Navasota High School senior and Chinese language student Jamie Maddox went on a "China Bridge" trip, which was led by Oklahoma University, and spent 3 weeks there this past summer. Chinese teacher Bethany Birch said Texas A&M University representative Martha Greene told NHS about the opportunity since they work with OU's Confucius Institute (a program sponsored by the Chinese government that promotes Chinese culture.)
Maddox was chosen to participate as 1 of 200 American students.
Besides raising about $500 through bake sales, Birch said the trip was made possible by a $1,000 donation from the Navasota Education foundation, and another $1,000 donation from teachers. OU also paid for the cost of the actual summer camp Maddox participated in.
"I think the best thing for Jamie was seeing his community come around to support his goals. He is a very smart and independent person, but there is something about powerful about people working together for a common goal," Birch said. "Before he wanted to go on the trip he was not very focused, but once he realized it was going to happen he got serious about studying Chinese. Once he realized that the whole community was pulling for him, then he was extremely driven."
Maddox said he not only learned about the culture, but also changed a few things about himself after adapting to his environment.
"Our purpose was to study the language and culture, and it was a wonderful sightseeing experience," said Maddox. "It was my last opportunity and I thought it would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and it definitely was."
The experience not only challenged the NHS student to learn as many Chinese characters as possible, but also taught him lessons about himself, stereotyping and afforded him the opportunity to make lasting friendships with 7 other students in his group while exploring a country he plans to visit again one day.
"I was completely illiterate when I arrived because I hadn't paid as much attention to characters as much as I should have. Learning how to speak it and read it are two different things," said Maddox. "I've been doing much better in Chinese class since the trip."
His teacher said she noticed the difference immediately after he returned to school.
"When he came back, what I noticed the most was his maturity level. I think the trip showed him the "real world" in a whole new way," Birch said. "He is more focused in class, and helps other students when he understands something they don't. In terms of Chinese proficiency, he is much more excited to learn the actual characters (characters are the hardest part to learn, as there is one for every word in the English language) and more over his ability to retain new Chinese words has increased dramatically."
Maddox said the trip helped him differentiate between truths about the culture and false myths related to stereotyping.
"It definitely opened my eyes to the way people can exaggerate stereotypes," Maddox said. "I've always heard Chinese people eat dogs - that's one of the stereotypes - but they don't. There's also a stereotype that they sit on the floor, but I didn't see that. I always sat in a chair."
He added that he found that Chinese people are in fact good drivers, unlike the typical typecast. In his observations, Maddox said scooters are a popular source of transportation.
"They call them electric motorcycles and they're very trendy. There's even a special lane for them," he said. ‘They don't pay attention to traffic lanes; they're more like guidelines, but an American professor in China said their leniency in driving rules has caused them to have a quicker response in the event of a probable accident."
Change in habits
The senior said he was thankful for the hospitality of Chinese families, who attempted to make students feel more at home by including French fries as a side dish with every meal.
"They served us fries, but they eat them dry. And they don't have the same ketchup - it was real sweet," Maddox said. "I wasn't expecting to eat fries with every meal, but I guess they figured if I didn't like anything else, at least we'd like that."
As Maddox adhered to Chinese traditions, he said he was able to overcome his germ phobia and a few obsessive, compulsive behaviors.
"Everyone shares the food on the table from the same plate, so the same chopsticks they put in their mouths are the same utensils they use to serve themselves with," said Maddox.
Maddox said he usually minds when the food on his plate touches another type of food, but he was also forced to change that habit in China.
"They give you a small bowl to put all the food in, and I usually don't like my food touching," he said.
He also observed that mushrooms are a popular food item, served with about 30 percent of meals, and is now able to eat them himself.
"I no longer can't stand mushrooms," he said.
Maddox added that he had to get used to hot tea as the customary, free beverage served at Chinese restaurants, instead of water.
"It's cheaper there because we were told not to drink tap eater, which would make us sick," Maddox said.
While in China, Maddox also became accustomed to practicing physical fitness routines as a morning routine.
"Physical fitness is real important there and people get up real early in the summer for Kung Fu lessons," Maddox said he enjoyed. "It's more for aerobics than as a fighting technique."
He also got exercise while walking on the Great Wall of China he likes to call "The Great Staircase."
Life changing experience
"It's a life changing experience that sets him apart from other students and he was a part of a small group of students that represented America," said his father, Steve. "I don't think he even realizes the impact this could have on his life."
Mr. Maddox said his son has always been interested in international law, and believes the experience in China has reinforced Jamie's interest in traveling abroad as part of his future career.