It’s early in China and most of the people are on their way to work. The view from the high-speed train does not seem interesting to the locals who obviously travel this route daily. But I can’t seem to get enough. The different tones of greys, the buildings, the landscape and my imagination about what life might be like if you lived here all the time. Anshan is a mining town and it relies on the steel factory for its livelihood.

To put it in perspective, the steel factory itself is as big as half of the town and it’s strange that I keep using the word town to describe anywhere in China that isn’t one of the major cities. The ‘towns’ here still have a couple of million people living in them. My interest in the people and life in China is not lonely; many young people in our Connect with China Collaborative from the USA, NZ, Australia and Canada who are keen to have a real connection with their peer group in China share it. Technology is making this connection easier than before.

We have been encouraging educators to learn about WeChat, China’s biggest social media channel for connection. I put a quick shout out on the tech platform to the educators in our Connect with China group and asked if anyone would like to try connecting real time with us on the train. In less than a minute, I get a response from a teacher in South Australia from the Wilderness School who had a class of keen students willing to try. In a matter of minutes, two very different worlds are looking at each other face to face.

The Australian students are on the train with us in China! I am so excited that I jump up and start showing the students around the train, asking the local Chinese people who would like to talk with them. There is curiosity from some of the China locals who say hello. The students are shy, but start practicing their Chinese language straight away in a truly authentic setting. The will to connect is equally as strong from both sides and equally as rewarding.

Interesting comments from my girls – this project is inspiring them to get better at Chinese. Katie – the girls want to be like you and just switch between Chinese and English so easily and fluently. Steph Andrews – Wilderness School, Adelaide SA Australia

It is interesting the types of questions that some of the young people from the USA in the Connect with China Collaborative want to ask their peer group in China and how these questions have perhaps been shaped by stereotypes in the media and textbooks. The perceptions from the youth in China are equally as shaped from the messages they receive through their own media.

Connections like our train virtual excursion are helping break down the barriers and foster intercultural understanding. Whilst on the ground in China, we have been asking these questions to the Chinese youth and videoing their responses. The whole experience has increased learner engagement beyond the walls of the classroom.

Our Connect with China Collaborative concept for 2016 was climate change. A lot of the Western students are interested in understanding what it is like for youth living in China having to measure things like the air quality each day to see if it is one of those days you can go outside and play at lunch, or one of those days where it is safer to stay inside. Some of the questions include what do the Chinese youth think about all the factories in China and the environment?

This was a favourite question for the youth living in Shenyang because it turns out that most of their parents either work at, or own factories. They had a lot to say about the factories themselves, but not too much to say about the natural environment.

It was in that moment, I understood that the Chinese youth in Shenyang couldn’t make much comparison because they aren’t growing up in a world where they have experienced much wilderness. In a city where most of the trees lining the streets are actually made from plastic to try and give a nature feel when there just isn’t much nature left, you can understand. The collaborative aspects of our programs support youth to understand connections, empathise, research, discuss and problem solve, considering ideas beyond their own backyard.

The 2017 concept is ‘innovation’ where participants can explore what that means to them and how innovation can be applied to solve problems. The Connect with China Collaborative was co-founded by Mandarin Pathways and Flat Connections and supports global educators wanting to innovate their teaching practice. It is our way of giving back and helping youth attain the skills they will need to work in a rapidly changing digital world.