Maybe home isn't always where the heart is.
It's been a mix of work and play for business, educational and medical leaders from Franklin and the surrounding region in Beijing, China, and many seem to have fallen in love with the experience so far.
Following a 14-hour flight to Bejing last Thursday, the group has trekked far and wide across China's capital city, taking in a variety of sights and sounds. In the days since, they've explored the ancient Forbidden City, haggled with locals in the infamous Silk Market, met with Chinese business leaders, and hiked the Great Wall of China — one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The trip, which allows community leaders from all walks of life to visit and interact with Chinese institutions and leaders in similar fields, is run through China's Confucius Institute. Confucius Institute Headquarters/Hanban is a public institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.
Near the turn of the century, China began to place increased emphasis on promoting its language and culture throughout the world. The result was the Confucius Institute, which was founded in 2004.
Since then, it has expanded at a rapid rate. Today, there are 475 Confucius Institutes in 126 countries throughout the world, including one at Western Kentucky University. The Confucius Institute at WKU opened in April 2010. It also offers summer educational programs for students in grades K-12, provides professional development opportunities and promotes the Chinese language and way of life through a variety of other cultural programs.
One of its many educational endeavors includes placing Chinese teachers in school districts throughout the state. Currently, the institute operates in 24 different school districts in Kentucky, including the Simpson County school district. Last year, four Chinese teachers were placed in Simpson County schools, and there are plans to increase that number to five in the coming school year.
In addition to promoting the Chinese language and culture through the global placement of its teachers, the Confucius Institute also brings community leaders from around the world to China. The Confucius Institute at WKU coordinated its first trip to China in 2011, and has carried out several excursions each year since. Four individuals from Franklin —Franklin Bank & Trust president Alex Downing, Franklin Bank & Trust Senior Mortgage Lender and Simpson County Board of Education member Heidi Estes, Simpson County schools Superintendent James Flynn and his wife, Warren County schools educator Natalie Flynn, were all chosen to take part in the June 2015 excursion.
The local contingent is currently in the midst of the 12-day trip, which spans from June 4 through June 15. During that time, they will be exposed to a variety of Chinese leaders and institutions in the business, education and medical fields.
"Keep the general goal in sight while tackling daily tasks" goes the Chinese proverb, and the group has begun the trip by exploring some of China's most remarkable sites. Last Saturday, it opened the trip at the Beijing Language and Culture University.
"We believe this program will be the bridge from Chinese and U.S. business," said Tian Xin, the Assistant Director of Division of Confucius Institute Development at BLCU.
With a student body composed of nearly 50 percent international students, BLCU has the largest international presence of any Chinese university, and is considered one of the country's top four language universities. It produces the largest number of Chinese teachers who come to Kentucky, though none from the institution have yet been placed in Franklin. The Franklin representatives and other regional leaders toured the university grounds, then took a trip back in time to Tiananmen Square, the largest open-air square in the world and site of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, and the Forbidden City, the home of many Chinese emperors and the political center of the Chinese government for nearly 500 years.
The following day, they got the opportunity to explore one of the Seven Wonders of the World — the Great Wall of China. On a pleasant clear morning under a bright blue sky, they hiked the north side of the Badaling portion of the Great Wall. With construction largely beginning in 221 B.C. and extending through the 17th century, the wall, which was built to protect China from raids on its northern border, at one point measured nearly 4,000 mils in length. Though countless steps and undulations made walking the wall a strenuous hike for the group from WKU, breaks for pictures with locals or stopping to admire the views offered frequent and refreshing respites.
"(Walking the wall) exceeded my expectations," said Downing. "It was just an amazing experience. I was blown away by the number of people and how inspiring it was to see people in their 70s and 80s (hiking along the wall)."
"Pictures are all inadequate," said Estes. "I had to keep pinching myself and ask ‘Am I really here?' In some ways, it felt like a pilgrimage — this group of people from all walks of life came together to experience it."
Though most of the wall has collapsed or disintegrated over time, nine new sections measuring over six miles were discovered earlier this year.
The trip hasn't simply been a trek through history, though. That evening, the group participated in another foreign experience by haggling with merchants for goods in Beijing's Wangfujing Street. After undergoing a similar experience at the Silk Street Market the night before, members came away with an improved understanding of (though perhaps not improved skills in) bargaining for goods.
"I enjoyed it, but I'm glad it's over," said SCA Personal Care Business Unit Leader Brian Dunican of haggling with the merchants.
Monday, the troupe began to explore the interworkings of Chinese society. They began the day at Alltech, an animal food nutrition supplement provider that is headquartered in Nicholasville, Kentucky. Now operating in 128 countries around the world, Alltech has more than 2,600 employees. The company doesn't use any animal protein derivatives, and doing so has begun to pay dividends, said Alltech China Quality Manager Matt Kwok, as widespread animal health crises such as the mad cow disease outbreak have catalyzed a shift in how the country approaches topics such as food safety.
"The culture in China is slowly changing in regards to food safety, and that has been beneficial to us," said Kwok.
The company's branch in Tianjin, China has also put a large emphasis on insourcing in the past year and a half. These different facets of a global business's operations in China intrigued the contingent from WKU.
"It was a great opportunity to see how a Kentucky based company has adapted to Chinese culture and taken advantage of the technologies that were created in the (United States) in this facility," said Downing. "I was amazed by the adjustments they had made by bringing their quality assurance people here and (even with a high) amount of competition, they seemed to be thriving in their environment."
It provided very useful insight for William Griffin, the president and CEO of Gryphon Environmental LLC, who is considering establishing distribution engineering in China.
"(Visiting Alltech) was very enlightening," he said. "Some of the challenges (of operating a business) I had preconceived were true, and some were false. As someone considering entering (the Chinese business market), it was interesting to have clarified what I didn't know."
A number of individuals present on the trip work in the medical industry, and the group visited Darentang traditional Chinese pharmacy later that day. There, they had the opportunity to learn about ancient Chinese medical practices. In earlier centuries, the Chinese ingested everything from rhino horns to mint leaves in order to remedy illnesses.
Chinese doctors still practice some of these traditional forms of medicine today. Dr. Gerald Tice, the regional chancellor at WKU's Owensboro campus, visited Xiyuan Hospital of China Academy of Chinese Medical Sciences in Beijing earlier in the week. He observed one doctor who prescribed a patient what in the U.S. would be considered modern day medicine as well as some traditional minerals and herbs.
"Maybe we ought to look at that approach more seriously," he said, noting that the more natural route would result in less side effects.
In the days to come, the WKU group will tour Chinese primary schools, visit the Agriculture Bank of Beijing, and travel by high speed rail to Shanghai, where its stops will include the Tonghan Chuntang Chinese Medicine Museum and the Shanghai World Financial Center.
"To think we're in day five of the trip, and look back and see we've experienced a month's worth of activities and educational opportunities is amazing," said Downing. "I've learned so much from the people in this group because they all come from such unique areas. I'm excited for what lies ahead."