World view
Updated from March 30, 2005

When we met Ben Wood last March, he was home in Oak Park to rest and refuel before heading off on the second half of his around-the-world adventure. Having taught in Korea for a year after graduating from Carleton College, he’d purchased an airplane ticket that allows him up to 10 stops and 30,000 miles, ending where he started, in Southeast Asia.

By March, he’d already hopped around Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Sri Lanka, India, southern Africa (where he visited Giorango and Yankow), and Europe.

He was off again in July. Since then, he’s been to Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, China, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia (a Chinese possession), and back to China, where he’s been teaching English and American culture to high school students for the past three months.

Which explains how, a few Sunday afternoons ago, I sat in my Oak Park dining room and chatted by phone with Wood, who was spending Monday morning (there’s a 14-hour time difference) in his apartment in Fenyang, China, a small town?#34;by Chinese standards?#34;of about 36,000 people. It’s six or seven hours by bus west of Beijing, “in the middle of nowhere,” he says.

Wood’s dad, Gary, patched the call through. He’s been able to talk to Ben by using a phone card, at about 12 cents a minute. It’s a luxury Ben and his whole family have really appreciated.

His first stop was Hawaii where Wood stayed with his aunt, a state representative from the Big Island. But since then, he’s been on his own, something his dad believes has caused him to “learn more about himself. He’s a much deeper person; he’s developed so much self-confidence.”

Wood agrees. He writes by way of e-mail that traveling alone is “definitely less fun. This half of my trip has been ‘character building’ but still exciting.”

Those 100 or so of us lucky enough to receive Wood’s voluminous e-mail correspondence have followed him through earthquakes in Hawaii and Japan, singing and swigging rum and vodka with a friendly group of students and teachers by a river in Mongolia (they outfitted him in a full-length coat and large silver belt?#34;it’s freezing there), and a dust-up with a Chinese ticket seller who overcharged him for a train ticket to Beijing.

Like before, Wood has a knack for turning strangers to friends. Often an English speaker will seek him out on a bus or train; that’s how he met Shirley (Jou Ho) and Li Xiao Qing, who ended up inviting him not only to their home in rural Gao Me, China, but also to their wedding.

And then there’s his continuing adventure with food: it’s a rare person who delights in eating pig’s head, horse milk and fish eyeballs.

Language is difficult, since Wood has picked up only a little Chinese, and few people speak much English. He’s learned to get by. At a town on the Chinese side of the Mongolian border, he found a Korean restaurant where “one guy told me in English that he couldn’t speak Korean, but if I explained what I wanted in English he’d explain it to the waitress in Mongolian.”

China, he reports, is “like America 50 or 100 years ago, maybe even as far back as the Industrial Revolution. Goods are remarkably cheap, mostly due to absurdly low labor costs. ? The quality of life is poor in comparison to America, but it’s improving rapidly.

“Everywhere I go though, I get the sense that China is developing quickly. The wheels of economic advancement are starting to turn.”

After sightseeing his way around four or five Chinese cities, Wood stopped in at the school in Fenyang, which Carleton College helped start almost 100 years ago. The college pulled out after World War II, but Wood had the contact and ended up invited to teach there for a term.

He has 55-65 students per class. Wood teaches first-year high school students, who are a few years older than their counterparts here. School runs from 6 a.m., when the students take a run around the playground and then clean the school, through morning classes, more exercise and a long lunch break, afternoon classes, a short dinner break, then evening study back in their classrooms until 10 p.m. They get only every other Sunday off.

English is a major subject in China. Wood’s students range from those fluent enough to want to discuss the greenhouse effect and the Kyoto Accords with him, to those who seem lost. He uses PowerPoint with his lectures, to draw in the kids who can’t understand much of what he says. “We go over many new words and occasionally phrases or slang, but mostly I explain things about America,” he writes.

His latest lesson, amazingly enough, was on his sister Emma’s life at Oak Park and River Forest High School, which is why hundreds of students in Fenyang now know something of Oak Park. Here’s Wood’s description of the lesson:

“Many of my students are 16-17 years old, and are very interested in the ‘typical’ life of their American counterparts. I’d already explained that school was much shorter (8-3, no weekends), which they find unbelievable. But this lesson takes the comparison to a whole different level.

“Emma sent me around 40 photos of OPRF, around Oak Park, our block, house, family, dog, etc. In the picture of the food at Panera Bread you can see some of the price tags. It’s hard to explain why the price of a muffin in America (after explaining what a muffin is of course) would feed a Chinese person for three-four days. Or how five (or more) Chinese families would probably live in the building the size of my house. Or why my sister gets rides to school! (If you ask her, you’ll know that this is a major bone of contention with me, as I walked for all four years.)

“The concept of a ‘jewelry making’ class is completely foreign. My students have very little control over their classes. After their first year, they decide if their next two years (senior middle school, or high school as we call it, is only three years in China) should be math/science or history/language focused. Outside of that, they don’t really pick classes. I have to explain the whole idea of switching classes, as my students stay in one room all day and have their different teachers come to them. I had Emma take a picture of my favorite teacher, Jessica Young in OPRF’s history department, so all of my current students are now acquainted with her face.”

Wood’s contract ended at the end of December, so by now he’s in Hawaii, where he has a job for the next four months as a committee clerk for a Hawaiian State House member in Honolulu. Then it’s home to Oak Park, in time for Emma’s graduation, and perhaps on to graduate school. He’s interested in political economics and is feeling some pressure to “start moving toward a larger goal, maybe a real career at some point.”

But he does admit to having his eye on China a few years down the road. The Beijing Olympics are in 2008.

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