Letters from China

An Eyewitness Account of a High School Choir’s Overseas Adventures

Devon Durst on a busy Beijing street.

Devon Durst on a busy Beijing street.

March 18 began early in our home. That’s because our daughter Sophie had to be at school by 6:45 a.m. She was catching a bus for China.

She and 39 fellow members of the A Cappella Choir at Chico High School were setting off on the first leg of an eight-day trip to Beijing and Shanghai, where they would do five performances in conjunction with Chinese youth choirs, as well as experience one of the world’s great cultures first-hand.

To us parents, a minor miracle was taking place. The trip’s total cost was $80,000, and all of it had been raised by the students and their families.

Oh, and by Lyn Bankhead, the choir director at the high school. If this woman doesn’t win some kind of “teacher of the year” award soon, my faith will be shot.

Trekking on the Great Wall was a highlight of the trip for (l-r) Kali Martin, Cassie Lane, Heather Varner, Sophie Speer and (front) Joanna Johnson.

Not only does Bankhead run one of the best choir programs in California, she also has taken groups of students on five other major performance trips, beginning four years ago with Australia. Since then they’ve gone to New York City (where they performed at Carnegie Hall), on a seven-day Caribbean cruise and to Los Angeles and San Francisco (twice).

Organizing such trips is a job in itself. Fortunately, Bankhead had a lot of help this time; she gives special thanks to Tawny Cleveland, who she says gets “a standing ovation from me for all her work to organize the parents.”

We were well-organized, indeed. There were car washes that needed towels and hoses, a silent auction/Madrigal Choir dinner that needed volunteers, booths at the Farmers’ Market—I can’t remember all the fund-raisers.

As the bus pulled away that morning, headed for the San Francisco airport, we parents could only wonder: How will our children fare? Will they be good representatives of their town and their country? How will their singing compare with the Chinese students’ singing? What memories will they bring back with them?

Fortunately, a self-described “embedded reporter” was along for the ride. Science teacher Bruce Dillman was one of the 10 adults who paid their own ways to serve as chaperones, and he began sending us e-mail messages as soon as the group arrived in Beijing.

Dillman is widely known for his long involvement in local theater, but on campus he’s school spirit personified. He’s the “voice of the Panthers” announcing football and basketball games, helps with rallies and theater and music productions and was recently appointed activities director. He’s even painted his car, the “Panthermobile,” in the school colors, red and gold.

Performing at a Beijing high school.

Turns out he’s a heck of a writer, too. Every day we parents eagerly awaited his e-mail letters. They conveyed the experiences our kids were having vividly and humorously, and they made us proud of this fine group of young ambassadors. We thought you’d enjoy reading them and seeing some of the hundreds of photos taken by students Kara Gosling, Devon Durst and Heather Varner and chaperones Kathy Shultz and Jodie Dillman. Our thanks to all.

—by Robert Speer

We’re in China!
Although our plane left three hours late and Friday lasted only 10 hours for us, we have arrived safe and sound and with all our luggage after our 12-hour flight. The kids are all checked into their hotel rooms (and checked by chaperones to be in their rooms) and should sleep soundly.

The sky is overcast and the weather is brisk. Tomorrow morning after breakfast we will have a rehearsal here at the hotel. Later we will tour Tiananmen Square (six blocks away) and the Forbidden City.

It is 1:22 a.m., and all electricity in the city goes off at 2 a.m., I’m told. I’m not sure if that means outside only? (Note: Turns out it was only outside.)

The Forbidden City
Beijing is not so big a city, our guide tells us, only 18 million people. Not as big as Chongqing’s 20 million and spread out, so not as crowded as little Shanghai, with its 17 million. One of the most amazing things is how quiet and clean it is. You would be hard pressed to find a piece of litter downtown. Before 8 a.m., you are safer walking across a four-lane street here than you would be in Chico.

The grownups on the trip posed for a photo with the Beijing tour guide. They are (front, l-r) Kim Seymour, Jenny Fox, tour guide John, Lyn Bankhead, Krissi Hahn and Jodie Dillman; back row, l-r: Tom Simenc, Tawny Cleveland, Kathy Shultz, Michael Bankhead, “embedded reporter” Bruce Dillman and Pam Russell.

We had many adventures on our first full day in China. We strolled through Tiananmen Square, the largest public gathering place in the world, capable of holding 1 million people (only about 70,000 today), and toured the Forbidden City, built in the very heart of Beijing in the 1400s. The massive stone, wood and metal craftsmanship and gardens defy even modern building techniques and public works.

