Brewster in China

 In Brewster News, Featured

On Thursday, June 8, a group of six faculty and staff, including Head of School Craig Gemmell, left Wolfeboro for a 12-day trip to China. The trip was generously sponsored by the SAEP Foundation and by Mr. and Mrs. Todd Wang (Jack ’20). The purpose of the trip is to promote Brewster Academy in China, to engage with our parents and alumni, and foster closer partnerships with families and educators in China. Making the journey with Dr. Gemmell are: Kristy Kerin, assistant head of school, Doug Kiley, major gifts officer, Doug Skelley, junior team leader and history teacher, Andy Campbell, music teacher, and Guinevere Hilton, drama teacher. The group will visit Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.

Day 1: Kristy Kerin

Our group has just returned to our Beijing Hotel after a wonderful dinner with our hosts on our first day in China. It is 11 p.m. on Saturday and it strikes me that the last time I laid down in a bed was on Wednesday night in Wolfeboro. We are going to sleep well tonight!

There is simply no easy way to get to China. Already, our group has an increased appreciation for how challenging it is for our international students to be fresh and ready to go to class after returning from breaks. Our group left campus at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday evening and flew out of Logan International in Boston at 1:45 a.m. Friday. We arrived in Hong Kong at 5 a.m. Saturday after a 15-hour nonstop flight that took us on a route over Iceland and down through Asia. After a three-hour layover in Hong Kong, we continued on another flight to Beijing, finally arriving at 1 p.m.

How wonderful it was to arrive in Beijing to find the smiling faces of Hanze “Jack” Wang ’20 and Rongyang “Catherine” Zhau ’19! Waiting with our students were their parents, along with representatives from the SAEP Foundation, Sofia Qi and Jason Wong. It struck all of us what an incredible leap of faith it is for families to send their 15-year-old children across the world into our care at Brewster.

After playing a game of Tetris with our luggage, 14 people, and three cars, we were treated to a simple and delicious lunch near our hotel. Everyone enjoyed their introduction to Chinese food and the chance to visit with our hosts while we mapped out our next few days in Beijing.

Social life in Beijing, as in most countries, centers around meals. After a short break at the hotel and a much appreciated chance to shower and change (where everyone resisted the almost-overwhelming desire to lie down for a rest), the group left for dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant with Jack Wang’s parents. The atmosphere immediately energized our group. Our hosts were so generous in sharing many delicious Chinese dishes. Some of the group’s favorites included a sweet and sour fish, the famous Beijing roast duck, a rice-stuffed lotus, and a flaming beef dish. Everyone was adventurous and tried some new tastes and textures.

Dinner included a musical performance by our North Korean wait staff. The women sang, danced, and even involved our group in fun games like jumping rope (it is hard to describe unless you were present). Doug Kiley and Todd Wang (Jack ’20) were the jump rope champs, completing at least eight jumps over a long strand of flowered garland. We laughed and enjoyed the chance to break the ice and get to know one another.

Now, as our families start their Saturday mornings in New Hampshire, we finally lay down to rest and prepare for an exciting Day 2 in China.

Day 2: Doug Kiley

Our first full day in Beijing! The group, under the guidance of Catherine Zhau and her parents, wound through the network of highways in Beijing to the base of the famous Great Wall of China. This was not like television. The long and vast cultural history of China suddenly unfolded before me on this warm summer day thousands of miles from Wolfeboro.

This was not Disney’s Epcot. Hundreds of proud and inspired people scaled the steep and uneven stones. The contrast of selfie sticks and ancient parapets was fascinating as small children and elderly went up and down the wall. Our group went at different paces – I had the honor of “summiting” the wall and then riding down on a gondola with Andy Campbell, Guinevere Hilton, and Catherine Zhou. Ms. Hilton does NOT like heights.

Mr. and Mrs. Zhou treated us to a classic lunch whereby several dishes of food are presented on a spinning table for all to draw from. I never worked up the courage to try the “sticky tofu”. And I humbly had to ask for a fork because the chopsticks were not working. (Operator error).

