Blue Hills Regional Superintendent Makes Journey to China
SUPT. JAMES QUAGLIA OF BLUE HILLS REGIONAL TECHNICAL SCHOOL MAKES THE JOURNEY OF A LIFETIME TO CHINA
By Judy Bass
It was a destination that Superintendent James Quaglia of Blue Hills Regional Technical School in Canton never imagined he would see.
In April, however, he had an unforgettable two-week visit to China, a magnificent land thousands of miles from home where he had “the most profoundly educational experience” of his life. Not only was Quaglia’s journey of significant professional value to him and to his hosts, but he also was warmly and graciously received by those he met at each stratum of society – fellow educators, teachers, students, and citizens – many of whom he misses already.
“It wasn’t just a visit, it wasn’t just a cultural investigation, it wasn’t just an educational mission – it was all of that, and friendship, too,” Quaglia said, speaking animatedly and with great emotion of this transformational experience.
His journey started taking shape about last year, when Quaglia began checking into the availability of professional development experiences overseas. He learned of this trip designed specifically for school administrators that is sponsored by the Administrator Shadowing Project and the China Exchange Initiative, both of which are partially funded by the Freeman Foundation.
“I was responsible in Massachusetts for lighting the fire of interest in the China Exchange Initiative [CEI] in vocational education,” he explained. When he applied, the powers-that-be there saw Quaglia’s lengthy and distinguished background in vocational education [he was the Assistant Superintendent / Principal at Blue Hills for four years before becoming Superintendent], they eagerly did their best to facilitate his experience in China, where he could offer detailed first-hand advice based on his own career. Since then, CEI has created contingencies of vocational leaders to travel to China.
“We’re doing something very right here,” Quaglia noted, “and [the Chinese] are very interested in listening to what we have to say.”
Mentioning the notable success that this state has had in vocational education (high MCAS scores and high graduation rate, for instance), Quaglia said that the Chinese are “acutely interested” in this type of instruction because of the vast numbers of students they have to prepare for the workforce. The country’s population of over 1.3 billion makes it the largest in the world. In 2007, according to a web site called “Teach or Study in China (TOSIC),” China had 14,832 secondary vocational and technical institutions, with a total enrollment of about 19.9 million students.
Accompanying Quaglia on the trip were 30 high school-level educators from New England, Ohio, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Among the educational institutions they visited in China were the National Ministry of Education, elementary and high schools, and Beijing Normal University.
“The one thing you shouldn’t do is lecture the Chinese [in a manner that is superior or condescending],” Quaglia said. When he met with educators, he said he was careful to approach them with respect and restraint, almost like an elder brother or an advisor, in regards to vocational education.
Quaglia did not keep a journal or a diary during his trip, he said. All his memories are retained forever in his mind and his heart, and are recorded in the 1,300 photos he took documenting every aspect of his travels, from the ordinary to the exotic. Quaglia plans to show them to teachers and students at Blue Hills when he speaks about his adventure in several classes. Also, several of his gifts and artifacts will be on display in the Blue Hills Regional lobby for a month or so.
There will be no shortage of vivid recollections for him to recount to everyone. Although he was busy acting as an ambassador of sorts for the Blue Hills Regional school district, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and our homegrown culture, Quaglia also did a fair amount of sightseeing including the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Temple of Heaven.
From the time he arrived in Beijing, Quaglia plunged into every experience that came his way with immense gusto, joyfully soaking up the unfamiliar cuisine, the sights, the smells, and what he called “constant sensory input” in this robust place of ancient traditions that is surging into the 21st century.
“I really fell in love with the richness of the country, and the depth, breadth and the longevity of their culture. I had to keep reminding myself that I was there,” said Quaglia. “It allowed me to be in the moment. I was much deeper into it than I thought I was going to get.”
The major fact of life that determines how virtually everything is done, Quaglia said, is China’s huge population. In what he termed “a gigantic behemoth state undergoing a period of tremendous growth and tremendous reflection,” merely traveling locally from place to place can be arduous. What is enormously different from the norm in America, though, according to Quaglia, is the complete lack of animosity in China if people cut in a line, walk in the street literally in the middle of traffic, or honk their vehicle’s horn. Honking is a sign of warning, not anger.”
