Hi, y’all. I’m Elizabeth Muire, I’m an English teacher and an SOS staff member. I didn’t get to go to Wuxi, but I got lucky enough to be asked to help when the students from Wuxi came here anyway.
A fun fact about me: If you asked me at any moment who my favorite historical figure is, I would answer William Barret Travis, commander of the Alamo garrison. I can recite Alamo statistics in my sleep, so I was the obvious choice when SOS was looking for one of us to lead the tour of the Alamo.
We came to the Alamo direct from Mission Jose, where Park Ranger Tom gave a good tour and historical accounting of Spanish settlement and the building of the Missions. Then we literally moved into the city and metaphorically moved into the Texas Revolution. I thought it would be easy—I’m a teacher, I know this stuff, I love this story that I get to tell.
But then the question arises: how do you really explain to someone a historical even that shaped your entire cultural worldview? No matter how much you care about it, how do you explain the need to Remember the Alamo when that person doesn’t remember it?
And then I wondered what it had been for them. What part of Wuxi had they fumbled and struggled to explain to their new friends, something they felt was integral to them, and something they felt utterly inadequate to explain?
In that moment of clarity, I found my voice. And in short sentences and bare facts, I relayed through the translator the major details of my hero, William Travis, the woodsman Davy Crockett, the cannoneer Almeron Dickenson and his wife Susanna, and the 180-odd heroes who died to buy Texas time.
As I led them through the museum complex, I let the weight of history and the talking walls of the Alamo give the impact of the story.
And they could hear it from the walls, feel it in the air. I could tell, in their faces, in their hushed conversations, in their slow tread, that they heard what my heart was telling them, even when my words could not.
And it seems to me, watching the students intentionally and steadily build connections between our cities, so much of our communication—and communion—happens in the silence, when we let the weight of emotion do the talking for us. And as usual, when I reach out to teach students about the things I love, I wound up learning as much as I taught.
Our Wuxi ambassadors have been having a great time hanging out with their American friends and host families.
Sunday morning dawned bright and clear with both American and Chinese students coming to the Lee/ISA/STEM campus to play some ice breaker games and learn about each other’s schools. We dropped by Musical Bridges to see some exciting art connections between San Antonio and Wuxi, and then took them to the exciting world of American shopping malls at La Cantera. Since the building friendships between our students is the whole point of this exercise, then we turned the Chinese students loose on their host families, and let them spend some time hanging out and getting to know each other better.
Day four opened back at the Lee campus, where the students played The Great Game, representing countries and trying to bargain and fight their way to stability. A few students got poisoned, a table got conquered, and a great time was had by all. After lunch, we headed out to natural bridge caverns to see some of the geology that makes Texas’ rugged landscape so unique. We said our farewells (and happy birthday to one of the Chinese teachers) at dinner that night, and were left with the lingering realization that building these relationships between our cities was tiring, important, wonderfully fun work.
We left China a year ago, better for having been there. Our Chinese friends left us yesterday, and we can only hope they left feeling better as well. I know we are better for their coming, and I know our world is too.
Our friends from Wuxi came to San Antonio to visit, and we wanted to give them as great a time in our city as we had in theirs.
On the first day, we wanted to show them some of the history of our city. We started with a tour of Mission San Jose, led by a very knowledgeable park ranger, to see the Spanish settlement and the spread of Catholicism. Then we journeyed into downtown for a tour of the Alamo, to explore the lead-up to Texas Independence. After a tasty pizza lunch, we continued our exploration of Texas history at the Battle for Texas experience at River Center Mall.
The Chinese students seemed amazed by the struggle against the Mexican Army, especially as our pioneer guide led us through some of the (reenacted) fighting for the fort.
We took a walking tour of downtown, culminating in a riverboat tour so the students could see the vibrant color of San Antonio daily life, and then we brought them to San Fernando for a quiet moment to cool down before introducing them to the City of San Antonio International Relations Office. They got to see Market Square as we took them to have authentic Mexican food (enchiladas!) for dinner.
Day two, the Chinese and American students served together at the San Antonio Zoo, and then got to learn to be cowboys at a ranch in Bandera. They learned to ride horses and throw a lasso, and then had traditional barbeque for dinner, just like a real ranch hand.
All in all, the first few days of their visit were a whirlwind!
It was the last day and the trip had come to it’s conclusion. It was time for the students to check out of the hotel and say goodbye to China. As they flew back the students reflected on their amazing journey. It was hard to believe for the students that so much had happened in such a short amount of time.