Next we were off to the Palace Museum at what was known as the Forbidden City. As a historian, this was a deeply humbling experience. The Palace Museum is essentially a network of 90 ornate palaces with wide open courtyards. The mind is treated to thousands of ornate dragons and pagoda style architecture. As we studied the dates and story of each palace, I could not help but to notice that while the first settlers were clearing fields in North America, China’s cartographers were mapping Asia and building palaces to the sky.

I am far from home, yet China is a safe and welcoming place. The people I meet are not overly effusive but totally accessible and willing to help. In a country of 1.4 billion people, there are lessons to be learned here that I simply could not learn without standing in these sacred places.

Beijing, Day 3: Craig Gemmell

After several days of ample travel by plane and foot alike, today promised to be vastly more tranquil given the late start to meetings, but that didn’t stop many of us from finding our way to the breakfast area in early morning twilight given that we had yet to adjust to being half-way around the globe from Wolfeboro.

Guinevere and Andy went off shopping with Catherine; Doug Skelley read and wrote in the lobby; and Kristy, Doug Kiley, and I made our way to the offices of Todd Wang, father of Jack Wang ’20. After tea, we were each interviewed for CRI online TV, our words translated by Jason Wong, a faculty member at Vermont Academy who has been traveling with us.

I addressed questions about life in American boarding schools, what makes Brewster unique, and what is our educational philosophy. Kristy Kerin, assistant head of school, talked about why we were in China, the role of fundraising in American boarding schools, and Brewster’s vision. Former teacher and history department chair Doug Kiley (a major gifts officer) fielded questions about teaching and, more specifically, how we deliver education to students.

We gathered after interesting days and headed out to a remarkable dinner with our wonderful Beijing hosts – the Wangs and Zhous – and despite language barriers, we had meaningful conversation because Catherine and Jason both translated with aplomb while we ate one delicacy after another. Joyful and delicious all the way to the final bowl of dumplings.

Day 4: Doug Skelley

Officially our last day in Beijing before we head to Shanghai. Today we are heading to meet with Mr. Liu who is the founder of UTC learning center. For the first time since we arrived in China it’s raining. Apparently a typhoon hit further south and up in the north, where Beijing is located, we are feeling the effects. In talking with Jason, our translator and a teacher at Vermont Academy, he compares the relationship between the weather in Hong Kong and Beijing to that of Florida and New England.

We had to travel over an hour to reach the learning center on the outskirts of Beijing. Along the way we saw just how spread out the city is, and although high rises are common throughout the city, there are more standard apartment style buildings with at least three buildings of exact design (think Hughes, Mason, Vaughn, Lamb, Harris). Agricultural fields are scattered throughout the drive and, with the rain, we caught a glimpse of the flooding of the fields that helps with crops.

Upon our arrival we met Mr. Liu, who is the owner of the hotels and the founder of the educational center. We were offered a tour of his hotel, which has his home and office on the top floor. It is an amazing home, with areas to entertain and work at the same time. One of the highlights for Doug Kiley was the indoor golf course, which I am sure he will find a way to bring back to BA:)

Our host was so kind to serve us a wonderful meal of western food, including chicken nuggets and French fries, a large steak, and salad, and much more (always such great food, but this little taste of home had me overeating:) During lunch we learned about Mr. Liu’s history and goals – he began his career as an elementary school teacher after moving to Beijing from the mountain town where he was raised. In founding his education centers, his goals are to reach and support each child, one at a time. This goal is not unlike our Brewster student-centered philosophy – a shared vision between our host and BA.

We were given the opportunity to tour one of the kindergarten schools, Shenboa, which is located next to the hotel. The kindergarten has more than one hundred students, just some of the students who are part of the UTC educational experience in Beijing. The teacher’s gave us a tour and showed how intentional they are with all parts of instruction as well as the classroom set up, to ensure the best learning for their students. And we could see the results in the work the students had produced on the walls. In a meeting with Mr. Liu, UTC’s vice president, and multiple headmasters of his education centers, Brewster and UTC initiated talks about developing a partnership that we hope will promote both our summer programs and academic year classes to UTC’s families.

