From summer abroad in China, students acquire a new view of the world
Shortly after the spring semester ended, 21 engineering undergraduates departed for China to participate in the 6-week Zhejiang University Summer Program (three additional chemical and biological engineering undergraduates conducted independent research at the university), which began in 2008. The university is located in Hangzhou, a city of six million people about 120 miles southwest of Shanghai. Students who took EPD 397: Technical Communication blogged about their experiences abroad; here are a few of those posts.
"The train to Guilin was scheduled for 17 hours, so our best option was to get a soft-sleeper cabin, which contains four beds but has a sliding door to truly make it a cabin. The hard sleepers on the other hand are six to a cabin, but no door. Our solution was that I would buy a regular seat ticket since there were five of us. Then once it departed, I would make my way up to their cabin and sleep on the floor. Foolproof right?
When the train came, their car rolled right in front of us on the platform. I gave Kenta my bag, and headed towards my car. I slowly realized that everyone else on the platform was trying to get into the same car as I was. There must have been at least 120 loud, screaming Chinese people. I heard the train whistle blow, and I wasn’t even onboard yet – I tensed up, realized the train might leave, and plowed my way to the front. The Chinese do it, why can’t I?
I turned the corner into the train car, and I could have sworn that some new third-world country sprang up inside this one single car. It was as crowded as a freshmen party, as loud as a small concert, and smelled eerily similar to when you stand too close to the cages at a zoo.
There was a guy sitting in my seat, so I pointed at him and said 'mine' in Chinese. I was in a pod of six seats with two rows of three that faced each other and a small table coming out from the wall. I had the window seat, meaning that I climbed over about 8 people to get to it. They sell standing room only tickets for these trains, which is why a guy was sitting in my seat, and why I really did have to climb over 8 people in about six feet. I was counting the seconds until the conductor came and checked my ticket and passport so I could make my way to the others’ cabin.
They were five cars up, so I had to fight my way through them all. I climbed on seatbacks to get around blocked aisles; I ducked underneath doors lower than my head; and I even knocked a squatter over because I didn’t see him. All in all, that journey took about 20 minutes to go maybe 50 meters.
'Don’t make me go back there,' were the first words out of my mouth as I got to their cabin. I sat down on the lower bed, and I finally stopped developing what I truly believed was anxiety. Life was good. About two hours later, the guard came by, saw five of us in a four-person cabin, and asked for tickets. My heart sank. He stood there pointing back to where I came from until I reluctantly got up, and started my walk of shame.
All I had on me was my Chinese cell phone, wallet, passport, and iPod, and I slept maybe one hour in total. I used up most my minutes calling friends here and my dad, just so I could talk to someone. Around 10:30am while a woman was screaming trying to sell toothpaste, I went up there one more time. This time I put the dirtiest look I could on my face and walked right past him. Cedric just motioned me the upper bed, and I passed out until our train arrived. Needless to say, I booked a flight home."
"The People’s Republic of China or PRC is currently run as a one party system. The party in command is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Obviously, that means China is still a communist nation. In past decades the CCP’s strict controls on almost every facet of Chinese life have caused massive economic growth (8-10%/year). It is argued that this communist growth took more people out of absolute poverty than any other measure in the history of man. It also came at great costs to millions of rural Chinese, but that is the topic for a novel not a blog post. This blog post will instead discuss a few of the ironies that have arisen in the past decade during the liberalization of the Chinese economy.
The most glaring irony is present in every transaction I have had with China’s private entrepreneurs. Each time I buy an unknown piece of meat or a ride in the back of some dirty van, the transaction is carried out in cash. Like America, China covers its currency with the faces of its most esteemed leaders. Except in China it is a single face belonging to their only esteemed leader, Mao Zedong. Chairman Mao was the father of the Chinese Communist Party and commanded it for many years. I am sure he is rolling over in his grave at the thought of his likeness being a part of the thriving private sector.
For some in China the private sector has let them accumulate millions of these Mao depictions. This has led to another irony in China, American style wealth distribution (most of the wealth in the top 1%). Even more ironically, in Hangzhou, many of the millionaires have made their millions selling property. Property, which is traditionally owned by the state in communist economies, has been a booming private industry. This industry has allowed for an elite class of Chinese to afford luxury cars, top brand clothes, and private education. All the while many Chinese are still living on the verge of poverty.
