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5 posts categorized "Advanced Chinese Studies"

02/18/2014

A Student's Perspective: Undergraduate life at Peking University

Leslie Dong is a junior from the University of Colorado at Boulder and currently an academic year 2013-2014 participant in the CIEE Advanced Chinese Studies program at Peking University (PKU). Unlike language programs, ACS students enroll directly into one of PKU’s many departments taking undergraduate content courses in Mandarin Chinese, and indeed, to be successful, a participant must not only possess superior Chinese language skills, but also strong intercultural skills as well as the ability to adapt to new social environments all while navigating an academic environment that is much different than what they are used to at home. As she is majoring in International Relations, Leslie chose to enroll in the PKU School of International Studies. We asked her to talk about her experience in the program thus far, making comparisons to her academic experience in the US as well as what she.

Here is what she had to say.

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It's like the first major exam during freshman year all over again. It's the same dread for the dark unknowns of the test, the same late-night cramming the night before, and the study sessions that only make you feel more nervous and unprepared. Much of all these sentiments are the same, only this time it's in a room filled with 300 elite Chinese students, at one of the most prestigious universities in China, and tackling a 2-hour written exam in complete Chinese. And did I mention that this midterm is worth 30% of our overall grade and the final is worth 70%? Well, then welcome to my life at Peking University this semester! As stressful and emotionally-draining as this may seem, I've waited for this opportunity for a very long time and have never regretted my decision in enrolling in CIEE's Advanced Chinese Studies (ACS) Program at Peking University. Despite having lived in China for 3 years of my life and devoting an additional year to studying Chinese at Tsinghua University, another top university in China, I still felt so unprepared and incompetent when I first started taking International Affairs classes alongside Peking University students. Thankfully, my CIEE tutors and CIEE-taught writing course have made handling coursework a bit less daunting, but as I like to think about it, with greater challenges, comes even greater rewards. Up to this point in the semester, to me, the two most meaningful things thus far have been experiencing firsthand, the differences between Chinese and American universities (through frustrating at times). The second has been getting a chance to understand a subject from a different point of view, shaped by dynamic factors like history, politics, and cultural identity – something I surely would not have been able to achieve by sitting in classroom in Boulder.

In terms of class organization, China and the US both have professors and TAs, but that may be where the similarities stop! In the US, for example, classes tend to be very efficient and student-centered with the focus being on teaching content effectively and clearly. An average undergraduate 4-credit course in the United States is likely to meet 2-3 times a week for approximately an hour or so. Although each class session is relatively short, professors tend to be very organized and can efficiently disseminate large amounts of information within a short amount of time. For large lectures with 150 or more students, the classes are often broken up in discussion sections where students receive more individualized assistance in reviewing the class material. The repeated meetings during the week also help cement a student's understanding of a subject.

In my time at PKU, on the other hand, an average 4-credit course will only meet once a week for 3 hours straight in the same room with the same professor. Additionally, there aren't organized discussion sections for lectures with more than 150 students and thus, the responsibility of learning the material clearly rests on  students’ shoulders, having to do all of the assigned readings and learn the entire semester's class material on their own. Chinese university students – my classmates – have grown up in this environment and are accustomed to exams where there is no partial credit, and consequently, have adapted to being extremely precise and detailed in their studies.

So how do the professor’s teach? Well, it is different than the US system in myriad ways. What surprised me and other foreign classmates was that while professors have more time to explain class material, compared to my classes in the US, the pace of the class is often very slow and sometimes seems to be unrelated to our readings. Instead of teaching material that I feel is relevant to the class, most professors spend the entire class time lecturing on different topics, going off tangents, or just voicing their own personal opinions about a subject. While this is indeed valuable as I’ll talk about below, some professors may never teach what will be tested on both the midterm and finals. I definitely have found this to be the case in some of my classes, and indeed, it has been a challenge in adjusting!

To be honest, coming from the US academic environment, the academic experience and uncertainty, for example, trying to figure out when my final exam is, or what will be on said final exam, can be downright frustrating sometimes. However, coming abroad and experiencing the same thing as I did in the US would be a waste of my time, and although it has challenged me, I know that it ultimately has been rewarding. One experience that has stuck with me was during a class in modern Chinese history, and the in-depth examinations of history we cover in our class. As an International Relations major, we come to realize that history is subjective and is something that is defined given current political climates for the needs of the time. Thus, what I study in the US will have biases or focus on certain aspects of history that perhaps someone in China would downplay or view as irrelevant. While Chinese professors and courses may provide many challenges and may sometimes seem dry, the experience I lay out below was anything but.