Day 5: Guinevere Hilton

As I am writing, Team Gemmell is on a Maglev high-speed training whizzing through the Chinese country side at 250 miles per hour. For those of you who don’t know (as I did not, until moments ago – thank you, Wikipedia) a Maglev train is a magnetically levitated train that literally floats above the rails through all sorts of science-y type magnetic magic. Mind. Blown.

This feeling of magic has been pervasive throughout our trip: we crossed the planet through the air and landed in the future. We were greeted so warmly by new friends we were just meeting and by old friends from back home who we last saw lakeside and who were now waiting for us in China! We have been shown a Forbidden City and a Great Wall, which stretches over 13,000 miles. And, most meaningfully, we have been welcomed to share and experience our students’ “hometown”.

Yesterday was Day Three on this incredible trip. We started the day by piling into cars and driving to southwest Beijng to visit UTC – a school and educational center. Our host, Mr. Liu, treated us to a delicious Western-style lunch (yay, French Fries!) and a tour of the school. We saw the kindergarten classrooms and – definitely the cutest part of the trip yet – the nap rooms. All the kindergartners were either cozied up on their cots fast asleep or wide awake and curious about all these visitors coming to nap time.

After our tour we headed to the Yonghe Lamasery Temple in Beijing. This was high on my list of sights to see while here. I’m not sure that everyone else was as desperate to see it but Team Gemmell is a supportive and game group. Even though there were no llamas (apologies to one disappointed Team member) it was a beautiful and serene place. And it is home to the 18th century, 18-meter statue of Maitreya Buddha, the Buddha embodying great benevolence. The Buddha is a magnificent statue carved from one huge piece of sandlewood. This massive and beautiful icon definitely commands attention, respect, and generates a feeling of kindness and benevolence when you are in the temple. Unless you are really sad that there are no llamas.

After the temple, we proceeded to dinner with Mr. Li and Mr. Liu. Mr. Li is the Chief of ChinaTrust Group and a good friend of our sponsor at the SAEP Foundation. Dinner was traditional Mongolian and Chinese cuisine and began with yogurt and honey. This was followed by lamb, greens, tofu, noodles and countless other delicacies traveling around the Lazy-Susan. The ritual of sharing food in this way is one I am really enjoying: taking the time to sit, listen, share, and commune together is definitely a highlight of the trip. At the end of the dinner we celebrated Mr. Li’s birthday with cake and fried red bean curd treats dipped in sugar (I am really glad these aren’t available at Dunks because they are irresistible.)

And now we are off to Shanghai. As we magically (and very quickly) float through countryside and city we are able to take in a variety of landscapes: ancient and modern mixed together, huge skyscrapers float on the horizon behind farmland. Can’t wait to experience Shanghai with Team G. and friends!

Day 6: Andy Campbell

Here we are in Shanghai, very different from Beijing! If Beijing can be likened to a large scale Washington D.C., then Shanghai is a colorful New York City. The first thing we did was drop off our bags at the Fairmont Peace Hotel, a majestic and lavish Art Deco gem of a building. I was particularly impressed that in the lobby they displayed a 1927 Steinway grand piano that had been played by such guests as Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, and Cole Porter (Guinevere Hilton and I have been planning our Spring ’18 Showcase around his songs).  We were promptly whisked away to the riverfront for dinner.

The hosted dinners here have been consistently held in beautifully appointed private dining rooms, all of us seated around a large round table with a giant Lazy Susan in the middle upon which are laid the most intriguing dishes we have ever seen. Our private dining room tonight was on a balcony overlooking the river. I’ve never seen such a colorfully lit skyline (if you want a sense of the drama that one feels at the sight of this city skyline just go to the James Bond movie, Skyfall, at 40:55 and you will see what I mean). Shanghai isn’t just this glamorous exciting 21st-century skyline, however. Having come into its own in the mid 19th century, the side of the river where we are staying has grand old European style architecture as well.