Their visits to three distinct cities that had such a variety of history, culture, and chances to learn about China was slowly being processed through remembering moments together like walking the Burnd of Shanghai, or praying to the Buddha statue in Wuxi, or even the painstaking, but rewarding climb of the Great Wall. After another 13 hour flight, SOS finally arrived back home in San Antonio where they were met by their families.
The group of 27 student ambassadors had experienced many things most people will never experience in their entire lifetime. The trip they took that summer would make great lasting impacts on the students. They will become more global, respectful, and open minded citizens that will have a positive impact for our entire community.
On the eighth day of their trip, the students finally got to visit the world famous Great Wall of China! The Great Wall was built in the historical northern borders of China to protect the Chinese states and empires against the raids and invasions of the various nomadic groups of the Eurasian Steppe. It is also considered one of the 7 wonders of the world! At the wall, students faced the challenge of climbing the steep, narrow, and uneven stairs while looking over the cliffs of the Chinese mountains. The president of China claims that you can only be a hero after climbing the Great Wall and now our students know why.
After the Great Wall, SOS stopped at the famous National Stadium, the Bird’s Nest, for photo opportunities. The stadium was designed for use throughout the 2008 Summer Olympics and Paralympics and will be used again in the 2022 Winter Olympics. The incredible ingenuity fascinated our students and allowed them to see construction using the newest technology in order to provide a facility capable of hosting such an honorable competition. After visiting these sites, the group made their way to a local restaurant for their last dinner in China. The students enjoyed a delicious farewell peking duck dinner, while everyone shared their experiences of the trip.
Day 6 was finally the day for SOS’s community outreach program. SOS visited one of the handicapped schools in Wuxi in order to lift the kid’s spirits. The student ambassadors did this with american songs, dance, and friendship. Service can sometimes be as easy as making someone smile, and for our SOS community, we were committed to making sure the students at the Wuxi Disabled Center had a day filled with joy. However, the students also presented a dance and song to our SOSers to show their gratitude for offering their time.
After this life changing experience, it was time for SOS to say goodbye to Wuxi. The student ambassadors traveled to the airport, bordered the plane, had dinner, and soon enough were back in Beijing. The group bussed to the hotel, located in the city center to prepare for their day of exploration in the capital.
After a great first day at the Golden Bridge Middle School, the SOS student ambassadors were eager to return to the school to learn more about their new friends. The students began their day attending a class in Chinese culture.This was a chance for our students to inquire and learn in depth the enriching traditions found in China. This was an opportunity for our students to appreciate how different cultures can have people come together in celebration and good fortune. After the class, the students learned how to write their names in Chinese, and how to make the famous clay doll.
The detailing of each doll was done with a fine paintbrush making every stroke a work of art. Next, the SOS student ambassadors presented to the Chinese students on American culture by using music, dancing, and American slang. After this presentation, it was time for the students to say goodbye to their new friends at the Golden Bridge Middle School. However, each student exchanged their information in order to solidify the friendship that had begun. After the goodbyes, SOS visited Wuxi’s city planning department to learn about the city’s economy, and future growth plans.
This visit to such an establishment while being led by the city’s director, was an honor for our students who had the opportunity to ask questions on how Wuxi was becoming a leading industrial city while focusing on preserving the environment to set the example for other cities. As the day came to an end, it was time to pack up and prepare for their departure to Beijing.
Fresh with knowledge from their tour of Wuxi, the student ambassadors were ready to meet the students at the Golden Bridge Middle School, and share different aspects of each other's culture. The Golden Bridge Middle School is one of the top bi-lingual schools in Wuxi and many of their students get accepted to top universities worldwide.
When they arrived at the school, SOS was warmly welcomed by the Golden Bridge’s principal and students to receive a personal tour of their campus, then given a tour of the school. The playgrounds had basketball courts, soccer fields, and the classrooms implemented technology much like America. Following the tour, the ambassadors had a chance to hear from each Chinese student a personal introduction and warm welcome. First they had lunch and began to get to know one another. Quickly, the students realized how much they had in common and before long, a pick-up soccer game and basketball game would continue building the community between the students.
After lunch, the exchange program officially began. Students from both SOS and Wuxi gave a presentation on their city, country, and culture. The Wuxi students introduced traditional meals, celebrations, and historical background to their city with pride and was followed by our students highlighting San Antonio’s Riverwalk, diversity, and of course, The Spurs.
