Letter from Steve Piltch - April 2018

April 30, 2018

Dear Shipley Families,

No matter how old you are, it’s always incredible to have an experience that you know will positively influence your life for years to come. I had such an experience over spring break when my wife and I visited China and met with families of some of our international students, as we spent time in Beijing, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

Since we now have roughly twenty students from China at Shipley, including many from a program called Ivy International, it was important to me to get a sense of our students’ culture and lives in China. Knowing that I will be retiring from Shipley at the end of next year, I wanted to make sure to help the School form deeper connections with our community abroad before I depart. My hope was to get to know the parents of our students better and of giving them a better sense of our School, and we wanted them to know how pleased we are to have their children at Shipley. In addition, I thought that such a trip might serve as the basis to create an exchange program with an institution in China.

From the moment I made the decision to visit, people here, in China, and in Hong Kong were extraordinarily helpful in putting together a visit that was second to none. I could not have asked for more. My thanks go to my colleagues Amy Clemons, Josie Burri, and Val Dillard, and also to three friends of our School, Betty Foo, Annie Wang (who is the older sister of senior Jerry Wang), and Summer Han.

In Beijing, we were met at the airport by Captain Yao (a friend of Betty Foo’s), who made us feel right at home even though he himself did not speak English (and we do not speak Mandarin). He was warm and friendly. The translator he brought with him helped us understand him and everything we needed to do, and he was careful to provide supportive gestures that affirmed us.

While in Beijing, we were taken by the historic nature of the city and the wonderful tourist sites, including the Forbidden City (which may be the most impressive tourist site I have seen), the Great Wall, and the Old and New Summer Palaces. We were also taken by the incredibly strong sense of community that existed among those we met. In particular, we loved our time with our three hosts Li Wei, Meng Han, and Hans Yin, personal friends of Betty Foo who had done exchanges here early in the 2000s. They showed us around the city and introduced us to restaurants, shops, and places we would never have found on our own.

When we left Beijing and went to Shanghai, we found the city to be more cosmopolitan and modern. In the past twenty years, the city has been filled with new skyscrapers and wonderful growth in the economy. The people we spent time with were quite open about their sense of the world and were both positive and supportive of us and the United States. Moreover, they were remarkably committed to education and hopeful about what the future might bring from an economic, social, and personal perspective.

We also had the opportunity to visit the Western International School of Shanghai where we met with its founder, Tim Guo. Tim is a remarkably committed individual who believes that education is the way to bring people of the world together. The School’s mission aligns with ours, and we were so impressed by their students, who were teaching English to the children of migrants the day we visited. We had the privilege of enjoying a lunch in a water town outside of Shanghai with a number of people from the School, including among others, Tim and Yu-Lin, who served as our tour guide and host throughout the visit. Yu-Lin is originally from Taiwan and she and her family lived in New York for many years. She helped us understand the culture and also accompanied us to different stores where bartering was an essential skill. We were lucky she was with us! We also had the privilege of attending the Shanghai Symphony while we were there. The President of the Symphony, Fedina Zhou, is the mother of one our tenth graders, Ginger Tan.

We finished in Hong Kong, which is the densest city I have ever seen, and we were awed by its similarity to New York and other major cities. Again, we were taken by the ongoing thoughtfulness, generosity, and support of everyone who we came across. Without a doubt, the highlight for me of our time in Hong Kong was visiting the Big Buddha and having dinner with a former Shipley student, Tyler Love ('06), and his wife, Faris. I’m happy to say they are expecting their first child in June.

In general, we were impressed by the number of people who knew English; although it may vary depending on where one lives in China, the people we spoke with in Beijing and Shanghai began to learn English in fourth grade. And even when people did not speak English, there did not seem to be a problem communicating. I must admit, I wish I knew Mandarin so that there would not have been a need to rely so much on others.

In the end, I realized more than anything that I had come to China with a preconceived notion that it was a completely closed community – and that this not the case at all, at least not where we were and with the people we met. It reminded me that it is important for all of us to re-evaluate our perceptions about other countries and people based on what we read here and see. Although there may be some truth to the perceptions we have, things are not always as simple and clear as we project them to be. Ideally, when we get to visit places and to see people and share their lives, we get a clearer and sometimes different picture of reality. (Of course, I realize that the reality I saw was for a limited number of people, people who had found a way to be successful within the realm of the system they lived in.) And, in fact, visiting a country is not the same as living there on a day-to-day basis.

I will be forever grateful to those who made the trip to China such a good experience and am hopeful that we are as gracious and helpful to people who visit us here at Shipley as everyone was to us. In addition, I am optimistic that this experience will help me recognize the preconceived notions I have about other things and make me more open to and receptive of those who come from a different background, have different views, or simply look different. I invite you to join me on that journey.

Warmest regards,

Steve Piltch
Head of School
The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.