10 days in Shanghai with HSYLC- 19 mins
Ni hao world! As you can infer from the picture above, I’ve had a grand time in Shanghai with the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China program. And as I am currently sitting on a couch in our house, wondering how fast my time went in China, I now understand the true meaning of the phrase “Time flies.” I would like to make an addentum to it though, by saying “Time flies when you do something you love.” Let me walk you all through my journey in China with this program. This blog post will be seperated to five sections: a quick overview on HSYLC, my experience before the conference, during the conference, after the conference, and finally my thoughts overall.
To quickly summarize, the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China program aims to give a taste of Harvard to a select group of Chinese high school students by having undergraduate Harvard students give seminars as Seminar Leaders in varying topics, lead House activities as House Masters similar to those in actual Harvard College houses, and answer any questions on student life at Harvard or on US college application tips. This program concurrently occurs at select high schools in Shanghai, Beijing and Hangzhou. The HSYLC conference I attended was during Aug. 11-19 in Shanghai at Shanghai High School.
Unknown to me before the conference, HSYLC is one of the top programs a high school student in China can attend. It carries a lot of prestige in both domestic and international-focused Chinese high school communities. Alumni from this program have gone to top-ranking universities in China, the United States, the United Kingdom, etc… In short, an electronic acceptance letter from HSYLC is worth its digital-weight in gold. So it is with no suprise to say that I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to take part in HSYLC, and in another way, represent Harvard to Chinese scholars…
Preclude to HSYLC 2017
As I wrote in my last blog post, I had just been in Ankara, Turkey for four days before I was due to go to Shanghai. As such, I tried to spend as much time with family as I can. Perhaps it was due to the fact that my family isn't used to short visits, or perhaps they have never sent me to such a foreign place before, but to them my departure to Shanghai was especially challenging. I should be thankful though, as thanks to some bureaucrats working in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, with my green Turkish passport, I didn't need to apply for a Chinese tourist visa in advance (unlike most of my American passport holding friends). Nevertheless though, I sipped some tea with my parents before heading out to the Far East. Just a few hours before departing, I learned that Kaitlyn, a fellow HSYLC Seminar Leader and rising sophomore, would also be taking Turkish Airlines to Shanghai (#selflesspromotion #takeTurkish)! Ten hours passed, our TK 0026 landed, and an hour later, a couple other SLs, our student-intern, and I were united! (It was easier said than done getting together a couple foreigners at a foreign airport, so props to our student-intern Jessica for that!) We then took a taxi to Shanghai High School, and it was at that point that we were truly exposed to the Shanghai summer weather.
On a sidenote, I thought the city Alanya in Turkey was hot and humid, but I forgave it for being a beach town where one could easily cool in the sea. But Shanghai was hotter, and more humid, with no easily accessible sea to cool in. One could even see the humidity in the air, or perhaps it was some of the pollution stuck in airborn water molecules… But yes, the presence of the A/C at our meeting room was quite appreciated. Of course, that was after we were stuck outside the gates of the high school following a quick water shopping trip to the nearest Walmart. Well, at least we got to learn what year the school was founded in…
The next day, before the classes at HSYLC 2017 official started, the Seminar Leaders took a trip to some of the famous spots in Shanghai. First, we took the amazingly-modern metro of Shanghai to the City God Temple. Some of us burned incense to experience the act of praying, some of us burned incese to actually pray, and some of us took pictures with the immortal statues to which people prayed. Of course, this was after Edward (Eddy), our Seminar Leader Manager, warned us not to take pictures with the statues, because it was bad luck to be in a photo with those who have passed away from this world. This theory might actually be true, as towards the end of our trip, some of us left with incredibly delayed flights!
We later went on the famous Nanjing Road, shopped around in not-so-famous tea shops, and ate at kinda-famous restaurants. Once we satisfied our appetites, there was one more very famous place we had not gone to … the Bund! Well, this place isn’t famous for what’s at that exact place, but for the sight one can see from there. You may have seen it on TV, but if you haven’t, well … take a look!
Here in this picture you see a part of what made Shanghai the financial capital of the East… the amount of money that goes through these structures is spectacular, perhaps even more spectacular than this view. Maybe that is why the People’s Republic of China is portraying Shanghai as its soul, and Beijing as its mind. I would draw comparisons between Shanghai & Beijing with the pairs of Ankara & Istanbul and Washington D.C. & New York City, but that would massively downplay the scales of the former pair and would not be a fair comparison, even if they might seem so on paper.