We also ate some interesting food today. Most of the kids are gamely trying the exotic presentations, learning to use chopsticks and picking out what they like. Molly Gallivan, Lauren Phipps and Steven Locke even ate the eyeballs out of the fish, and our vegetarians are getting a good variety, too. …

We haven’t lost anyone yet, although Jeremy had a scare when he left his backpack in the Forbidden City. Luckily our quick-acting guides contacted the police, and it was returned intact within a few minutes. …

Michael Bankhead [Lyn’s husband], who’s on his third trip to China, tells us that the country is much more westernized today. Only five years ago, hardly a sign existed in anything other than Chinese characters. It is still plenty exotic for us, however, with all kinds of differences; for instance, although they are new and clean, squat toilets in restaurants are a stretch for most.

Dazzling in the Orient
Rather than the emperor’s elaborate Summer Palace in the hills just outside the city, most of the kids would probably tell you the best thing about today was the shopping, or the breakfast, or the Peking duck dinner, or just goofing around with their friends along the way.

But they’d be lying. The best thing about today, and they know it, was their performance at a local high school. As they performed, as they watched the high school’s choir perform ("Swanee River” in Chinese, among others), and how they behaved afterwards, our students were great ambassadors for our country.

Alyssa Higgs with a local friend.

After both choirs had performed for each other in the informal setting of the school performance hall, Lyn Bankhead was given a chance to conduct the Chinese choir. She did it by placing a few Chico members of each section among the 80 Chinese high-schoolers. Picture Trey Peoples in the middle of the Chinese sopranos, Robert Rees towering among the tenors, Cassie Lane’s big smile in the middle of the altos. Then Lyn took this choir salad through a series of fun warm-ups that knew no language.

This was the first day the kids brought out their secret weapons, the ceramic pins Lyn had made with the double USA/Chinese flags. Each student and chaperone from Chico wore these pins into the hall. After Lyn’s exercise, everyone took off their pins and gave them to a host performer. The Chinese were thrilled to no end.

What happened next included an impromptu basketball game in the yard, with both nations included on both teams (who knew Kellen Starmer, Tim Franco and Steven Locke were basketball stars?), the singing of Brittany Spears songs led by Janeva Sorenson and Anna Brink-Capriola, many photographs, exchanges of e-mail addresses, Justin Harford surrounded by admirers while playing the grand piano, Cameryn Titus and Alex Schwartz dancing to another admiring crowd, Lyn and the young principal exchanging gifts (Lyn has about a dozen My Hometown Chico coffee table books by Marcia Myers Wilhite), Molly Gallivan giving away her barrettes to students who didn’t get pins.

We have a long day tomorrow—leaving for the Great Wall early and a late formal performance at the top high school in the nation (and it’s a pretty big nation).

Pretty Great Wall, Pretty Great Kids
Today we left early to drive beyond the city to the Great Wall of China. We passed countryside and farms here in China for the first time. Although it is the spring equinox today, it is still sometimes bleak winter at this Chicago latitude.

Beijing has had a concerted tree planting campaign to hold back the Gobi Desert dust, so huge stands of 10- to 50-year-old birch, beech and ash trees lined the highways. Wild hillsides were spare, with younger trees and underbrush missing (probably collected for fuel) and very little wildlife. Domestic animals were also rare: a few small herds of sheep, occasionally chickens and caged songbirds. We never saw a living cat and only a few dozen, mostly smaller-breed dogs (owners pay a huge licensing fee). The air in the country was still hazy with the omnipresent coal-burning smog.

Pensioners doing morning tai chi in a Beijing park. The students were impressed by the vigor and vitality of China’s oldsters.

Those who climbed to the two top guard towers on the wall today (about 1,500 very steep feet from where we began) even saw patches of snow in the open, chaparral-like woods. Although the wall is one of the few orderly human things you can see from the moon, it is really uneven, with some steps 2 inches high and others 2 feet high, some 6 inches wide and others 30 inches wide, some bowed by erosion and others curling in places around bedrock.

Less than a dozen of us made it to the tippy top, Reid Whittlesey and Steven Locke running all the way up and down faster than any of us and me just short of a heart attack but just ahead of Joanna Johnson and Kali Martin. …

Once again, however, the highlight of the day was our school visit. I think we have the nicest American kids in the country with us. They either truly understand their roles as ambassadors, or you parents (or Lyn) have some tremendous power over them.

Tsinghua High School is the most prestigious high school in the most populous country in the world. Ninety-seven percent of its 6,000 students will go onto nearby Tsinghua University and from there become China’s leaders. As a former Cal man, I must begrudgingly call it the Stanford of China. It attracts the brightest students from the entire country, about half of whom board on campus (eight to a room, one bathroom per floor).

The student leaders gave us tours of the six-story buildings on campus before our dinner and joint performance. School was still in session at 5 p.m. Although the lab and technology applications were poor, the Astroturf stadium and track were better than Chico State’s, and the art classes my group walked through were unbelievable and well appointed. Normally there are 50 students per class, although advanced classes may have half that number.

