Wading Into The Yellow Sea By Marianne Gerdes, Executive Director, Ilan-Lael Foundation

The first week of PRP has passed getting to know our classmates and our new surroundings. Our tentative steps have become confident strides. Yantai is a fascinating place, quite modern, yet strongly anchored in its history. This PRP has a wonderful group of students; intelligent, fun, creative, social, and equals on every level.


Our host country students, the Chinese, are shy about speaking English, but since they learn to read and write English at a very early age they are remarkably proficient with it, and every day as they listen and speak they are much more confident.  Comically, a Russian student Micar (pronounced my-car) tutors them in English. This bear of a young man has an ear for languages and has already picked up Chinese and a bit of Korean to add to his French and his more-than-proficient English skills. He’s also been teaching the Chinese to trill their r’s, as the Mexican and Colombian students do, which provides hours of comic relief as they practice rolling their tongues in a most un-Chinese fashion. The English speakers are doing their share of learning as well. Nihao (hello) greets everyone and is returned in kind. Xie xie (thank you) when spoken to the natives always draws a smile.


Our host city and its residents are remarkably kind and helpful. Yantai is a large metropolis but not a major international tourist hub, so we find ourselves sometimes treated as a curiosity. But there’s always respect shown, and an eagerness to meet us, to learn about us, to learn from us.


We spend a lot of time in the classroom: drawing, designing, presenting, then mixing up the groups and doing it all over again. From pencil and paper, to ink and marker, to clay and cardboard models, the progress is steady with no time to waste. Each day students visit the park site with drawings in hand to check their work, refine ideas, and make adjustments accordingly. Focus has been on the process.


Architect Kyle Bergman leads the group design sessions, and Jim Hubbell provides inspiration and teaches the students how to translate ideas on paper into three-dimensional clay models. Guest speakers present Yantai’s history and the region's geology. Field trips to a cultural site, a mountain hike, and a visit to a rock quarry show us even more of this great country and the vast resources of its land and people.


By tomorrow we must finalize a design.  So today, Jim Hubbell, with help from the leadership team, synthesizes the student ideas into a cohesive design. It must be buildable in 21 days, be within our budget, and capture the essence and spirit of this place and this time. It must meet the approval of our students and of our host city.  The pressure builds.


The weather here has been very warm, with temperatures in the high 80s and humidity levels even higher. Acclimating to the heat, where air conditioning is not a given, reminds many of us how far we are from home. A trip to the beach for a swim is a welcome relief. Our park site is right on the water so every day we pay a visit, searching the views and watching the landscape in its many moods of sun and haze, wind and tide. We study the site’s contours, walk its perimeters, feel its energy, and observe how people use the space. We fall in love with twisted junipers, brushy pine trees, sour plum trees, dancing dragonflies and darting swallows. We wade into the Yellow Sea to cool off and to feel the caress and pull of the Pacific which is so different than what we know back home.


Next week, this place will become the classroom as the team focuses all its attention on building the new park. Our students, who have never lifted a hammer or mixed concrete or assembled mosaic tile, will get a crash course in construction, physical labor and team effort. And during that time, they will learn a new language — the international language of art, not just speaking it with words, but fully expressing their humanity with hands and hearts. 

Marianne Gerdes