Our hosts here are the parents of Youyun “Yoyo” Shang (’20) and they are clearly (and rightly) proud of their wonderful hometown.

Thursday morning after exploring the neighborhood around the hotel we all got on the van and traveled to Shanghai TV station where Craig and Kristy were interviewed by Shirley for a documentary about Chinese students traveling internationally for education, particularly to places like Brewster Academy. We sat, fascinated, in the studio watching Craig and Kristy – who was referred to only as “Kristy”, as if she had one name like Madonna – eloquently field very interesting questions.

We were taken by Yoyo’s mother, Yvonne, and Linda, the mother of an incoming freshman, Hans, to a lunch that they modestly referred to as Shanghai snack. Speaking strictly for myself, although I think the others would agree, this was the tastiest meal yet.

Just outside the restaurant is a crowded shopping area along alleys between beautiful old style architecture. Here is where you can find a mix of kitschy touristy items or lovely clothing items. Of note in this district are the people who will approach you, particularly if you are tall Westerners dressed in business clothing, hocking their wares: “Watch? Watch? Watch? You need watch?”.  If you say no they continue to ask. Doug Kiley said that he was tempted to turn to one of these people suddenly and shout “Yes! Yes! That’s exactly what I want! A watch! I thought nobody would ever ask me”.

After this little shopping side excursion the group split into two with Craig, Kristy and Doug Kiley heading to an investment group to discuss potential ways in which we can partner in education for their Chinese students.

Doug Skelley, Guinevere, and I went with Yvonne and Linda to a different shopping area, this one had more artisan quality items to sell along much narrower, older alleyways. Here we found “flower tea”, dehydrated flowers that you put in a clear glass (they had theirs in a wine glass), pour hot water over, and watch it blossom. And then you drink it! They said the first day is for drinking, the second day is for looking. I wonder what to do with it on the third day …

The group all met up together for dinner. Yvonne and Linda took us to another wonderful sumptuous meal with many new foods. Of particular interest was a bowl of what looked like maraschino cherries – exactly like maraschino cherries, stem and all. But they were not cherries at all, they were made from duck liver! Duck liver cherries.

One thing that is common to all of these round table dinners is that one place is reserved for the most important guest and at that table setting the napkin is folded in a way that it sits higher than the napkins at the other place settings. Craig always sits in this place of honor (not by his choosing, I think he would rather share the honor) and so we have nicknamed him “Big Napkin”.


Day 7: Kristy Kerin

Shanghai is a city where anything seems possible. Just 100 years ago, Shanghai was a fishing village. Today, Shanghai is a center for finance, innovation, and entrepreneurship that handles over a quarter of the trade passing through China’s ports.

We were told by a number of people that the mascot of China is the crane – and they weren’t talking about the bird. Construction cranes are everywhere between Beijing and Shanghai. Contractors don’t build one building at a time, they build 20 buildings in carbon copy. What is surely economy of scale in a rapidly developing country, can also sometimes lack for aesthetic interest and individuality.

In Shanghai, however, the architecture is incredibly diverse. We stayed on the Bund, among architectural gems that were built in the 1920s and are similar to buildings you might find in Old Quebec or Europe. We looked across the river at a skyline that is unlike anything else in the world. A study in modern architecture and design, the Shanghai skyline is lit up in a sea of colors each night.

The Huangpu River that separates the two sides of the city (Pudong and Puxi) is a regular highway filled with luxury boats used by the banks to entertain clients, barges loaded with building materials and coal, humble fishing craft, and water taxis ferrying businessmen and women and tourists from one side to the other.

On Friday, we stepped away from the hustle and bustle of city life for a one-hour drive to WISS, the Western International School of Shanghai. We arrived in Puxi, Shanghai, with our host, Yvonne (Yoyo ’19) for a tour of the school. WISS is a for-profit school dedicated to international students. The group was particularly impressed with the school’s range and quality of arts offerings, its state-of-the-art maker space, graphic design lab, and its fab lab. We took many pictures and noted ideas for the future renovation of the Rogers Building at Brewster, as well as ideas for mini art installations that we could bring to campus immediately. The school had just completed a project fair, similar to the project-based learning approach introduced by Team Skelley this year.

