Take a school trip to another school. (No, really.)

via Tatiana Carou

The Great Wall. The Forbidden City. The Summer Palace. Beijing is rich with sites and cultural institutions that are completely different from anything the United States has to offer. But the experience that made the biggest impact on a group of EF travelers was a visit to a local school.

Yes, you read that right. Students happily spent a day of their school vacation going to another school.

This EF tour group visited a Chinese middle school known for its international language program. From the outside, it looked like any other school: There were projects displayed on the walls, corkboards covered in notices and construction paper, and rows of neatly aligned desks that were less neatly covered by school supplies. There were students laughing and whispering to each other, and teachers trying to get their attention.

Of course, there were differences. Chinese students take tests every day, and most attend “after-school school”—something this group of American students couldn’t fathom. In addition to P.E. class, Chinese students have breaks every morning and afternoon to stretch and run around. Though this was surprising to some of the American students, they joined right in.

Perhaps the biggest difference was that the middle schoolers in China were preparing to take high school placement exams. Students who get into top-tier schools are able to attend college, whereas those who end up at less prestigious schools have fewer college prospects. For the average American middle schooler, college is a faraway thought—but for a student in China, every single test affects their academic future.

Despite these differences, the two groups of students had no trouble relating to one another. Some played a casual game of basketball, while others came together to ask about each other’s lives. Because it was an international language school, most of the conversations were in English. But, when phrases or colloquialisms fell flat, students improvised with hand motions and miming. By the end of the day, the courtyard was filled with a lot more laughter than language.

“It was just cool getting to hang out with people our age,” said Shauna, a student from Oregon.

The school visit may not have been the most impressive activity on tour, but it was certainly one of the most impactful. After all, we travel to experience others cultures and to see the different ways people live—but most importantly, we travel to discover the common threads that hold us together.

Want to visit a Beijing school with your own students? Learn more about our Beijing and the Great Wall of China tour.

Topics: Beijing, China

Sarah McLaughlin

Sarah is a senior copywriter at EF Education First. When she isn’t writing, you can find her browsing through bookshops, trying to cook, or going to improv class (which is basically just an excuse for adults to play make-believe).

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