July 28, 2010 Edition

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Highlights shared
from trip to China

John Bland

Nephew Cullen Girolamo of Brooklyn, N.Y., returned July 13 from a month-long study trip to China. Cullen has taken courses in the Chinese language for three years at St. Ann's in Brooklyn. His teacher for the course, a native of China, and her husband, led the tour. Cullen is 14 years old and will be a high school sophomore in the fall. His parents are Beth and Paul Girolamo. His 18-year-old brother, James, took a similar trip in 2007.


Cullen shared the following report on his trip:

This summer I traveled to China with five chaperones and approximately 30 kids from my school. My one-month trip consisted of two weeks of travel and two weeks of studying at Beijing Capital Normal University. My flight from New York went over the North Pole to Beijing (it took roughly 13 hours).

After the plane landed, I looked out the window and couldn't see the airport because of thick smog. The pollution in China was shocking; I only saw my shadow about five times while we were there.

For the first two weeks I traveled to Xian, Chongqing, Shanghai, Suzhou and took a three-day boat ride down the Yangtze River. I saw the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Warriors, the Three Gorges Dam and the 2010 World Expo, which is being held in Shanghai.

At the World Expo, I saw the pavilions for Italy, Switzerland, Israel and Australia. The Swiss pavilion was a chair lift to the top of a tall structure, several stories high, with a real garden on top. From the top of the lift you could see the entire Expo grounds. I didn't get to see the China Pavilion because the wait was more than nine hours!

While living in Beijing, I had Chinese language classes from 9 a.m. until noon and then typically a taiji (martial arts) or calligraphy class from 1 to 2 p.m., after which I was free to explore Beijing. Occasionally we had group tours to see sites such as the Forbidden City and the Old Summer Palace. It was during that time that I started noticing the differences between Chinese and American cultures.

For instance, tipping is not customary in China. On several occasions, after leaving a tip in a restaurant we would be chased by waiters who thought we had accidentally over-paid for our meals. In China the indigenous food is as cheap as 3 RMB (50) for a sandwich. The most expensive food is American fast food. McDonalds and KFC are considered fine dining; the Pizza Hut had a bar.

One day our group went to the Night Market, an alley with exotic food, for dinner. They had scorpion, pigs' legs, snakes and spiders. Later we learned that the exotic foods were a tourist attraction and that they were as strange to the Chinese as they were to us. While we were there, a friend of mine jokingly asked if they had any dog. The vendor explained that dog was a winter delicacy.

Everywhere we went, the Chinese people were fascinated by us. Often, strangers would strike up a friendly conversation with me about what I was doing in China. If they knew even the slightest English, they would jump on the chance to practice; otherwise, it was a chance for me to practice my Chinese.

Most of them would end the conversation by asking to take a picture of me to prove to their friends that they had seen an American. It was as if we were celebrities. While we were at the Forbidden City, a Chinese couple even invited us to be in their wedding photo!

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