Students Visit China; Learn About Themselves


Ted Olinger

Part of the group visited the site of the Beijing Olympics. Photo: Kyle Kendall

A group of local high school students spent their spring break in China from April 15 to 23, and came home with a greater appreciation for another culture and their own.

“I wanted to travel the world before I get settled down after college, so this was a good opportunity to experience traveling,” said Peninsula High School junior Olivia Whitmarsh of Lakebay.

PHS senior Tiernyn Smith of Gig Harbor said, “The entire, crazy, ancient history was a huge culture shock and the people were surprisingly nice.”

Three PHS teachers and one parent chaperone accompanied 15 PHS students and one from Tacoma. Kyle Kendall, who teaches AP U.S. history, world history, speech and debate (and is also the speech and debate team coach) organized and led the trip through Education First, a private travel company whose tours stress learning. Teachers Katharine Hutcheson and Justin Ehli accompanied him.

“I have traveled pretty extensively, both as a backpacker and as a tour guide in Alaska,” Kendall said.

The tour started in Beijing, where the group visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, and traveled into the countryside to visit a portion of the Great Wall.

“Another cool thing was visiting a school and seeing how their education system worked,” Whitmarsh said. “They were very rigid and the students seemed intimidated by their teachers.”

Smith said, “It made me appreciate what we have here.”

The group also traveled to see the excavated terra cotta army of Xi’an, one of China’s ancient capitals and the burial place of the Emperor Qin (pronounced “Chin”), who gave his name to the country.

“Our tour guide described Xi’an as small and it’s a modern bustling city with 8 million people,” Kendall said. “Then he took us to ride bikes on the ancient city wall.”

A rare lonely spot on the Great Wall near Beijing. Photo: Ashley Farrington

“The views from the wall were something I will never forget,” said PHS junior Ashley Farrington of Wauna. “The bike ride was the point in the trip where it really hit me how amazing the experience has been overall and that I really was in China.”

They ended their trip with a few days in Shanghai visiting a silk factory, street markets and the second tallest building in the world in its financial center. Here especially, the group attracted a lot of attention.

“In Shanghai, we were celebrities,” Smith said. “We had a couple of blonde girls with us and people would yell ‘Taylor Swift! Taylor Swift!’ and take pictures of us.”

“We would ask why there were so many pictures being taken of us,” Kendall said. “In some of the urban centers we visited, most of the other tourists were from rural areas of China and they had never seen a white person.

“We also asked our tour guides some pretty straightforward questions,” he said. “‘How do you feel about Mao? Do you want more freedom of expression? How do the people feel about Facebook being blocked?’

“The answers were pretty vague, but the local tour guides talked about the poverty the nation has despite how big they are, that they are a developing country, and would make the point that most Chinese wished to be more Western,” Kendall said.

“The China trip was a turning point for me, as I am not at all an outgoing person,” Farrington said. “This made the trip a challenge for me and something that, at first, was something I was really apprehensive about. The trip turned out to be the best decision and experience I have ever had.”

“The exciting part for me was that these 16 kids all got along really great, which says a great deal about their character,” Kendall said. “They were literally in tears saying goodbye to Xin, who was our guide the whole time.”

Kendall is already organizing a tour to Italy and Greece for summer 2018 through Education First. For more information, contact him at

To see a short video of the China trip, go to