greatest wonders, for me, this trip is much more than a learning experience. I consider this trip a milestone, finally returning to my birthplace after 17 years. I am being exposed to what my life very much so could have been, had it not been for the generosity of my parents, taking a chance on an orphaned baby with little to no background information, history, medical records, or family tree.
I have been welcomed into a culture that could have been my own, which personally, is a complicated, exciting, and bittersweet to think of. I would never change anything in the big picture of my life—beginning with being abandoned at only a few weeks old, ending with my life in Marblehead, my family, or friends, and everything in between. Those events and outcomes have shaped my life into what it is now, and I am eternally grateful for everything and everyone that is a part of my story. Coming back to my birthplace, however, makes me wonder what could have been and what would have been.
The Great Wall of China is something that kids and adults from all over the world hear and talk about. It’s crazy for me to even say that I, a girl from the city of Lawrence, MA, saw it with her own two eyes and walked on the stone steps with her two feet. I’ve seen it only in pictures and in movies but never once did it ever cross my mind that I was going to set foot on the Great Wall. Although I didn’t walk as much as my peers, I still was able to admire its beauty and appreciate where I was.
Walking up the Great Wall wasn’t too pleasing but the experience will definitely stay with me forever. Looking at the whole view really made me realize where I was. I told myself, “Wow I’m really in China;” it’s hard to believe. At least now I can check off “go to China” on my life bucket list.
On the first day we arrived in Beijing, we got to go visit two different towers built around the early 1400’s. On one side stood the bell tower and on the other stood the drum tower. To climb to the top, we needed to walk up steep stone stairs which were centuries old. From the top of both we were able to have a great view of parts of Beijing. It was very interesting to see the work of and skill people had put into building such tremendous buildings which remain still standing today.
On the top of the drum tower was a large room with multiple drums. The drums were very large in order to make a loud noise, which were used to inform those in the city. We were fortunate enough to actually be in the tower during one of the drumming demonstrations. Both the towers were very cool to see and helped me to better understand some of the incredible culture of China.
I enjoyed going to the top of the spire at the Dom cathedral in Cologne. For one, I thought that it was amazing just to be able to climb a spiral staircase through such an old structure. You could see and feel how old it was through the worn out steps and these little doors that went off on the sides of the staircase. Getting to the top was also amazing, you could walk all the way around the top of the spire and get a 360 view of Cologne.
My favorite part of the trip so far was the river cruise in Amsterdam. I have never been to the Netherlands before so it was really cool to be able to see a city from the water.
I loved the walking tour of Florence because the guide really immersed us in the history of the place and helped us see it as it would have stood so many years ago. In addition, Ellie and I stumbled into a street market in Munich, and it had amazing fresh fruit that we got to eat in the middle of the city!
My favorite part of the trip so far is that I got close with kids from the school that I never knew before.
I really enjoyed Florence and I wish we had spent more time there.
A big highlight was going to Florence! It was all educational and beautiful, and the city held lots of history in its old style of architecture. The food was also insanely delicious, especially the gnocchi and gelato!
I loved exploring Florence with the whole group. I felt like it was one of the prettier places we have visited, and I really enjoyed learning about the history of Florence from our tour guide.
I’m really enjoying the freedom we are given. Rather than just doing normal tourist stuff, we are able to experience the culture hands-on. The food has also been unbelievable.
I really enjoyed just sitting and people watching. In Köln, I sat with Issy and Lilly and just watched the different people go by. Bachelorette/Bachelor parties. Tourists. Locals. It was just so many people who were enjoying themselves in their own personal ways.
I really enjoyed Florence because after the chaos of Rome it was a welcome change. It was such a pretty area and the Duomo was so spectacular. I also really enjoyed all of the history of the area, especially the things that our tour guide told us about.
I liked when Louis, Michael, and I climbed up the clock tower next to the Santa Maria De Floria Church to get a 360 degree view of Florence and the surrounding suburbs. Being the highest vantage point from within the city, the apartments and other districts of the cities fascinated me and gave me a sense of how differently cities in Europe have remained true to their original looks, styles, and architecture.
The highlight of my trip thus far was going to Munich. I had previously never been before, so I was interested to see what the city had to offer. I thought that going to Dachau was the highlight of the trip. It was a learning experience for the whole group, and it was definitely worth the bus ride. Seeing the camp for myself really put into perspective how poorly Jewish people were treated. I enjoyed it because it enhanced my knowledge about the Holocaust in Germany
My favorite part has been getting at least one meal a day on our own. The first day we found a super small restaurant where they taught us how to make pasta. The food was excellent and super cheap.
My favorite part of the trip so far was our free time in Florence. Charlie, Louis, and I climbed up to the top of the Duomo and it was super cool to see the city from that high up.
I think it was lunch in Florence with Rudy, Colin, Teddy, Spencer, and John. We had an amazing lunch and had a really good time just eating Italian food and relaxing.