Administration Recounts Experiences with China Program

In 2020, Sidwell’s John Fisher Zeidman Chinese Studies Program shut down due to China’s closed border policy. The program, which previously ran every year since 1983, is an integral part of Sidwell’s Chinese Studies program and the school’s relationship with China.

Sidwell’s Zeidman China Program is named after John Fisher Zeidman ’79, who died after contracting viral encephalitis while studying abroad in China in 1982. In honor of his memory, the Zeidman family donated funds to the Zeidman China Program, hoping to cultivate a mutual understanding and friendship between Chinese and Sidwell students.

There was initially some debate surrounding the Zeidman China Program because of the unstable nature of U.S.-China relations. According to Head of School Bryan Garman, the question that many inquired was, “Why is this school finding a relationship with a Communist government?”

The firm answer was always to better understand others, nurture peace, foster friendship between the two nations and see the different and noteworthy perspectives of foreign students.

Despite all the dissent, the students who traveled to China through the program enjoyed every minute of their trip.

“Our hearts are filled with thousands of beautiful memories,” former Headmaster Earl G. Harrison said following a trip in a 1984 interview with China Reconstructed magazine.

A group photo in the magazine shows the community spirit and cultural interactions of the China trips, depicting American tourists mingling with beaming citizens of Nanjing.

Students were also able to critically analyze some of the shortcomings of various policies and projects by the Chinese government.

History student Debbie Bryant ’84 stated in China Reconstructed that as she was visiting the Forbidden City on the same trip, “[she] found [her]self torn between admiration for such skilled craftsmanship and disgust at the human resources wasted in these constructions.”

Seeds of friendship were sown on the China trips throughout the years.

During the 1984 trip, Washingtonian David Graham recounted in China Reconstructed how he had “a hatful of fresh tomatoes and green peppers — a gift from a farmer he’d befriended and promised to him that he would send over seeds of American tomatoes and peppers.”

Former Mayor Chen Xitong planted trees of friendship with Sidwell exchange students by Middle School No. 2, a school affiliated with Beijing Normal School that frequently hosts American students.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, long-established relationships between China and the U.S. fell apart. Tensions rose between the two nations, and China shut off its borders to the world; this cut off a Middle School minimester trip to Beijing right before spring break, Upper School trips and the prestigious Zeidman Fellowship Program, which grants two Zeidman Fellows or recently graduated alumni the privilege of studying in China.

Nonetheless, there is still hope of rekindling the once vibrant relationship.

According to Garman, Sidwell has “remain[ed] in dialogue with the embassy and their program because of the peace testimony,”

“A better chance at having peaceful relationships is personal interaction [which] helps understand one another better,” Garman continued. “After [sitting] down with people in the embassy and chatting, you have a hard time imagining why countries can’t get along,” he added.

Attempts have been made by Director of Chinese Studies John Flower and advisory board members of the Zeidman Program to re-cultivate fragments of Chinese culture with either the Chinese Embassy or the Chinese American Museum. Collaborations have included the Lunar New Year performances at Sidwell, a virtual adoption of a panda and having members of the embassy visit the Lower School.

Nevertheless, Garman “is so sorry that [the hiatus of the Zeidman China Program] had to happen.”   

The precarious situation of China’s travel restrictions has brought uncertainty to when the next trip to China — whether it be the Middle School Minimester visit or a Zeidman Fellowship trip — will happen. However, the Chinese Studies program remains a valuable part of the Sidwell curriculum.

“If we each — Chinese and Americans — plant one friendship seed each year, we will find that the benefits far exceed our expectations,” Bryant reflected in China Reconstructed.