By Julie Krienke
DELANO, MN Three months ago, Tiffany Allison was climbing 5,164 of the stairs on the Great Wall of China in a 10k race.
Now, she can be found reflecting on her recent trip as an unforgettable experience, where teaching and learning went hand-in-hand.
Tiffany is a 2005 graduate of Delano High School and was among the first group of Delano students to travel to China in the sister school program with Purple Cloud in Tanggu, China.
“Delano did a China exchange program in 2005, when I was a senior, and that was the first year they did it,” Tiffany said. “When I was there, I just got inspired by the people because they are really friendly and are good hosts.”
While Tiffany was traveling with Delano High School’s exchange program, she got sick and had to go to a hospital in China.
“When we went in the medical room, there were big leather sofas,” Tiffany said. “It felt like someone’s house, not a hospital.
“I felt very at home in the hospital, even though it was so far away. I knew that I was going to do something in medicine, so it was cool to see how they acted toward us and treated us.”
With one trip to China under her belt, Tiffany decided to attend college at the University of Minnesota, Morris, where she majored in biology, Spanish, and pre-med. She graduated in 2009, and got a job working in cultural health to do cancer research.
“I was doing research with them and decided I wanted to do international health,” Tiffany said.
As a result, Tiffany talked with Leo Pospichal, who led the trip to China when she was in high school.
“I really wanted to go back to China, and I wanted a professional to tell me what to look for,” Tiffany said. “He walked through a bunch of different programs with me.”
Tiffany decided to get involved in the Council of International Educational Exchange (CIEE). She was then given the opportunity to travel to China again, but this time to teach English and health classes.
“I knew I would be teaching English and working with kids about what foods are good for you,” Tiffany said. “It was a really basic level of education when it came to health.”
Embarking on her journey in February, Tiffany traveled to Liuhe, a town just 25 miles out of Shanghai, China, that has a population of about 60,000.
“The town is small by their standards, but it still has a lot of people,” Tiffany said. “We went to bigger cities like Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong probably every other weekend.”
Tiffany taught at a Chinese school called the Experimental Middle School, located in Liuhe, where she worked with 13-year-old students. According to Tiffany, the Chinese call this grade eight, but it would be different in America.
“I taught 12 English classes, and I had a couple health classes for kids,” Tiffany said. “I helped them practice their English and talked to them about being healthy.”
Each of the 12 classes that Allison taught had nearly 50 students, and classes took place six days a week.
“They were really fun, and there was so many of them,” Tiffany said. “At first, it was a challenge because they treat you as a substitute teacher.”
As with any experience in a different culture, Tiffany was forced to adapt and overcome the language barrier that sometimes arose.
“It was a challenge because if students didn’t understand exactly what I said, I had to look it up,” Tiffany said. “Most people in the town I lived in had never seen anyone from another part of the world. That was hard to get used to because you felt like a movie star.”
Yet, Tiffany adjusted quickly and came to value the Chinese way of life.
“Nothing rattles her cage because she had so many roadblocks that she had to go through,” said Tammy Allison, Tiffany’s mother. “She was in a foreign country by herself, and she plowed forward and went through it all.”
According to Tiffany, the Chinese culture greatly helped her adapt to her new world.
“You learn a lot faster when you are in an environment that helps you,” Tiffany said. “A lot of it just changes your outlook and how you see other countries.”
Perhaps the most exciting adventure Tiffany took part in during her stay in China was when she participated in one of the five best marathons in the world.
In May, Tiffany ran in a 10k on the Great Wall of China, which included running up and down a total of 5,164 stairs.
“I thought it would be just running along the flat part, but it was actually the stairs,” Tiffany said. “It was a lot more about your endurance of spirit to keep you going.”
Tiffany trained for quite some time to prepare herself for the run, as she had previously done several triathlons in college.
“When you turned around, you saw the view and all the mountains,” Tiffany said. “That was a really good experience. There were a lot of interesting people I met there, too.”
Tiffany met and ran with people who have participated in all five of the best marathons in the world.
“It really was one of the best experiences I’ve had in my life,” Tiffany said. “It’s unforgettable. The mountains were beautiful, and as we were running, you could see the sun come up.”
While traveling to other cities throughout China, Tiffany met people from all over the world.
“You meet a lot of interesting people while traveling,” Tiffany said. “It blows away your stereotypes of other countries.”
During her stay in Liuhe for teaching, Tiffany attended the Shanghai World Expo, an event showcasing every country in the world.
“Every country has a little building, and it’s cool to see places you have never heard of and learn about different foods from different countries,” Tiffany said.
Once Tiffany had completed her time teaching in Liuhe, she spent her last two weeks in China traveling in Thailand.
“The kids were really sad that I was leaving, and some of them cried on my last day,” Tiffany said. “You just don’t think that you make that much of an effect.
“When I left, they said they put together their money and bought me really cute stuff like earrings, candies, and little books.”
In Thailand, Tiffany flew to Bangkok where she stayed for five days. Then she took a bus to Chiang Mai, which is in northern Thailand, to stay with her cousins, who work with minority groups there.
While in Chiang Mai, Tiffany took Tai classes, rode elephants, whitewater rafted, and zip-lined through the forest.
“I think the weirdest thing for most people is the food there,” Tiffany said. “They don’t prepare their food in the same way we do. We’re just not used to it.”
“As a mother, the most awesome thing was that we had Skype, so we could see her and talk to her at the same time,” Tammy said.
After sixth months of both teaching and learning in China, Tiffany went back to Shanghai and then flew home to the United States at the end of July.
“I would like to visit there again,” Tiffany said. “The biggest thing for me is that I would really like to show my friends and family what China is like.”
For now, Tiffany is taking prerequisite classes at North Hennepin Community College in Brooklyn Park.
“I’m planning on getting my physician’s assistant’s license and doing something with international health,” Tiffany said. “I want to do something with medicine and human rights because they are still at a point where many people have no health care or even been to the dentist.”
Tiffany hopes to go back to China in the future, but she has different plans this time.
“I really liked what I did, but if I did it again, I think I would do it at a university level,” Tiffany said. “I think it would be better if the English speaking was at a university level.”
“I don’t picture her living in the United States much longer after she finishes school,” Tammy said. “She just loves an adventure.”
When looking back at her trip, Tiffany sees an experience that helped her grow and learn more about such a different culture.
“There is more I appreciate about being here now,” Tiffany said. “It definitely taught me patience and how to be diplomatic about the way you think about things.”