 

As I stared at my professor, I realized that I was traversing history simply by being in this room. Not only was I staring into Peking University's past, I was also peering into the scholarly side of modern Chinese history. I started to wonder how many people that have changed the course of Chinese history started their careers in this room, or better yet, right in my chair.

I listened attentively to my professor talk about China's engagement in the Korean War. But he would always catch me off guard whenever his Fujianese accent surfaced up or when he threw in a few professional terms or slang jokes that I just could not understand. While the entire class would burst out in laughter, I glanced over at other foreign students and exchanged looks of confusion. Even after a few months of class, these moments still made me feel like I was playing a game of hopscotch, skipping across select words or phrases trying to maintain balance and understanding the gist of what he was saying.

But nevertheless, these things never masked the liveliness and the humanness that my professor was able to give to history. While it is impossible for any foreign policy course to cover all the details and complexities of history, my professor chose to focus on explaining the decision-making processes that lead up to the Korean War instead of the major events during the war. So for two and a half months, he explained China's involvement through a use of stories, narratives, telegrams, and conference minutes. Not only did he uncover the complexities and underlying currents that create history, he also restored color and animation to the “意识形态” or the ideas, beliefs, and aspirations of that era. For the first time in my entire college career, I felt like I was living history, breathing in the traumas of the age and finally thinking in the shoes of the Chinese people.

With a better understanding of the China's psychology, I started to reexamine and reinterpret the Korean War. While the United States believed that it was against China's interests to intervene in Korea, my professor illustrated that from the Chinese perspective, intervention was perfectly rational. As the United States carried out its policy of containment, it unknowingly made itself a direct threat to China's borders. By providing aid to Southeast Asia, Northeast Asia, and the Taiwan Strait, the United States had surrounded China from three different directions and was rapidly increasing its influence in these areas.

He continued telling us that in addition, the United States also lacked a general understanding of the thoughts, beliefs, and ideologies that characterized China at that time. For example, the United States underestimated China's resolve to intervene and ignored China's warning about not crossing the 38th parallel. What the United States did realize was that this was a direct insult to the Chinese people. Despite being destroyed by decades of political unrest, consecutive wars, and social instability, China was tired of being victimized and humiliated. The United States' actions as a result, motivated the entire Chinese society to go to war. A closer and deeper understanding of the Chinese psychology or 意识形态 (ideology) has enlightened me in the events of history as well as China's view of the world. And while a psyche of an era, a society, and a generation of people is the hardest thing to recreate in a classroom, I think it is by far the most important thing to take away. Historic events will pass, generations will move on, but the psychology of a nation will be inherited and continue to play a role in the course of history.

Though I still face challenges and find myself comparing US and Chinese education systems, only by stepping into the shoes of the Chinese and examining their perspective, could I gain a more complete and genuine understanding of the world. As an International Relations major, this is absolutely crucial to understand different points of view. By having my professor paint a literal tapestry of Chinese history, one that I can compare to the one I have painted in my US education, I have gained knowledge that perhaps may not show up on a midterm grade, but that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

12/20/2013

A Student's Perspective: CIEE Beijing's Excursion to Qüfu: "Chinese National Imagination, and Personal Pilgrimage"

Rochelle Beiersdorfer is a senior from Youngstown State University in Ohio majoring in philosophy. This fall (2013) she was a student in the CIEE Beijing Intensive Chinese Language program.  Students from the CIEE Beijing Advanced Chinese Studies program also participated on this excursion. CIEE Beijing Center Director Dr. Patrick Lucas, whose research includes historical memory and social narrative, designed and led this excursion that took students to China’s central Shandong province titled “Chinese National Imagination, and Personal Pilgrimage/中华民族的想象与个人朝圣之旅.” In order to properly explore this theme, we visited, Qüfu,birthplace of the philosopher Confucius, Tai’an, home of Mt. Tai, one of China’s most famous mountains, as well as visiting families in a local village and spending the day in small groups harvesting corn. Rochelle agreed to write a blog describing not only what engaging activities they did as a group, but also, as a philosophy major focusing on Chinese philosophy, what meaningful things she took away from the experience of visiting Confucius’ hometown as well as other important sites.