The day had finally arrived when the student ambassadors, and SOS staff would tour their sister city, Wuxi. SOS began their exploration with a trip to the famous Lingshan Grand Buddha. The Lingshan Grand Buddha is the world’s largest bronze Buddha statue with an amazing height of 88 meters! The Buddha is located in the Taihu Lake National Tourist Resort along with many other Buddhist sites including the Brahma Palace, Five Mudra Mandala, Nine Dragons Bathing Sakyamuni, and Xiangfu Temple.
Students were taught how Buddhists pray and worship at the temple. They were also treated to a short performance on the life of the Buddha. The experience really helped give SOSers a new perspective on the Buddhist faith.
Before the student ambassadors continued their journey to their sister city Wuxi, they had a chance to further explore Shanghai. A half day tour included learning about Chinese culture and traditional art, visiting the Yu Garden, and a silk weaving workshop. Built in 1559 during the Ming Dynasty, the Yu Garden is an extensive Chinese garden located beside the City God Temple. There, SOSers experienced the tranquility and beauty of an original Shanghai landmark. SOS then bussed over to the silk weaving workshop.
Student Ambassadors were able to touch and feel the silk for themselves and witness the process of how it’s made. After the tour, the students had a great chance to practice their Chinese by ordering lunch. They used their Chinese language cards, as well as what they had learned in Ms.Whitney's class to order various types of dumplings, sticky buns, and pork dishes. After the delicious lunch, the SOS student ambassadors boarded a high speed train to Wuxi. When the students arrived, they were welcomed by government officials from the city of Wuxi, and invited to a traditional Wuxi dinner.
As the long day of exploration and travel finally came to an end, it was time for the students to rest before they would get to see more of their sister city.
After over 8 months of preparation, including attending Chinese language and culture classes, and getting to know their fellow travelers, the group of 27 ambassadors finally embarked on their trip to China. The students said goodbye to their families, checked in their baggage, and by 1:00 am, were off the ground. After a 13 hour flight, the group had finally touched down in China! Upon arrival at the Beijing airport, SOS connected for their flight to Shanghai.
When they arrived in Shanghai, SOS met their tour manager, Polly, who took them to lunch at a local restaurant. At the restaurant students were able to have their first taste of the local Chinese cuisine. They ate a variety of foods served in the traditional “family style” arrangement on a lazy Susan. After the great meal, the student ambassadors were taken to the city to learn about the history of Shanghai and experience the contrast of Old and New China. The ambassadors got to see the Shanghai Tower, which is the second tallest building in the world,the Oriental pearl tower, and many other famous landmarks. They also saw the old colonial historic district. After exploring Shanghai, the students ate dinner, checked into their hotel, and got ready for their trip to Wuxi!
The student ambassadors started their day off with a special lesson on Imperial China by visiting Tiananmen square, and the Forbidden City. Tiananmen Square is a large city square in the centre of Beijing, China, named after the Tiananmen ("Gate of Heavenly Peace") located to its north, separating it from the Forbidden City. The square contains the Monument to the People's Heroes, the Great Hall of the People, the National Museum of China, and the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong. Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People's Republic of China in the square on October 1, 1949 and it is also where the Tiananmen Square Massacre took place. The Forbidden City was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty—the years 1420 to 1912. It served as the home of emperors and their households as well as the ceremonial and political centre of Chinese government for almost 500 years!
Each sacred attraction offered a moment for our students to reflect on the significance the places brought. For Tiananmen Square, our students stepped back in time and got to learn all the history the area has created for China and the world. When it was time to walk through the Forbidden City, our students got to feel what it would of been like for an emperor of China and see the extent of their wealth through the elaborate rooms and works of art found there.
After learning about imperial China, SOSers took a break for lunch, then traveled to old Beijing, Hutong by rickshaw is a local method of travel where you are escorted on a bike by a guide who explains the history of each street and alley while you traveled on it. Each building had a story and when given the opportunity to hear it, the city becomes alive. Following the tour of old Beijing, students had a chance to visit a local family who have lived in China for generations.
The students were served a traditional meal and given the families history as glass bottle painters with a rare chance to see an artist designing elaborate pictures inside small glass bottles. This unique experience was followed up with dinner and an acrobatics show. Much like Cirque De Soil, the acrobatics show allowed our students to be entertained by highly skilled performers that mixed music and performances together for a splendid show.