After our visit to the school, Yvonne took us for a walk near Shanghai Center and a taste of Muscat Coffee. I encourage you to google how the Muscat Coffee beans are harvested. Three of our number were excited to try the exotic brew.

Finally, the highlight of our stay in Shanghai: a large dinner with our Shanghai parents and students. We were thrilled with the turnout, including the families of three incoming students. Mr. Jiang (Jonathan ’19) was our host for the evening, and we had the pleasure of eating in his newest restaurant in Shanghai Tower. It was a special sneak preview as the restaurant has not officially opened to the public. Located in Shanghai Tower, the second tallest building in the world, Mr. Jiang’s restaurant was a treat to the senses.

Before dinner, Craig shared a few remarks on what we have been hearing on our travels. He noted how brave our students and parents are to make the 12,000 kilometer journey to Brewster Academy and he summarized the feedback we’ve been receiving. Parents have been effusive in telling us how much their children changed after just one year at Brewster and they have expressed gratitude for the care students have received from our faculty. Parents and students would like us to improve the range of food offerings in Estabrook – and after sampling the range of Chinese food, we get it! Finally, they hope we can offer more opportunities for global travel and more support for international students over breaks. A few students raised their hands to help with a strategy team this fall to take up these suggestions.

After dinner, the group took a high-speed elevator to the top of Shanghai Tower – 118 floors up! The view from the top of the tower was breathtaking. As we stood in our perch, it was incredible to look down upon the fourth tallest building in the world and consider how much Shanghai has accomplished so quickly.

In short, it was an inspiring day. Our group was buzzing as we returned to the hotel, filled with ideas and a mindset that anything is possible for Brewster with such supportive and invested partners.


Day 8: Kristy Kerin

Once again, we woke to a feeling that we didn’t quite know where the day would take us. Craig and the faculty were scheduled to present at the Bank of Communications for a group of clients who are exploring American boarding schools for their children.

We arrived to a full room of mostly parents. Their children were too busy to attend as they were taking Saturday summer classes and TOEFL test prep courses. This was a recurring theme of the trip, as Chinese students work incredibly hard to prepare for testing.

Craig presented first, offering thoughts on the purpose and value of an American boarding school education. He said, “Boarding schools are places of profound joy. Learning is not just about schoolwork, but about culture and community. Students are not expected to be the same, but students are expected to have shared values. We celebrate what we share and what makes us different.” He then offered specific features that make Brewster unique among boarding schools, and also provided guidance on the boarding school and college/university admission process. The audience appreciated the presentation and asked many good questions.

Next, Doug Skelley offered a demonstration on differentiated classrooms and how we integrate technology into the classroom. Andy Campbell and Guinevere Hilton held a mock warm up for acting class. And Doug Kiley shared a glimpse into the debate program.

Finally, Jonathan Jiang ’19 and Yuting Xie ’15 both shared their perspectives about Brewster. It was a proud moment to watch our student and alum present together – though admittedly we had no idea what they were saying! But you didn’t need a translator to see how poised, confident, and eloquent they were in their remarks. Yuting is now studying at the New York School of Design, and Jonathan is a rising junior at Brewster.

After our presentation, we met up with Jonathan and his father for dinner at another one of his father’s restaurants. We found ourselves in an entirely different section of Shanghai, but we could have been in Paris. The French influences of the old buildings made for a tranquil and beautiful retreat in the center of the city. Once again, we were introduced to new tastes, and we were even treated to a visit to the kitchen to see how the chef made a dessert called macho. These large sesame treats were delicious and we learned that each batch takes 40 minutes to prepare!

Our stay in Shanghai has been remarkably diverse and memorable. We will be sorry to leave tomorrow.

