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Exploring China
By Kathleen Ostrander

When Katie Smithenry had a chance to visit a college friend in China, she didn’t hesitate. Smithenry and her mother took the 18-hour flight from Chicago to the Hong Kong International Airport in late February.

“We spent the first five days in Hong Kong; and it’s a real blend of modern and traditional cultures,” she said. 

Smithenry said they did “touristy” things in Hong Kong. They went to the Nan Lian Garden and Ocean Park. The garden is built in the Tang Dynasty style. Old and valuable trees are featured throughout the property, and there is a vegetarian restaurant and tea house as well as a souvenir shop on the grounds. The tea house helps visitors learn all about tea etiquette and the culture of tea drinking.

Ocean Park is a combination theme park and conservancy. Several species of rare animals are housed at the park, and there are rides an exhibits. The country’s pandas, red and giant, are prominently featured in Panda Kingdom, where visitors can visit the panda shop and eat at Panda Café. It is all things panda.

“Hong Kong is just an international melting pot of a lot of cultures. We used the metro to travel, and that was an experience. It’s kind of odd talking to people because they learned their English with a colonial accent. There’s a lot of noise and activity,” she said.

Smithenry and her mother went to the Happy Valley Racecourse, one of the few in-city racecourses in the world. It was opened in 1846, and the Hong Kong Racing Museum is adjacent to the track. 

There are a number of huge markets as well as other shopping venues in Hong Kong. SoHo is a dining area that also boasts that it has the world’s largest covered escalator.

“Saturday is a big market day,” Smithenry said. “When we were there, I was amazed that young children just wander ahead of their parents even though it’s really crowded.”

Smithenry said the temples in Hong Kong were amazing. They visited the Sik Sik Yuen Wong Tai Sin Temple, which features worship areas for Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. 

“We tried to go to a traditional temple and a more modern temple,” said Smithenry. They also went to St. Andrew’s Church.

The Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong is the home of the largest permanent light and sound show in the world. Smithenry said it was fantastic. Visitors take a ferry out of the harbor, and more than 40 buildings on both sides are decked out in lights that glow and flash in time to the music. 

Smithenry’s friend who invited her to visit China is Amber Rudolphi of Newton. Rudolphi is about three-quarters of the way through a year abroad teaching English to Chinese students. She teaches at a school in Shenzhen, which is in the Guangdong province. Smithenry and her mother traveled there by ferry and by train.

Grade school students in China start the day at 7:30 a.m. with stretching, exercise and some brisk marching. They do have recess, Smithenry said. She was fortunate to be able to tour some of the schools because Rudophi is a teacher. The first- and second-graders were learning English the day Smithenry was there by learning basketball terms — shooting, passing and dribbling.

High school students live at school five days a week. The high-rise dorm packs six students to a room, and their day starts at 7 a.m. and goes until 10 p.m.

“It is very high-pressure,” Smithenry said. “There is an exam at the end of high school, and a high score means college — a low score means you can’t get into college and you immediately start working. So they pretty much ‘teach’ the exam through the high school years,” she said.

One class she observed spent the entire class period discussing the differences and English conversational nuances between “which” and “that.”

Students wear uniforms, and girls wear no makeup, she observed.

The last 15 minutes of the class she sat in on, the teachers allowed the students to ask Smithenry questions. 

“They wanted to know my favorite NBA player. They are very into basketball. And there is so much pressure on them to go to college. One of them asked if I had been to Princeton and what my impressions were,” Smithenry said.

She said food was quite an adventure. “It is spicy and oily; be prepared for an experience,” she said. Since Smithenry works at the Sangamon County Farm Bureau, she took special note of the vegetables.

“The street vendors were fantastic. You could get grilled or roasted vegetables that were just wonderful. Some of the locals that came out with us turned up their noses at the street vendors. But I thought the food was great, and you could watch it being prepared in front of you,” she said.

One unique restaurant they visited had large metal pots of soup boiling over an open fire. The pot was divided with spicy broth on one side and regular broth on the other side. She said you could order meat or vegetables and cook them in your side of the pot so you could have spicy and regular food in one sitting.

“The people were very nice, very friendly and I would go back,” she said. “There is so much to see and do that we didn’t have time for.”

Story published Friday, May 7, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 3 )

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