Beginning Chinese — Lesson 2: Taking on a Chinese Identity and Expertise on Designing a Modern China
In the first half of the class:
Ms. Whitney researched each of our ambassador's first names to find the Chinese equivalent. However, it is not a simple translation of the English letters that make up our name to the corresponding Chinese characters that an online translator could provide. Instead, Chinese names represent a trait, a metaphysical quality, that goes beyond just giving you an identity for others to address you as. Names symbolize qualities like trust, strength, and wisdom. Each of our ambassadors were given a unique name that correlates to the traits he or she possesses that help our program be a community of talented students, each bringing something special. By embracing our new identities for the summer program, the interactions between Wuxi students and SOS ambassadors will enrich the once in a lifetime opportunity this travel experience will bring, and open new perspectives to how we all live our lives here on planet Earth.
In the second half of the class:
Our students heard a presentation delivered by two guest speakers that explained, through first-hand knowledge, the designing of a modern China that maintains traditional heritage, because they are helping build it. Global architects, Mr. James Andrews, and Ms. Yanjing Chen, representing the company, Overland Partners, gave insight to our ambassadors how China is remodeling their infrastructure and foundation by bringing their country to the twenty-first century in design. Mr. Andrews shared his story and personal interest in helping China rebuild their cities through photos and fascinating narrative. As one of the few western architects privileged enough to participate with multiple teams of Chinese leaders tasked with designing entire city blueprints, Mr. Andrews and his assistant provided a unique perspective on the globalization taking place right now between countries.
The ambassadors got to hear about amazing projects Mr. Andrews and Ms. Chen have been apart of, but the take away message Overland Partners wanted to share with SOS is the importance of friendship and trust among the Chinese. Mr. Andrews gives credit for the partnership his company and China share to the personal connections he has made over the years.
With the aid of Ms. Whitney's Chinese culture classes, and Mr. Andrew's message to our ambassadors to travel their with open-minds and embrace the new friendships SOS will make, our China program is well underway to help change lives for all those participating and continue to have our community grow beyond just San Antonio.
If you are interested in Overland Partners, or would like to learn more information about the architect, Mr. James Andrews, please visit their website at,
Did you know that Horse-Horse-Tiger-Tiger, is translated into, Mǎ Mǎ Hǔ Hǔ? Of course, the literal translation would not help you speak about two horses and two tigers with someone who speaks Chinese, but instead literally means, "so-so," to tell someone how your day is going. Okay so it is obvious that English is totally different than Chinese both in written and verbal communication. The pronouncing "four" in English is the sound quantitative to mean four units of something. However, uttering "four" to a Chinese person will have them thinking you are referring to death and this is considered impolite. The difference between our two worlds is like the polar opposite charges of subatomic particles. Literally the difference is black and white. Americans use white to celebrate weddings, baby showers, and black to give condolences to the deceased, however in China, white is used for respecting the dead, and black reflects life itself.
In order to appreciate such a drastically different culture, Summer of Service is providing the student ambassadors Chinese Lessons written and facilitated by Elizabeth Whitney, the Chinese Adept coming along to guide us on our trip. The first lesson covered the following topics:
On Saturday, February 13, The Institute of Texas Culture, located in downtown San Antonio, hosted the annual Asian Festival in order to let Texans from all over celebrate together the Chinese New Year, Year of the Monkey.
Elizabeth Whitney, Summer of Service's Chinese educator, organized for SOS, STEM, and all Robert E. Lee high school, a thorough experience of this year's Asian Festival for all students.
"I think everyone should be here today. Today is all about bringing good fortune for the upcoming year, and I hope all my students get to engage Chinese culture by experiencing firsthand. . . here we can try Chinese cuisine, see Chinese art, and above all else, bless our summer's trip to China with good fortune for all participating. "
The future SOS ambassadors to China spent all afternoon indulging in the activities the festival had to offer. By the time the fair was coming to an end, all SOS members agreed they were excited, energized, and looking forward to their future summer travel to China so they can further the learning of Chinese culture outside of San Antonio, and be guided by Elizabeth all over China for an experience of a lifetime.
January 14, 2016 Summer of Service (SOS) held their first official Wuxi, China Program meeting for the student participants and parents to begin the team building process between everyone involved, and had the first presentation to go over the trip happening July 1st - June 10th, 2016.
Students arrived at 4:30 to hear from each of the four teachers traveling with them to China, and participate in a series of icebreakers to introduce themselves and start learning about the culture surrounding China. From learning about Chinese New Year, proper chopstick etiquette, and even some common hobbies between them, the students started the foundation for a successful SOS traveling group. Important objectives students started going over were:
By 7:00, all participants had a chance to ask any questions to all four teachers so by 7:30, everyone left for their home feeling informed, excited, and prepared for the 2016, Summer of Service: Wuxi, China Program.