The students spoke and sang nearly flawless English and were very friendly. By the way, the guides told us Matt Lim and Cody Parsons resemble two different minority groups in China (there are 56 recognized ethnicities, but 95 percent of the 1.3 billion people are in one group) and are considered “dreamy” by most of the Chinese students.

Callie Du Paul and Devon Durst backstage with kung fu dancers.

At dinner in one of the two cafeterias, the metal plates, serving dishes and even the metal door handles gleamed, and the food was very tasty. The kids are really eating well despite the fact they rarely know (or want to know) what they are eating. The vegetarians might be the one exception to that, but they had their best meal at lunch today. This was the first place we were served cookies (fortune or otherwise), and that was a nice treat.

The performances are always moving. Once again a huge banner welcoming Chico High School framed the stage, and tonight a Chinese student emcee coordinated the performances. For CHS, Sophie Speer stepped from the ranks to introduce each number and was very striking and poised. The repertoire started with “Cantante Domino” (in Italian) and moved on to a montage of Stephen Foster folk songs (arranged by Mary Lou Lim, Matt’s mom) that highlighted the choir’s range and power.

A few of the smaller groups performed next. The 12 girls in Camerata [a smaller choir within the A Cappella Choir] had a few songs; their emotional ballad about separation, “The Water Is Wide,” brought those of us who understood the lyrics to tears. “Chic” [the jazz vocal quartet of Ellen Knight, Anne Simenc, Jackie Herbert and Lauren Phipps] had a sublime jazz love song, “My Romance,” in the middle somewhere, and after the full choir returned with the rousing “Joshua Fit de Battle,” the finale was a popular Chinese song, “Jasmine Flower,” sung in Chinese (our pronunciation, corrected just a few hours before the first performance, has drawn praise).

Tonight, Alex Schwartz and Cameryn Titus (one interpreter, unable to pronounce their names, introduced them in Chinese as “handsome boy” and “beautiful girl") performed their accompanying gymnastic ballet to “Jasmine Flower” (choreographed by Catherine Sullivan Sturgeon), and the audience broke into spontaneous applause several times during the breathtaking lifts.

Tsinghua’s choir had a nice presentation as well—singing with accompaniment in Mandarin, French, and English. The also had two elegant dancers, a scene from the French opera The Hunchback of Notre Dame and an amazing sort of folk sitar player.

You are probably wondering how our students compare to these top-notch performers culled from every corner of China. You probably think I will tell you, “We can’t possibly match up with this,” or simply lie or embellish and tell you, “We are just as good in our own way.” Here is the truth: We are better. It is not without reason that Mrs. Bankhead’s choirs win festival awards and are invited to represent the United States of America in situations like this. There may be as good or better choirs somewhere, but Chico’s are not only good, they have worked hard and been supported so they can be here—and that is what makes us special.

The Chico choir blended with a Chinese college choir in Shanghai.

Here’s another idea for you to think about: After jointly performing a few songs from The Lion King, Chinese and American students laughed, danced together (Justin Harford playing ragtime piano) and exchanged gifts, hugs and handshakes with fervor bordering on mayhem. “So much for the impression of Chinese as cold and unemotional…” Lyn’s husband Michael summed up.

Finally, on our last night in Beijing, we had a little free time to get dinner on our own and to do a little independent exploring. A few of us tried the extraordinary fried foods of a nearby street market: snake, cat, frog, silkworm larvae, starfish, even scorpion (my favorite) and centipede (not recommended).

Most of the girls shopped and shopped and shopped. They are becoming adept at shunning peddlers whose trinkets and knock-offs they do not want and learning to bargain effectively for what they do convince themselves they want. Although there were about nine extra bags this morning of plunder that will come to Chico, it probably won’t cost you much. Do not be surprised to see a Louis Vuitton bag or Rolex watch (and do not plan to write the companies when they fall apart).

Early this morning we were supposed to be packed, checked out and ready in the lobby at 5:30. Can you believe some of our high-school students did not make it? Ordered back into the fray by General Bankhead, I had to witness more than a few rooms through which an apparent tornado had left an exhausted student unconscious in a tangle of clothing and cheap souvenirs. Miraculously, by 5:45 the chastened troops and their chattel were crammed into buses to beat the morning traffic to the airport.

After a sleepy flight to coastal Shanghai, we checked into the hotel for a little rest before beginning our tour of the city. Shanghai is about as big as Delaware, but its 17 million-plus residents would make it the third- or fourth-largest state in the USA.

