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Why a teacher moved a Chinese farm to the woods of West Virginia

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. – The farmhouse looked like countless others John Flower had encountered in his day in rural China, but the details stood out: tall hand-carved wooden columns in the front, delicate carvings of flowers and tree branches set in the folding doors, a bright red armoire with ornate designs lining the far wall.

It was about to be demolished, located on land soon to be flooded by the construction of a new dam on the Mekong. Flower joked with the owner of the house, Zhang Jianhua, when Zhang invited her inside for tea.

“I admired the house and said, ‘I wish I could take it with me,'” Flower said. “He said, ‘Why not? We can try.’ ”

That’s what Flower did. He bought the house from Zhang, returned with a team of craftsmen, and took it apart, plank by plank, to ship it to the United States, where he rebuilt it in a clearing in the woods at Harpers Ferry. , W.Va.

Flower, a high school history teacher based in Arlington, Va., wants to use the farm to host cultural events, summer camps and exchanges with Chinese students — the kind of opportunities most American students have. missed for more than two years as the coronavirus pandemic severed most travel ties between China and the United States and kicked off a turbulent period for relations between the two countries.

“I can’t take 60 kids to China,” Flower said. “But I can bring 60 kids here and experience China, in a way.”

Flower had the opportunity to experience China closer than most. He studied Chinese philosophy and history at the University of Virginia and moved to the southwestern province of Sichuan to conduct a three-year study in 1991. In 2003, he gave up a post permanent at the University of North Carolina to teach Chinese history at the university. The DC Sidwell Friends private school, where he and his wife Pam Leonard developed a fieldwork program in China that brought high school students to study in rural China.

In 2012, Flower and Leonard moved their program to Yunnan, a province in the southwest Chinese countryside bordering Myanmar. There, on a trip to a remote village named Cizhong on the outskirts of the province in 2015, Flower found Zhang and the home he would eventually bring to the United States.

The idea that started as a joke over tea seemed feasible – Zhang, who was being rehoused by the local government, was happy to sell his house to save it from demolition – and the educational opportunities were too exciting to pass up. next to.

“It would be text,” Flower said. “Like bringing an incredibly interesting book.”

The trip back to the United States was long and arduous. Flower and a team of artisans returned to Cizhong in 2017 to document the design of the house and carefully separate its beams and floors. It took months to truck the parts across China to the eastern port of Tianjin and then ship them to Baltimore. Flower did it at her expense.

“We joked it was my son’s college fund,” he said.

Eventually, Zhang’s farm found a home in the woods of Jefferson County, West Virginia in the summer of 2019. Flower and Leonard formed a nonprofit, the China Folk House Retreat, and started to accept donations to achieve their goal of transforming the house. in an educational camp.

But just as their team began to piece together what they hoped would be a bridge between the United States and China, the world’s borders closed. Flower, who had continued to lead her study abroad programs, was two days away from bringing another cohort of students to Yunnan in late February 2020 when her friends in China called about a new illness. spreading in the country.

“At first we were like, ‘Let’s be careful, just postpone,'” Flower said. “And then it got longer. And then we saw what was happening.

Flower has not returned to China since. Nor any of his students. They watched from home as the virus first discovered in China spread across the world, halting global travel and sparking an anti-Asian backlash in the United States. Relations between the United States and China were further strained when the United States joined an international outcry against China last year by declaring the country’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims a genocide, and more recently when government officials traded barbs over Chinese activity in the Indo-Pacific at a defense summit in June. A Pew Research Center study in April found that 82% of Americans surveyed had an unfavorable view of China.

Flower is no stranger to profound changes in US-China relations – his interest in the country began in the 1970s, when China turned to a policy of “reform and opening up” and established diplomatic relations with the United States after decades of mutual distrust. He sees his work as cultural and not political, and thinks it’s all the more important now.

“It’s sad,” Flower said. “But I think the most important thing is that we keep the relationships alive, and we put even more emphasis on people-to-people relationships when government-to-government relations are so strained.”

Yang Wendou, who coordinates Flower’s program in China, shares the same view.

“I am an educator,” said Yang from Yunnan. “I can’t say much about politics. But from my point of view, the more difficult the US-China relations become, the more we must strengthen the exchanges between our people. »

During the pandemic, the Chinese Folk House Retreat has become a rare channel for this exchange. Artisans from nearby towns volunteered to help rebuild Zhang’s house, which was originally built in 1989 – by studying unfamiliar Chinese techniques to join the beams that made up the wooden frame of the house. Each summer, Flower hosted summer camps for DC and Virginia high school students, who helped with the construction while studying Chinese language and culture. Since 2019, the China Folk House Retreat has expanded to include a traditional Chinese moon gate and the skeletal frames of a kitchen and dormitory to be completed next year.

End of June, Flower’s faith in cultural exchange was reciprocated by the Chinese government when Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, visited the camp. In an interview, Qin acknowledged that China-US relations are at “a critical crossroads”. But, speaking days before China announced a surprise tapering of the country’s strict quarantine policies for travelers arriving from overseas, he expressed a desire to restore travel links severed by the pandemic.

“I believe this covid will be over sooner or later,” Qin said. “And all those cultural exchanges…will come back.” He concluded his public address at the camp with an invitation: “Remember that when the covid is over, go to China.

Flower believes this is the key to improving relations between the populations of two of the world’s superpowers. Bringing American students to China, he said, gave them a unique perspective on the country and its people. Eventually, he hopes to welcome students, and even carpenters and craftsmen, from China to study and share their knowledge in West Virginia as well.

“I double, triple,” Flower said. “I think this type of project is needed more than ever.”