On another sidenote, have you heard of the “Beijing Bikini” before? When it’s so humid in a city in China some people fold the bottom part of their shirts up, so that their bellies are exposed to the open air and to the unexpecting eyes of foreign tourists. I could put a picture as an example, but perhaps you can search that on a seperate page instead…
Enough wondering about now, it was time to get down to business! The class that I taught was called “The Power of Social Media.” As the name implies, the class was about the essential aspects of social media, its uses by both the user and the company, how the social media sites were able to stay free (by selling the user’s information and metadata), the privacy issues that arise and how we can protect ourselves by knowing the fair playing rules (the Terms of Service) and security options given to us. If you were to ask me my thoughts on the class, I would say that it was a fairly comprehensive, yet relaxed class based on class participation and discussion. In addition, the class was spaced out in three 1.5 hour lectures spread across 3 days. Repeat this four times for 4 different classes, and I ended up with teaching 13.5 hours of classes in the span of 6 days. #wow
It was very tiring and challenging, but ultimately very rewarding. I believe I became a better teacher, and a better speaker as a result of teaching this class. Not only did I try to actively get students to participate in class and keep their attention focused, I also had to make sure they actually learned something by giving them opportunities to discuss topics with each other in class. These were moves that, I was later told, were very dissimilar to those in traditional Chinese classrooms, and it was a very interesting challenge to get my students familiar with this "Western" style of teaching. In addition, I often times felt like an actor as well as a teacher. I felt like this because I was constantly putting up an excited face, and emphasizing certain parts of my classes with varying emotions so that my students will understand the importance of key notes. I was not the only one feeling like this, as when we SLs talked together, they said they felt similarly on seperate occasions. We then wondered, is this what an actual high school teacher feels like? Is this what a university professor feels like? Was this feeling normal, or did it say something about how we taught our classes?
I also got some experience in another part of teaching: exams and grading. As part of our classes, each SL had to give a final assesment and produce a final grade for each student that would later be a portion of students’ HSYLC GPA. These GPAs are important, as this is what students show when they’re applying to both domestic and international schools. There was a lot of pressure on us, therefore, to give fair but differenting assesments where the best performing students would be recognized. From this, I discovered that like the student, the teacher also dislikes having to give these tests and essays. I constantly wondered, “why can’t we just give them all A’s?” Because no matter how evil it sounds, it is necessary to seperate those who are performing well from those who are not, and that cold, hard truth hit us all bitterly.
This bitterness didn’t last long though, as the rest of my class was filled with relaxing but exciting class discussions where my students only had to actively pay attention and participate to do well. As a result, not a single moment of the class was boring or inactive. My students later told me they especially loved that part of the class, where they didn’t have to do any labor-intensive writing homeworks or activities, but just think and talk. Again, this was a move that was very much against the traditional Chinese way of teaching, but this is why these students signed up for HSYLC, for a different, Western style of teaching that emphasizes class discussions. One gift given to me, I believe, is a sign of this:
It was a bittersweet moment when I had to speak the last few key notes of my class, and hear their claps at the end of the third day of teaching. I was and still am grateful to my students for listening and engaging with the class, and I hope they were able to learn something from my teachings.
An an SL, I was also assigned a Teaching Fellow to help me in teaching my class. I was very blessed to have Sarah Ji, rising junior at Shanghai University, as my TF, as she did an incredible job keeping track of the students in how much they participated and made sure the students received important information about the class. Of course, our students noticed who did the grading part, and with their social engineering capabilities, they came up with many memes that were shared in our class WeChat groups. This one is one of my favorites.
In addition to teaching classes, we Seminar Leaders were also the House Masters of our respective houses. To explain for non-Havard folks, each student at Harvard after their freshmen year is placed into a dormitory group called a House where they stay and live for the next three years. These 12 houses all have their own history, traditions, buildings, etc… that makes them distinctive (Winthrop House best house!) along with its House Masters (now called Faculty Deans) who are usually Harvard faculty members. To replicate this, each student at HSYLC was placed into a house where we, the Harvard undergraduates, were its leaders. The House that Ruiqi He, my co-House Master, our TFs Sarah and Echo, and I were in was Dignitas House. Aspects of our House such as our “values” and our flag were already chosen, but we were free to come up with our house mascot, cheer and motto. Given that our values included words such as “hardworking” and “persistent,” it was a big surprise to us when our 32 house kids chose “Dumplings” as our motto. Well, I guess it sounded nice to the ear, Dignitas Dumplings!
