By Rory O’Sullivan , Staff Writer
In the 50 year history of JW North High School, no team, club, or group has gone further than the 2015 boys varsity team, traveling to China’s east coast. In March, 24 North students including 14 varsity players became Riverside ambassadors traveling to its Sister City, Jiangmen, China.
For Coach Mike Bartee who’s spent 30 years on the sidelines and logged more than 14,000 miles on school buses traveling to basketball games, the journey from Los Angeles International Airport to China and back has eclipsed that total.
Although Bartee’s team played two basketball games with Jiangmen all-stars, Bartee states the primary purpose of the trip was educational. He noted before the trip, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for this group of students. Their worldview will be expanded and outlook on life and people will be transformed. They won’t be the same for going on this trip.”
The players and student leaders stayed in the homes of Chinese students from Jiangmen’s #1 High School located in the southern province of Guangdong. There they learned about the culture, history and educational system of China and the Jiangmen region of nearly five million people. Following their Jiangmen experience, the students also visited Hong Kong and Beijing as part of their cultural learning experience.
“I liked it a lot,” said sophomore forward Leon Watson. “Everyone was just looking at us like we were celebrities or something.”
Watson, who is African American and stands at 6’6, said everyone welcomed him and everyone wanted to show him around their country. “They really don’t see people like us,” he said.
Watson said he was surprised by how welcoming the Chinese citizens were and after
trying authentic Chinese cuisine he enjoyed it.
“Some of the stuff I was questioning if I wanted to try it,” he said but admitted that he tried squid, clams, goat and lamb. “It was actually good.”
The cultural exchange was rewarding not only for Watson but for the Chinese ambassadors as well. He taught them how to be better basketball players and they taught him how to increase his focus on school. He confessed he wasn’t as focused as he should have been, but has been a better student since returning home.
“They’re a lot more serious,” said Watson.
He said he wants to continue his education and said he wants to major in literature.
Bria Palmer however had a more difficult time adjusting to the local cuisine and settled on duck.
Palmer said it was different than the “Chinese food” she was accustomed to. She did better with the language and learned how to introduce herself and excuse herself.
“Nǐ hǎo ma,“ (how are you in Mandarin) she proudly exclaimed.
Palmer wants to go to college and study law and eventually become an FBI agent.
She agreed the people there were nicer than she expected. It seemed to be a consensus with everyone who took the trip, China was full of nice people.
“In China there are so many people, but they still look out for each other,” said Palmer.
The students stayed in the homes of Chinese high school students from Jiangmen #1 High School for five days. They also attended classes at the high school.
Senior Alison Baird said staying in the student dorms was her favorite part of the trip.
“It was a great experience, I had a lot of fun,” she said.
Baird said she befriended her housemate Vanessa and they went on walks and even caught cabs to grab dinner. She was surprised at how independent Chinese high school students were, who live where they go to school. She said the experience gave her more confidence as she plans to go away to attend Colorado University in the Fall. Since returning home, she has kept in contact with Vanessa through social media and email.
“They were some really amazing people,” said Baird.
The students spent 12 days in China traveling into Beijing and then heading south on a three hour plane ride to Jiangmen, for their home stays at Jiangmen #1 High School for five days. They visited The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City in Beijing, Hong Kong and the Pearl River in Guangzhou. They traveled by bullet train reaching speeds up to 200 mph and ate food from one of China’s largest outdoor food markets.
The trip was part of a continuing relationship and cultural exchange program Riverside has enjoyed with its Sister City since 1997. Last year, the Jiangmen boys basketball team visited. Ties between Jiangmen and Riverside predate the Sister City relationship to the late 19th century when immigrants from the Jiangmen region arrived in Riverside to work in the citrus industry.
There was basketball played. The North High Basketball team easily defeated the Jiangman High School team and lost to the Jiangman All-Stars by one point at the buzzer. Bartee and his players weren’t concerned about the loss.
“Our students need to be provided that opportunity to experience other cultures,” said North principal Dr. Lynn Sheffield. “What better place than China, it was wonderful.”
Sheffield said she was also impressed with how welcoming the Chinese were to her students and has hopes for another planned trip in the future.
“There’s more to life than Riverside. There’s more to life than the United States. I think it will make them stronger and more culturally aware as they become adults. It goes beyond the 40 people that went on this trip, it will reach others.”
And it wasn’t just the students who gained from the cultural exchange. The parents, coaches, and Sheffield said it was well worth the $2,740 per person spent on the trip.
In addition to the Riverside Unified School District and the International Relations Council of Riverside, the JW North ambassadors received support from Riverside Mayor Rusty Bailey, former mayor Ron Loveridge, and community members Kathy Allavie, Tom Hunt, Rose Mayes, Jack Clarke, Susan J. Rainey, Ofelia Valdez-Yeager, Nick Tavaglione, and Rosalyn and Glenn Anderson.
Regarding the trip, Coach Bartee states: “It wasn’t even about basketball.” I learned more there than I have in all my years in basketball.”
Coach Bartee, a baby boomer, taught about Chinese culture and communism through the lens of the red scare and said he left with a better understanding of the Chinese.
“I can’t say there was a time when we were made to feel bad, they were so genuine,” he concluded.
Jiangmen: Riverside’s Sister City
A sister city is a broad-based, long-term partnership between two communities which is officially recognized after the highest elected or appointed official from both communities sign off on an agreement.
In 1957, Riverside began a Sister City relationship with Sendai, Japan which has grown to include: Cuatula, Mexico in 1968; Ensenada, Mexico, 1976; Jiangmen, China, 1997; Gangnam-gu, Korea, 1999; Hyderabad, India, 2000; Obuasi, Ghana, 2008; and Erlangen, Germany, 2011. These partnerships between the USA and foreign cities across the globe foster harmony and an understanding of other cultures and traditions.
These cooperative relationships become an exchange of education, culture, business, municipal/technical, and humanitarian fields.
Riverside’s sister cities are supported by a committee of interested volunteers who meet regularly to develop the relationship and programs that are of mutual benefit. For more information on Riverside’s sister cities contact Lalit Acharya by email email@example.com or (951) 826-5692.
Jiangmen, People’s Republic of China, officially became a sister city with Riverside on April 15, 1997. A city of 3.9 million in the Pearl River region of South China, Jiangmen is an industrial and manufacturing hub. Jiangmen, which translates as “River Gate”, is also the citrus capital of China and one of that nation’s fastest growing economies. Ties between the people of Jiangmen and Riverside pre-date the Sister City relationship to the late 19th century when immigrants from the Jiangmen region arrived in Riverside to work in the citrus industry.