Shanghai is more southerly and near the coast, so its spring is way ahead of Beijing’s winter. There are many more plants here, with frequent flowers, trees leafing out, and more landscaping. Dust from the Gobi Desert winds keeps Beijing dingier, although the total lack of litter in Beijing is not quite true here in Shanghai. In both cities, most people live in 14- to 30-story apartment buildings, typically families of three—since 1978, China has had a one-child policy, with severe economic consequences for “extra” children—in 600-square-foot, two-bedroom flats.

Alex Schwartz and Cameryn Titus graced several of the concerts with a balletic pas de deux, to the delight of audiences.

High-rise apartments are everywhere. The business district shows glimpses of colonial days, but it has been overwhelmed by huge, dramatic, almost comic-book futuristic skyscrapers apparently trying to outdo each other. Most of these have been built within the last 15 commercial boom years. Huge buildings and public works are going up everywhere, as China strives to catch up to the West.

A visit to a Buddhist temple and monastery ended with a tea ceremony and tea tasting arranged for us. It amazes me how resilient this group of kids is. They listened politely, and nearly all tried most of the herbal green teas.

After walking along the boardwalk-like “Bund” stretch of the Huang Pu River, we enjoyed a nice dinner at a restaurant (including sweet-rice filled lotus root—tastes like fruitcake), then returned to the river (last major tributary to the Yangtze) for an evening cruise.

Down and back on the great greasy river took about an hour and a half in the sweater weather night. Lyn had the students sing “Jasmine Flower,” which was warmly received by the Chinese passengers. Shanghai from the river is like a cross between a Disney ride in Tomorrowland decked out for Christmas and being in a futuristic movie like Blade Runner. Skyscrapers twinkle with varying colored lights, huge electronic videos loop with incomprehensible intentions (was that a weather forecast or a soap advertisement?), serious barges and tugboats push by, manned by intense, wiry, cigarette-smoking deckhands.

Down below on the boat, Janeva, Callie and Chelsea initiated an impromptu dance party. Realizing that the girls had started to dance to the Chinese music, the staff at the tea bar surprised us by turning down the lights, activating a disco ball and playing imitation rock and roll. Even some of the most unlikely dancers from our group took part in “the stroll” I helped organize.

Stimulating Shanghai
We can sum up what we’re learning about Shanghai with a few quotes from our guides:

Left to right: Ellen Knight, Kara Goslin, Cameryn Titus and Kali Martin with a young soldier they met at Tienanmen Square. The outgoing Chico kids made friends wherever they went.

“To see China 1,000 years ago, go to Beijing.”

“To see China 2,000 years ago, go to Xian.”

“To see China 200 years ago and into the future, come to Shanghai.”

This was the center of colonial China, where the famous sign “No dogs or Chinese” adorned a park for Westerners only after the British victory in the tea/opium wars. A “city of sin,” with drugs, prostitution, and lawlessness for many years, it was cleaned up by the ruthless reforms of Mao in the 1950s.

“Eat in Hong Kong, dress in Shanghai.”

Most famous for its silk, fashions, and furniture, Shanghai is getting an economic boost from our group. A tour of a silk factory yesterday showed us the whole process, from worm to cocoon to thread to silk products. A high-end garment store was included, of course, complete with saucy runway models in a small fashion show. For some reason, nearly all the boys attended. The highlight for a few of the chaperones, however, had to have been the normally demure Michelle Claudio transformed into a stunning goddess in a full-length gown.

“In Beijing, a traffic light is an instruction. In Shanghai it is a suggestion.”

When we laughed at that, the guide added, “In small towns, it is decoration.”

It is not quite like the movie Soylent Green, but I’m sure somebody associated with that story of a crowded future must have come here. Scooters, cars, buses, pedestrians and bikes and bikes and more bikes are everywhere. Bikes carry everything from businessmen to whole families to huge loads of produce (I estimated one bike had 40 30-pound boxes of fruit), garbage and even electronic equipment (12 televisions in one load).

“The 19th century was ruled by the British. The United States dominated the 20th century. The next century belongs to China.”

Enormous skyscrapers are going up everywhere. Two hundred new Manhattan-sized buildings will join the burgeoning “New City” in the next five years. No nonsense about environmental impacts or individual rights stalls projects here. Displacing people from their ancestral homes and tearing down ancient structures is no problem in China. Whatever anyone might think of Chinese politics, this place is racing into the modern world. Businessmen know access to this market is their ticket to the stars.

One of our new guides here is a very interesting fellow. Summer (his name) looks like a husky Chinese Mafia hit man in his impeccable suit and shades, speaks with a British accent, and has a delivery like a sophisticated Rodney Dangerfield. The repartee between him and Sophie Speer (with her big American smile) as she introduces the acts is quite charming to both Americans and Chinese.

We have one more performance tonight and then a farewell dinner before we go back to our hotel to pack. By the time you get this, we will already be starting our 39-hour Saturday that will bring us home to you.