With our house, we participated in many of the scheduled activities. They dressed Ruiqi and I up in the Fashion Show contest, destroyed the Talent Show with their superb singing and dancing, and more. To say that the kids were participating in the activities would be a massive understatement. As each day passed, we grew closer to our kids, and they grew closer to both us and to each other. This program truly brought high school students hailing from all across China (and even some from abroad) together and resulted in many unbreakable friendships. I can write more on this, but I’ll let the equivalent of a thousand words do the job:
We thought we had all of the surprises, but we didn't expect our students to do one for us. On the eve of the last day of house activities, our students ushered us four into our normal house class, with the lights turned off, and gave a magnificent surprise. There they were, hidden behind the desks and chairs before we walked in, and jumping and screaming in joy when we were inside. Doubtless, we were very surprised. They even bought us a cake with our names on it! In true teenager fashion, after enjoying a couple pieces from our cake, we proceeded to "decorate" each others' faces with the delicious sugary whip cream coating. Originally, after this gathering, the Seminar Leaders and Teaching Fellows were planning to go to KTV (Karaoke in Shanghai Fashion). But, seeing that our kids were having tons of fun, Echo, Sarah, Ruiqi and I decided to stay until much later and sing with our students instead. There were having the time of their lives, and we couldn't just leave them like that!
In terms of food, we the SLs, the TFs and the students all ate together during breakfast, lunch and dinner. This allowed everyone to bond with each other outside of class and activities, as what else brings humans together better than food? The food we ate was graciously served by the Shanghai High School staff. Of course, to the students and TFs, this food was nothing out of the ordinary. But for most of the SLs, most of the flavors we experienced were new and unfamiliar. The names of some were interesting as well; would anyone like some chainsaw chicken? But all the food we ate was delicious, and it was very impressive to see the local staff succesfully replicate such succesful meals on a very large scale for over 300 conference attendees.
Epilogue to HSYLC
Following the end of the conference, most of us SLs had one more extra day to spend in Shanghai. So, we went to some of the other landmarks in the city. The Yu Yuan Garden is one that everyone, especially the taxi drivers, know well. It is a place filled with small boutique shops where one can haggle on a very overpriced item and bring the price down to only slightly overpriced, as well as with tiny restaurants and food stalls serving everything from stinky tofu to soup dumplings, and of course the Garden itself. It costs only 30 yuan to get in (15 if you’re a student!) and enjoy a nice green park with lots of koi fish in the pond. There was also a very historic building inside, and so we did what tourists do in front of historic buildings:
The landmark we next visited was the tallest building in the previous Bund skyline picture known as the Oriental Pearl Tower. When we first went to the tower, we saw that the “expected” wait time to get to the top was 2 hours. When we then got into the building, we saw that we would have had to wait another 2 hours to get to the top. At that point, our amazing tour guide knew none of us really wanted to wait any longer, and so she dropped what we all called the “H bomb” to the people in charge (where the H stands for Harvard). Lo and behold, we got to skip the normal queue and went right up!
With this occurance, we witnessed the power of the Harvard brand. Since we all live and go to school at Harvard, after some point we start to think of our school as any other school with nothing too special about, effectively forming a Harvard bubble. Of course, the rest of the world, and especially China, sees it differently. The question on who’s right on thinking one or the other can be debated for a long time, but it is apparent that it’s in our interest if we can sometimes use our school’s unique name and power in our favor.
Unfortunately, these visits only made our approaching departures from Shanghai even more saddening. We all had a blast in the last ten days, whether that’d be with our students, with our fellow SLs, with our activities, or with all of them! As the next day came, one by one people started heading for Pu Dong Airport to go to their next destinations, and I on that night boarded my flight back to Istanbul and then to Ankara. As we later chatted in our SL WeChat group as well as in our house WeChat group, no one really wanted to leave, and it felt like these last few days passed too quickly. To me, this was only proof that the program was a success for both the SLs and the students.
Thoughts and Feels
If my feelings on the Harvard Summit for Young Leaders in China program weren't clear in the text above, I will say it again: I loved HSYLC 2017. I formed bonds with high school students halfway across the world, I sharpened my public speaking and teaching skills, I travelled and spent time with fellow passionate Seminar Leaders and Teaching Fellows, I can go on and on... I feel very lucky to be able to take part in such an event, and I hope to do so again in the future, whether in the same HSYLC program or another international Harvard conference. In terms of last words, I would like to thank my co-House Master Ruiqi He, my TF Sarah Ji, and Ruiqi's TF Echo for placing a YUUGE role in making sure Dignitas House was lit. Without their enthusiasm, hard-work and passion, none of our great times and successes would have been possible.
I would also like to thank both the students in my class and the students in our house for their enthusiasm and love. Without their part, we might as well be robots or mutants, because no matter how good we were at doing something, we wouldn't be able to rally the kids. We recognized their wish to interact, their wonder to learn and their need to thrive, and we hope that we were able to serve them to the best of our capabilities. We wish you guys the best of luck in terms of college applications, and we are always here for support! Take care fellow dumplings, and take care fellow readers!