Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How did we get here?

Greetings Fellow Travelers,

Link to Map of World with Chinese character labels

Boston is the city where we started. From Boston, Alicia flew west, and landed in the city that is known as “City by the Bay.”

Looking at these two maps, can you figure out where we started from and where our first stop was? We first flew from the east coast to the west coast of the United States.

If you answered “San Francisco” which is known by that name, then you are correct!

Using a push pin and a piece of string, pin one end of the string to the place on the map where Boston is, pin the other end of the string to the place on the map where San Francisco is.

Teachers, you can actually download this, blow these maps up and put them up in your classroom. This is a good mapping activity you can do with your students. The continent labels are in Chinese characters, which is good for students to see; you can label them in English as well.

From San Francisco, we flew west again across the ocean, and landed in a city in China that is an island. The name of the island means “Fragrant Harbor” in English.

Can you guess which city it is?

Look it up on the web if you can’t figure it out! Did you get
Now, take another piece of string, and pin one end to San Francisco and the other end to…
Hong Kong!

Ok, now, what ocean did we fly across to get here?
Find it on the map, and place a blue circle of string around it!

Now, for the last stop of the flight – we flew south from Hong Kong over the South China Sea: put a blue circle of yarn around that.

We flew over the Straits of Malacca – find the Straits and put another blue circle of string around that! We finally landed in a city with the initials K.L., in a country that begins with the letter “M.” Can you find this city on the map?

When you find this city, pin another piece of string from Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur.

What country is it in?

Wait! The trip isn’t done yet!

From Kuala Lumpur, we drove south by car to the city where our conference was. This city begins with an “M” and has the same name as the Straits. When you find this city, pin a string from Kuala Lumpur to Malacca, and put a big star on Malacca.

Note: Malacca is spelled “Melaka” when you are in South East Asia – so you will see it spelled both ways on different maps – it’s still the same city!

Our Presentatioin

Our presentation was scheduled for Wednesday, July 7, 2010. It was the final English language session of the conference, titled “Zheng He’s Voyages: Historic Traces and Research”. The Chair of our panel was Dr. Dato’Hj. Sidek Bin Jami, of the National Archives of Malaysia. Our panel included Dr. Tan Ta Sen of the Cheng Ho (Zheng He) Cultural Museum and President of the International Zheng He Society, and Mr. Choirul Mahfud, from Surabaya Indonesia.

We thought because we were on the last panel of the conference, there would be the least amount of people attending, because usually by the end of a long conference, people go out and sightsee and shop. However, that was not the case. We arrived in the room early and hardly anyone was there, but soon, the room was full with over 200 conference participants.

We then thought that the room was full because our panel included Dr. Tan, the chairman of the whole conference. We were later told by one Mr. Clifford Pereira of the Royal Geographic Society of England (one of the participants) that he had heard people talking and that they were in fact anxiously waiting to hear our presentation. Many people were eager to hear about our research and what we had to say as teachers, and learn about our students’ work.

We presented a power point and spoke about Malindi’s Journey, the children’s book we have written that highlights the contact between East Africa, China, and the role of Islam in the ancient trade routes that were thriving along the east coast of Africa for centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. We spoke about the giraffe, which is still used today by the Chinese government as a symbol of cooperation between China and African countries. We said that as teachers, we believe it is important to link research to actual classroom practice. Alicia showed examples of how to web out curriculum for a culturally grounded thematic unit in early childhood/elementary classrooms. Lucy showed how a theme can be developed across content areas for high school. In both cases, we spoke about the importance of engaging students in the content while meeting state and national standards.

We showed slides of students and their work from Alicia’s former classroom at The Young Achievers Math and Science School. We showed pictures of students building a boat, doing observational drawings of a Swahili mtepe, engaging in hands-on geography, math and literacy projects. Lucy showed slides of her students from Odyssey High School examining artifacts and learning about evidence.

Finally, we spoke about the modern connections between Africa and China, and how Kenya and China are collaborating to investigate cultural links in the Lamu Archipelago. The National Museum of China, the Beijing University School of Archeology, and the Kenya National Museum are now engaged in a joint venture to excavate sunken ships from Zheng He’s treasure fleet. In fact, some of the members of that research team were at the conference and listening to our presentation!

We closed our presentation by talking about the importance of collaboration between teachers and researchers. During the question and answer period, we were asked many different questions about our work. They asked when the book will be published, how we have the time to do all this work and still do all our work in the classroom, more about the curriculum. Several times during our presentation and the question and answer period, people stood up and applauded because of things we said about teachers being the vehicle to bring knowledge and stories of Zheng He and his connections with Africa and Islam into the classroom in ways that impact student achievement and their global understanding.

On another note, we feel it’s important to mention how well we were received, as Boston Public School teachers. We were the only school teachers from any country to make a presentation at this conference, and people were very interested in what we had to say.

We were given first-class treatment by the conference organizers; we were picked up at the airport and given a nice hotel room. At the Zheng He (Cheng Ho) Cultural Museum, we were treated like visiting scholars and dignitaries. We spent a full day there after the conference doing research, and were given access to all the parts of the museum. The museum director was very interested in our ideas for developing learning activities that could be incorporated into the exhibits to make the museum more engaging for school children. We exchanged contact information; and promised to send pictures of our students’ work on Zheng He and Afro-Asian connections so that it can be displayed in the museum.