Day 9: Craig Gemmell

We were engulfed in humidity soon after our plane touched down in Shenzhen. We had, of course, been migrating south toward the ever more tropical climes since leaving Beijing last week. We were greeted by Zeru Wang ’21 and his father, who had generously arranged transport for us to our hotel.

Two hours later, we sat at a huge round table with a merry-go-round-sized turntable in its center. Past parents, young alumni, current students and their parents, and us – now dubbed the “Shenzhen Six” had a long and wildly entertaining dinner. We for our part had gotten adept enough at the art of chop-sticking to eat without thinking too hard and were surrounded by lots of familiar faces. We talked, told stories, laughed. It was a very special night.

The following day we divided up into two groups for the morning. Andy, Guinevere, and Doug Kiley headed out to visit more with Tiffany ‘18, Michelle ‘18, and their mom, Sue. Doug Skelley, Kristy, Jason, and I skirted around the bay and visited Head of School Peter Warsaw at Vanke Meish Academy.

Part of the story of Vanke Meish is the purpose of Vanke Meish: it is the first boarding school in China allowed to recruit Chinese students and utilize western teaching methods. Part of the story of Vanke Meish is Peter Warsaw, who has a long pedigree in New England boarding schools and is putting his wonderful fingerprint on a school straddling two cultures. And yet another part of the story of Vanke Meish is the school itself – the glass and steel and landforms and reflecting pools that conspire to render it perhaps the most memorable campus I’ve ever seen.

Later that day, we took cars south and across the border to Hong Kong and felt a bit like we were back in a more humid version of Shanghai given the tall buildings, bustling streets, and vistas across the water.

That night, we had a wonderful dinner with Matt Wong ’91, Mark Wong ’92, and Lauren Lok ’99 at the Hong Kong Country Club and were impressed with how nostalgic they all were about Brewster and how well it appears to have prepared them for lives of purpose.

The last few days in Hong Kong were breathless. After my failed attempt at going for an early run through the remarkable humidity, Doug Kiley, Kristy and I had a fantastic Dim Sum lunch with Yong Hak Huh ’77 and then visited with Erik Ryd, father of Jacob ’15, prior to gorging on pizza to prepare our palates for re-entry into western cuisine. A night’s sleep later, we spoke to Pingan Insurance Group about American boarding schools and then headed to the airport. We all had good reason to sleep well as we retraced our path back to Boston. It was a remarkable trip – and we were all so lucky to participate.

Final Reflections: Guinevere Hilton

I am grateful for the opportunity to travel to China with this wonderful group of people to see some of our students and meet their families. It reinforced what I love about Brewster: the people who work and learn here. I feel like I have a clearer understanding for what our international students go through to be here (hello, jet lag!) and the courage and faith that it takes a parent to send a student to Brewster from far away. I look forward to finding ways to ease the transition to Brewster for all of our students but have a heightened awareness toward our international students.

Showing 6 comments
  • BG Hodges

    Thanks so much for representing us there!! Great cross section of BA to go on this adventure! Here at home the sun has finally arrived bringing hot (90 degree F) weather for a few days. Have a wonderful time! See you all soon.

  • Gail Antonucci

    What a great experience and the two blogs were wonderful. Looking forward to next one.

  • Liz Baker McClain

    Three cheers for the Brewster Away Team! Thank you for all you do for the Brewster community.

  • Lauren Hammond

    I am thrilled to hear about your journey! A trip of a lifetime for sure.

  • Jaime Garzon

    Amigos!! I am glad that you had this nice opportunity of traveling together and explore the great China while promoting our great school. Best wishes for success and fun. I am sure you are the best delegation ever!!

  • Laura Cooper

    What a great travel log! So sorry it took me this long to read carefully through all the posts. Apparently my head was in the sand this spring as I did not know this trip was even in the planning. I was especially happy to read about Team Cooper alums Catherine, Jack and Yoyo and am vicariously appreciative and proud of their hosting roles! And I am looking forward to meeting Hans this fall.

    Thank you for sharing!

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