“Nobody takes offense, it’s just the way it is,” he explained. “It’s everyone just doing what they have to do to keep moving. It’s another function of population.”
Rituals associated with eating are an integral aspect of Chinese society, he discovered. Likening the Chinese emphasis upon dining together as a family to his own Italian-American upbringing, Quaglia said there is usually an impressive repast at dinner. “The mentality of the Chinese is to have plenty of food,” Quaglia said. “This emphasis underscores just how far from the days of starvation China is.” At an average meal with eight people at the table, he noted, there would typically be eight vegetable dishes and four protein dishes, including dumplings, soup, and rice – which surprisingly comes last, and only if you want it.
He became proficient with chopsticks, and developed an affinity for items most of us have never sampled such as eel, jellyfish, congealed duck blood, which he said resembles blood pudding, pig knuckles, fish on the bone (with the head and the tail), parts of donkeys and goats, and kidney. “It was all extremely good-tasting,” Quaglia said.
The etiquette of toasting is rigorously observed. It’s expected that you look someone in the eye when you raise your glass, but don’t let the two glasses touch or it’s automatically bottoms up.
There are Western influences everywhere, Quaglia said. A craze for basketball is evident by the number of basketball courts where young people are shooting hoops, spurred on by the success of Chinese cultural hero and icon, Yao Ming. Road signs are green, echoing ours. Fast food establishments like McDonald’s and KFC are thriving, much to Quaglia’s astonishment.
Mastering English is another fascinating endeavor for the Chinese, Quaglia reported. “They are very invested in speaking English. The Chinese realize that English is the international language of business. They will go out of their way to say hello or how are you or good morning or what is your name. They crave these opportunities to speak English in context [with an American] instead of speaking it to each other.” As for Quaglia being able to communicate with the Chinese people, being there day after day, noticing body language, facial expressions, vocal tone and hand gestures, made him conversant enough with basic words and phrases to manage quite nicely, helped out by his interpreter, who goes by the American name, Reagan – like the former president.
Western music is popular in China, Quaglia said. During his stay, he heard Country, American pop songs, some sung in Chinese, and even the works of John Denver, who is revered in China for his celebration of the environment and nature. At one point, Quaglia remembers being among 20 people ecstatically belting out Denver’s classic hit “Country Roads” at the top of their lungs.
Quaglia, a lifelong guitarist, brought his own brand of music one day to a school for the children of migrant workers, most of whom are materially impoverished by our standards yet ardently patriotic and devoted to their country. “This school was the antithesis of some of the college-prep high schools.” He said he decided to play a “beautiful little tune” he had written, asking his interpreter to tell the youngsters to close their eyes when they heard the music to get the full emotional impact of the song.
When Quaglia concluded the impromptu performance, the interpreter was a bit choked up and the students were genuinely moved as well. The piece of music, which has no lyrics, will remain unfinished, and is his “Song for China.”
“It was my gift to them. I’ll never finish the song. Me playing it there is where it’s going to stay.”
Quaglia said that the trip unexpectedly eroded his cynicism. “Before I went, I had become somewhat sour on the intentions of human beings. I had to go to the other side of the world to see that we all have very basic needs – to be accepted, loved, fed, appreciated and happy. I discovered we all smile the same way, frown the same way, cry the same way, and we all shake our heads the same way when we say no. On an emotional level, we are all very similar, if not identical.”
As his memorable stay drew to a bittersweet close, Quaglia said there was a “general sadness” between him and those he had come to know and care about such as his translator, Reagan, with whom he developed a “natural friendship” and intends to keep in touch. “In fact, I promised to keep in touch. I made promises to these people and I intend to keep them,” Quaglia vowed, mentioning that he will be sending them additional information about American education and continuing to communicate.
Coming home on the plane, Quaglia said, “It felt like I had been in China for a month and a half [rather than two weeks]. It meant a lot to me and I’m not done. It opened a lot of doors and a lot of eyes. I loved it. I’d do it again in a heartbeat, only this time with my wife, whom I sorely missed. If I had gone to the moon, it would have been less exciting.”