It seems that whatever the class a particular Chinese person falls in they still manage to afford technology. I have seen more iPhones, iPads, and iProducts during my first three weeks in China than I had since their release back in the States. It is not only ironic because a privately owned company produced these products, but rather the privately owned company produced them. Apple, owned by millions of Americans, epitomizes free markets, having held the title of most valuable company in the world several times in the past year. I cannot help but laugh at the fact that Mao’s face in a Chinese Apple store is eventually transformed into Washington’s in the pocket of an American investor."
"For a month I’ve been living in a country with cheap food, pre-paid rent, inexpensive transportation and essentially free beer. Whenever I looked at a price during my first week I would quickly divide by six in my head and think, 'Gee, this cab ride is only $2 USD!' A dollar here there, a dollar there; it adds up, but I had no idea how fast. I was buying 70 + RMB meals and thinking I was saving money.
I slowly transitioned to my current viewpoint of the Chinese Renmenbi: having relatively equal spending value as a dollar. The high exchange rate and inexpensive things all around made 600 Yuan feel as cheap as anything. It’s a strange thing when everyone rationalizes spending it by saying 'it’s only like X US Dollars.' Or even worse when you don’t bother converting because you think everything in this country is so cheap. It’s this mentality that eliminated any restraint to spend and also eliminated half my budget before I reached week four. It took a lot of self-examination to make sense of how I spent $1,000 US Dollars so quickly. By no means do I regret spending this money. Every experience, overpriced meal, and leather wallet was worth it. Plus I got a lesson in saving money.
I examined my remaining cash and bought tickets I felt I could afford while crossing off places I wouldn’t be able to visit. This forced me to decide which experiences I thought would be truly great and realize which ones I wasn’t attached to. My initial bank account panic lead to a decisive moment that will surely allow me to enjoy every Jiao I spend even more.
My new perspective will allow me to live as frugally as I initially thought I was. Just the other day had some serious reservations buying a butter knife for 7. But that’s only like a dollar, right?”
"After class on Tuesday, Professor Pfotenhauer and seventeen of us rushed over to the train station to catch the Shanghai-bound train. Dressed in the nicest clothes we had (and therefore sweating quite a bit), we probably made quite a sight running through the station trying to find the right train before it left in less than ten minutes. In the end we made it, however, and we were on our way back to Shanghai. But this was not a pleasure trip back to the place of origin of our China adventure; we were on our way to attend the reception for the opening of the University of Wisconsin Innovation Office in Shanghai.
We arrived about forty minutes early for the reception, and since we hadn’t eaten and weren’t sure whether there would be food there or not, we burned the extra time roaming the streets of Shanghai, finding food and fondly remembering events that had taken place barely two weeks previous. When it was time for the party to start, we slowly congregated at the entrance to Le Grand Meridien hotel, where the event was being held, and then in groups took the elevator up to the 64th floor. After only about twenty minutes, the place was packed. Stuffy-looking older men with suits and nametags hung around the serving dishes (there was food at this event after all) and mingled with each other about subjects that were probably boring. I was contented just to munch on party food and gaze out the window at the view of Shanghai at night.
I learned two lessons that night. I learned that it a single meal with people that speak your language can cure mild homesickness. The second lesson was a little deeper than that, however. It took me until after the party to realize that all of those stuffy-looking guys at the reception had either gone to Madison or had been associated with it at some point. Everyone at the party was a Badger who had come to the other side of the world to commemorate step that the University was taking. I learned, as I have learned many times before, just how awesome Badgers are, and how special I am to be one of them."
A valuable experience doesn’t only consist of a series of happy, exciting moments. To me, a valuable experience includes the euphoria of high highs, and the discomfort of a few revealing lows. It even includes the small, mundane surprises that intrude on the routine you carefully construct everyday.
I thought that by going to Xian, I would see the China that existed in historical movies and novels. I’d see the ruin and the romance of everything I’d created in my head. Instead, I saw a few un-sturdy skyscrapers. I saw rundown homes and businesses. Almost every small business used images of the terra cotta soldiers to draw interest. At times, I felt like I was in a desperate, exploited city.
The sight of the terra cotta soldiers disappointed me at first. They stood upright in a huge dugout underneath a translucent warehouse. It all felt so fake and prepared. I took a few moments to think about the history of the soldiers and the discovery. How exciting it must have been, when the land was still common farming ground, to unearth such a historic sight. I had to remember the story in order to appreciate the sight.
