Wednesday, August 11, 2010

TOP STORY > >Ancient lessons return to Cabot

Leader staff writer

Although her work year hasn’t officially started, Cabot art teacher Katherine Karkkainen was on the job Monday at Junior High North. She had spent most of June in China and she was decorating her classroom with some of the things she brought back.

There was Chinese fabric for her bulletin board, a picture of a peasant wedding for the wall and brass letters in Chinese that stand for happiness and longevity.

“With our trade relations, it’s important that we understand their culture,” Karkkainen said.

Karkkainen was one of 14 teachers from across the state that made the trip arranged by UALR’s Global Program which paid most of the expenses with a grant from the Freeman Foundation. For about $700, she spent three weeks immersed in a culture that dates back 5,000 years.

Asked about the major differences she observed between the Chinese and Americans, Karkkainen said the expectations of the people were very different.

The cramming she did on China’s history and culture helped, she said, but did not completely prepare her for what she saw.

With populations of 20 million or so, “the cities are humongous,” she said, and very crowded. The apartments are tiny and almost everyone walks or uses public transportation because a car license can cost as much as $6,000.

Outside Beijing, where the Great Wall is located, she visited a remote farming village where Heifer Project International is working to alleviate poverty.

The residents were very welcoming and proud to show their two-room homes, complete with a large wooden platform that was the bed for the whole family, straw and mud jars for storing grain and large open-fire cooking pots, she said.

“We are a very wealthy country,” she said. “Even though we may be lower, middle income, we have so much and I probably will bring that to my students’ attention.”

In Chengdu, where the teachers visited classrooms, students and teachers cut short their vacation at the Dragon Boat Festival for the opportunity to visit with the Americans and practice their English.

“They were all out on holiday and they came in just for us,” Karkkainen said. “Can you imagine that happening here?”

Her trip included a stop in Shanghai for the World Expo and a visit to Wu Garden. In Chengdu, she saw the panda research and breeding facility. In Xian, she saw the Grand Mosque and the terracotta soldiers that were buried with Ginshi Huangdi, China’s first emperor.

And they traveled into the Himalayas to visit Zhongdian, which was renamed Shangri La for marketing purposes.

She was amused by the way the Chinese have embraced American culture. They have McDonald’s and Walmart and they play American rock music from the 80’s in some of their night clubs. Even the mannequins in their department stores were Anglo-Saxon, she said.

If the people gave her pause to reconsider exactly how much someone needs to be happy, it was the art that took her breath away, she said.

“It was like a wonderland because of all the art,” she said. “Everywhere you went there was art painted last week and sculptures from 5,000 years ago. For an art teacher, it was like candy land.”