On a personal note from Alicia:
I was the only presenter, and in fact, the only conference participant of African descent. I’ve been wearing my hair in braids for this trip, and from the time I arrived, when I realized there were no other participants from the African Diaspora, I made it a point to wear my African beads, my cowrie shell necklaces, and the clothing I purchased in East Africa. People were very happy to see me there. Participants kept approaching me and asking me which African country I was from. I felt a sense of pride to actually be one of the conference presenters, and that I could represent the voice of the African Diaspora at a conference that was focused on the Afro-Asian World. I felt it was important that I was there. I was happy later that several Chinese scholars raised the issue that there needed to be more African voices at the conference, since the theme was of China looking outside of itself.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Zheng and the Afro-Asian World

The Stage and Conference Banner
Greetings Fellow Travelers,

Sorry it’s taken us so long to post the first installment of our travels, but here goes!

We attended the First International Conference on Zheng He, in Melaka, Malaysia. The Conference title was “Zheng He and the Afro-Asian World.”

Why was the conference in Melaka?

When Zheng He arrived in Melaka, it strengthened Melaka’s position as a prosperous trade and international relations center, where traders from the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia, and East Asia came to trade. Zheng He had very friendly relationship with the Sultan of Melaka, and it was a regular stopping point for his ships on each one of his voyages.

The Conference was opened with a Bacaan Doa – a prayer in Malay language, given by Datuk Wira Haji Hamdin Bin Abdollah, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Perzim. Then there were several more welcome speeches: by Dr. Tan Ta Sen, the President of the International Zheng He Society, Tan Sri Tiong Hew Khing, President of the World Chinese Media Association, Professor Leo Suryadinata, Director of the Chinese Heritage Center in Singapore, and a lastly, a speech by the Tun Mohd Khalil Yaakob Governor of Melaka, who welcomed everyone to conference, and talked bout the importance of producing work for people to learn about Zheng He.

He’s a big fan of Zheng He, and told participants that he is a great admirer of Admiral Zheng He and has read every single publication and seen every documentary about him. He also told everyone he had read every single paper that was to be presented at the conference.

The Governor spoke about how Zheng He was a good Muslim, a scholar, and a man of integrity, who serves as a model of peace today. The governor spoke about modern Africa, the excavation of one of Zheng He’s ships that is happening today in partnership between China and East Africa. He was very happy about the title of the conference, and said he was looking forward to learning more about Africa’s connection to China. Other important points he spoke about were the importance of evidence in research, and his hope that at the end of the conference, more conclusive evidence will be available to people who want to learn more about Zheng He and his voyages. He said that all the scholarship and knowledge of Zheng He should be made available in many languages so that there is greater access for all people.

The Governor called Melaka as the melting pot of South East Asia: in Melaka there is a blend of languages, culture and people.

The conference program was printed in three different languages, and most of the speeches were given in four different languages, because of the diversity of the people attending the conference. The major languages spoken in this regions of the world are Mandarin, Malay, English, and Tamil.

The speeches were followed by drumming on a large drum like the ones used on Zheng He’s ships for communication between the ships 600 years ago.

Also on stage during the opening ceremonies was a man who is the 16th generation cousin of Zheng He.

The entire conference lasted four days. Some sessions were in Chinese, and others were in English. 400 people attended the conference!

One of the first presenters, Dr. Siu-leung Lee, is a famous calligrapher and scholar, and works on the Avatar TV Series.

History is always changing – as people find out new information, history changes. That’s why people continue to do research and to share new information that they have found out.

Here are some of the interesting topics about Zheng He and his connection to Africa that people have been researching:

- The population of Africans with Chinese ancestry on Pate Island (Kenya)
- Zheng He’s voyages to the Western Ocean and Communication between Afro-Asia
- Zheng He’s maps show his voyages contributed new knowledge and understanding about
   geography and the African continent
- Zheng He’s contributions to the spread of Islam in the Malay world, and his legacy of an open-
  minded, peaceful multi-ethnic, multi-relgious community.
- Good relationships he established with other peoples around the Indian Ocean
- Reconstructing one of Zheng He’s treasure ships in Nanjing from primary source documents about the measurements, design and materials

A special flag was designed for this conference:

On the front of the flag:
The character (He) is part of Zheng He’s name, and is the character for Peace and Harmony
The circle is an ancient Chinese calendar using a Chinese compass
The white color represents purity and honesty
The blue represents the ocean

On the back of the flag:
The treasure ship of Zheng He represents that this conference will be a platform for building up international understanding between nation and nation.

Monday night was the banquet to celebrate the first day of the conference. There was lots of delicious Malay food, followed by a cultural performance.

There were many different Malay dishes – here are some:

Mee goring (yellow noodles stir-fryed with vegetables and meat)
Chickeng Rendang – a spicy chicken curry
Laksa lemak – dish with prawn, tofu and egg
Lots of rice – cooked in coconut milk! Yum!
No pork was served – we haven’t seen any pork dishes on this trip at all. More than half of the population in Malaysia is Muslim – 16 million people!

For dessert:
Sago - a famous and popular Malay dessert, a kind of pudding with egg whites, palm sugar, coconut milk and red beans. It looks like tapioca [picture] – this was so good it was hard to stop eating it!!

There were also many beautiful fruits – durian, star fruit, dragon fruit, pineapple, papaya, and water apple.

Next installment:  our presentation was a success!

~ Lucy and Alicia