The train ride itself was an uncomfortable experience. I squirmed, rotated, contorted, and finally meditated my aching body into a sleeping form. I have never been so uncomfortable for so long in traveling anywhere. However, I really can’t complain. Dozens of people remained unsettled in the aisles. I don’t know what kind of transportation offers ‘standing tickets,’ but I felt like an inconsiderate brat at times. There were very elderly people with children who would stand in the aisles for hours. I image that they were too poor to buy sitting tickets, or needed transportation and planned their trip too late. Either way, I certainly felt ashamed to sit when these people spent the night standing or packed into the corners by the stinky bathrooms.
My trip to Xian wasn’t a wonderful experience all the way, but it wasn’t meaningless either. Halfway through my weekend there, I realized that in order to really be in the moment and appreciate what was in front of me, I had to change my outlook. I had to remove my preconceived notions of China in order to take in the actual story that was unraveling in front of me. I came to China with the idea that I would love everything and all the trinkets and sights would make me giddy with newfound wonder. I’m learning that a worthy experience includes a little suffering as well as the intrusion of random, opportunistic surprises like carts on mopeds and shady cab drivers.
It has always been my philosophy that there is really no point in living life if you live it the way everyone else does. I want to do things that are daring and different because I feel like those experiences are the most rewarding experiences we can have. Of course I had this ideology in mind when I decided to eat a bull’s testicle as well as a tarantula the other night.
A few of us had gone to dinner on the newly formed Gourmet Food Street in Hangzhou. After dinner, we proceeded to wander down the street just to check it out. I still have a hard time getting over how truly beautiful the architecture of Hangzhou is. It is honestly one of the most beautiful places I have ever been which I definitely did not expect to find. As we walked down the street, we soon stumbled upon a mile long flood of food carts. We came across the bull’s testicle first, and, naturally, we unanimously decided we had to eat it. I think the grossest part was watching it being cooked on the grill. I don’t even want to know what the white liquid dripping out of it was. Before taking the plunge, I looked around the table to see Andrew, Kenta, and Cedric’s faces. 'Yi, er, san' and the testicles were in our mouths. Chewy doesn’t even begin to explain the texture. It didn’t taste as bad as I had imagined, but by no means was it something I’d add to even my top 100 foods I enjoy eating.
As we walked down the street, the motto 'When in China' was going to make another round. We had approached the bug stand. It seemed safest to choose the tarantula and scorpion as our next victims. The fact that these were the safe options makes me contemplate our decision, in retrospect. As we each tore off a leg of the spider, the hair really started to gross me out. Trying to ignore that as much as possible, we unanimously placed the piece in our mouths. The leg wasn’t bad. However, I am not one to turn down a challenge so when Andrew said he’d pay me ten Yuan to eat the body, I said yes. As Kenta asked to make sure it wasn’t poisonous, I began to mentally prepare myself. The truth is, you will never be ready to eat a spider. The taste was absolutely terrible. I am surprised I didn’t throw up from it. I think the others gagged just from watching me chew the creature. We had had enough food adventures for one night so we headed home. It really does surprise me how people in China eat these sorts of things as if it is no big deal. A bug cart in America would probably be banned. Here, however, it was one of the main attractions. One of the things I really enjoy about this trip is making comparisons between Chinese and American daily life and culture.
Most people would not have even considered eating the things we did that night. I am obviously still alive to write about it here so, in my opinion, it was worth it. I don’t know if this is egoistic of me, but I like doing things just to be able to say I did them so there aren’t many things that I will turn down. Especially having such an opportunity as I do right now. Living for a summer in Hangzhou, China, I don’t want to miss out on a single thing or leave having any regrets. I don’t know the next time I will be able to come back to China so I feel as if the only way to experience this opportunity is to treat it as if this is my one and only chance to be here.
One of the biggest things I have realized upon arriving in China has not come from the Chinese but from people in our own University of Wisconsin Madison group. I have been spending most of my time with Cedric, Andrew, Kenta and Jack. I don’t think I have ever spent time with such an intelligent group of people. All of them are so aware of what is going on in the world currently and have so many experiences to share about they are actually fun to just listen to. They push me to want to be a better person and become involved in world issues. For example, last night we were sitting outside the dorm just talking when a Spaniard came up and started talking with us. Andrew immediately started having a conversation with him about the Euro and European economy in general and how Spain’s problems are brought on my a lack of opportunity for young people and corruption in government, and I just found it so cool how he knew all of that information and could have an intelligent conversation about it. That is how I want to be and I feel like being around such motivated and determined individuals has made it clear in my mind that I need to kick it into gear and prepare myself to take on this global business world once I graduate with my degree. I feel like Hangzhou, China is the perfect place to start.
Compiled by Renee Meiller