OK, I’ll admit it. I went to Yale. But I didn’t inhale.
Well, the Association of Yale Alumni was sending a massive service trip to work in Chinese schools. And they picked me up as their documentarian – plus my ten-year old daughter. I got a lot of exotic footage … and ate a fried tarantula.
Here’s the accompanying article I wrote for the Alumni Magazine:
Letter from China, written on a ginkgo leaf.
by Brian Wimer, ’91
Across the street from the Peabody Museum grew a gingko tree. No, gingkoes are not indigenous to New Haven. Gingko seedlings were first exported from China in the 1800s. This particular tree was likely to have been one of the first shipped to the US, as it was over a century old – its life possibly charting the entire 110-year history of Yale’s active exchange with China.
“That ginkgo stood right outside my office,” recalls Mark Dollhopf, executive director of the Association of Yale Alumni (AYA). He says that visual testament inspired him to lead an unprecedented Yale Alumni Service Corps (YASC) tour to China this past July.
Don’t take this Corps lightly. It’s more of an army. The tour boasted 184 participants (129 grown-ups and their 55 kids) from twenty-five states and seven countries, representing Yale classes of ’58 to ’10 as well as numerous other alma maters. And they weren’t there for the dim sum – although they did spin their share of lazy susans.
Arriving in Shanghai, these world travelers were whisked west to the town of Xiuning, where they were to teach three schools of Chinese children in an intensive week boasting tin flutes, teepees, a full curriculum of core studies, plus three or four pandas. “Programs like this go a long way,” says Jason Petsch ‘05. “We’ve touched thousands of lives here.”
Take a Tuesday morning at 8am and you might hear an echoing verse of “Eyes-ears-shoulders-knees-and-toes” met over the middle school quad by a harmonica hum of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy and a bout of “Bulldog-bulldog-bow-wow-wow-Eli-Yale.” Meanwhile, across town at the high school, beside the muralists and the library renovation, some students would be scripting and a shooting a short film, as others learn from coast-to-coast to Skip-to-the-loo-my-darling.
Like the story of Johnny Apple Seed, read in carefully-labored English, seeds were being sown. Dollhopf says that it’s Yalies’ duty to leverage the privileges they’ve enjoyed and provide opportunity where its granted. True, these endeavors first began with the Yale Foreign Missionary Society, who’s intentions were admittedly parochial. Today’s Yale-China Association has a more secular goal.
The YASC also brought literature, math, science, drama, photography, Yoga and even Spanish. A contingent of business mentors took students through the rigors of profit loss analysis and working capital. A medical team compared with Chinese counterparts surgery notes and cures for the common cold. Serving, sweating and evading bird poop, the Corps toiled from 7am to 8pm, often later, when karaoke allowed. At the end of the course, in Beijing, YaleGALE taught how to hold a class reunion. Yes, Yale brought much. But the exchange was even-handed.
“We came to teach, but what we did was learn.” says Valerie Hotchkiss ’90 PhD, who brought her eleven year old son Sam. The YASC was moved by the tears their Chinese charges shed at their departure. This education was beyond theoretical. “I got more from this than I gave,” concurs Carl Davis ’68. Indeed, in China, one can make a ceremony of a gesture.
Today, the gingko no longer stands on campus. It came down in order to make way for the new SOM building. But its wood was salvaged and carved into bowls. These bowls were returned to China, presented as a parting gift to the YASC’s hosts in Xiuning. Gingkos are known for their healing properties. Now we discover that they are good, as well, for building bridges.