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A Trip Down ISB Lane

April, 2006
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Di-3  I started attending ISB as a five-year-old midway through kindergarten. Today, twenty years later, I still have vivid memories of my time in China, and most include ISB in some way, shape or form.

  We were in the old embassy building when I started, and the school was much smaller then. I have no idea how small, but I think there were only about 15 kids in my class. Everyone was very friendly. Despite our different backgrounds, we all got along famously. It probably helped that we all spoke English so nothing seemed very foreign to me. I loved everyone’s accents.

  In first grade, my teacher Mrs. Dugel (whom I still keep in touch with) organized an event in which all the children represented a country of their choice, and we all brought in food from the country and wrote up reports and presented these to our parents. We were only six! I had no idea until I got back to the States that even though everything was so fun at ISB, we were always pushed to work hard and do our best, so much more than many of our American counterparts.Di-1

  The old building proved too small for ISB, and we moved to a much larger facility near the Lido Hotel in the middle of second grade. I remember being so excited because we could buy our lunch instead of always having to bring it from home. The doughnuts were especially delicious, and I was pleased to see on my last visit to Asia that the same doughnuts exist today. There was also a swimming pool at the Lido that we used during gym class, and a huge playground area for things like bubble day and our ubiquitous jump ropes. The construction was still unfinished when we moved over to the new building so it definitely seemed a little strange. The older building always smelled like coffee and felt like a big house—the new building was so white and austere. But we had a great time. The mothers in my second grade class wrote a little play about King Arthur for us to perform, and we were all involved. I think it jump-started my love of acting.

Di-4  When I got back to the States for third grade, I was disappointed by a number of things. It wasn’t nearly as easy fitting in with all American kids as it was with kids from all different countries. I felt very out of place. I couldn’t share my stories about China with most of them because either they didn’t care, or they couldn’t really understand where China was, let alone that I had actually lived there.

   Every adult at ISB tried to make life as easy as possible for the students (with the exception of the schoolwork, of course). The parents were so involved, and the teachers were driven and made us love learning. When I got back to the US, every student was trying to be the same as every other one. I joined the Brownie troop at my new American school in Virginia and was bored out of my mind. In China, our Brownie field trips included the Ming Tombs, the Great Wall and the Fragrant Hills. In the US, we had to sit in the cafeteria and make puppets out of chopsticks. I remember thinking that the Brownies in my troop probably didn’t even know how to use chopsticks.Di-2

  I eventually settled into life in the US. I am so fortunate to have been given a chance to grow up in a foreign country. Kids try to grow up too fast in the States, and it is probably worse nowadays. We were allowed to be kids at ISB but were also pushed—gently—to do the best we could.

  What made my life a little harder when I returned from China in third grade has made it so much richer now. Everyone who finds out I lived in China asks about it. I had to wait a little while to share my stories from those years, but it was worth it. Incidentally, I do keep in touch with some of my classmates. One of them, Robert Insall, studied in Virginia when I was in college, so I brought him to my school and we got to see each other a fair amount. The funniest thing that happened was in college: I found out that another boy in my dorm at the University of Virginia, Joe Abrams, not only went to ISB, he played King Arthur in our second grade play! He hardly remembered it, but I was thrilled. Other friends I’ve lost touch with are still friends in spirit, and I’d guess we’d be friends today if we got to see each other. That’s why I’m so excited about this ISB alumni list.Di-today

   I’m an actress in New York now. Even though I loved performing before we moved to China, I think going to school with lots of different types of people early in my life made it much easier for me to make the move to the big city when I was 22. It takes a while for a lot of actors to move to New York because they’re afraid they won’t be able to make sense of how different this city is from their hometowns. There are so many diverse languages and cultures thrown together here at any given time. But thanks to my parents’ move to China, I learned early in my life that anywhere, even a country halfway around the world, can feel like home.


By Di Johnston

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