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Qüfu (曲阜), located in Shandong province (山东), is the hometown of Confucius (孔子), a philosopher from the Spring and Autumn period (roughly 780 BCE- 480 BCE) that substantially framed Chinese socio-psychology.  As a result of Confucius' influence on the Chinese psyche, and, as an extension, the concept of identity (individual and national), Qüfu has become a popular destination for self-pilgrimage within China.  In a similar manner, Mt. Tai (泰山), also located in Shandong province, is a hot spot for self-exploration for individuals of Chinese heritage.  Being that China is rapidly becoming a global powerhouse, if not one already, the search for self-identity has probably become more critical for Chinese nationals.  To help CIEE participants understand some Chinese ways of thinking, CIEE scheduled a three-daygroup excursion to Qüfu, Mt. Tai, and Dashiqiao Village (大石桥村), titled “Chinese National Imagination, and Personal Pilgrimage/中华民族的想象与个人朝圣之旅”.  What follows is a brief recollection of this voyage of self- pilgrimage through the eyes of an American philosophy student. 

Our pilgrimage started on Sept. 19 at 5:15 AM as we drove through the empty streets of Beijing to Beijing’s South Railway station to take a high-speed train to Qüfu.  The train ride to Qüfu was relatively quick, and the landscape became more and more rural.  When we arrived in Qüfu the first thing I noticed and appreciated most was the clear, blue skies.  During the drive to the hotel, I kept noticing the same Confucius’ saying written on advertisements and banners:  Isn’t it pleasant to have friends come from afar? (有朋自远方来,不亦乐乎?).  This saying was also displayed above our hotel’s entrance.  Even though the original meaning of this quote, according to a few Western philosophers, is the pleasure of seeing different mindsets or viewpoints on an issue, this quote, in a modern sense and connected to our trip’s theme, can be understood as warmly accepting strangers (“friends”) as they undergo their search of self- understanding and their Chinese identity.  After eating breakfast, the day’s activities consisted of visiting the Kong Family Mansion, the Confucius Temple, the Kong family cemetery, some free time, and Mid-Autumn festival activities.

CIEE Beijing - Temple of Confucius
Entering the Temple of Confucius

Visiting the Kong Family Mansion and Confucius Temple was exciting, but truth be told, after visiting numerous temples, they all start to blur into one.  For me though, as a philosophy student, being able to see stone writings of Confucius scholars was pretty awesome.  In contrast, standing on the Kong family burial ground, was breathtaking, especially standing next to Confucius’ tomb and being able to see the hut that his students supposedly lived in and watched over him after his death.  This was meaningful to me because it brought numerous texts I’ve read on Confucius thought into reality.  Plus, on a grim note, it was Confucius’ burial site, a highly influential Asian philosopher of equity.  So standing within 10 feet of what remains of a highly influential thinker was awe-inspiring.  Besides the loud chitchat of other tourists, the atmosphere of the Kong cemetery was peaceful and, with all the lush, green vegetation, had a sense of blissful rebirth; as if when one identity ends another begins.  I would like to add though that it seemed odd that a cemetery would be considered a tourist site.  Shouldn’t it be a place of eternal rest and respected from a distance?   Anyway, after a full packed day of Confucius-oriented sightseeing, we had dinner at a restaurant near our hotel and did Mid-Autumn day festival activities arranged by our CIEE teachers. The activities included teams of students drawing our CIEE teachers’ faces on a blank sheet of paper, with one student blindfolded and others guiding them by yelling directions, and another was where we sat in a circle and tossed around a small bean bag. Whoever had a small bean bag after the music stopped playing had to get up and do something, such as sing a song or dance.   Some sang Chinese songs and others danced.  I was lucky enough not to be caught with the pillow, thankfully!          

After the first day’s activities were done, a few classmates and I went in search of ice cream.  Our search for ice cream was unsuccessful, but, I’ve been told, that the journey is as, or even more, important than the end result.  While we were in search of ice cream, we stumbled across a popular early morning and evening activity for middle-aged/older Chinese:  synchronized, public group dancing.  My classmates decided to participate in two dances, while I stood on the sideline and observed the locals’ reactions.  It was fun for us, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t enjoy us essentially crashing their activity.  In a symbolic sense, this was a means for us, as foreigners, to understand the Chinese psyche and cultural customs through movement.  Everyone’s (excluding my classmates’) movements were perfectly in sync with the music and with each other.  Moreover, nightly dancing in the streets seems to be a Chinese cultural phenomenon.  For instance, last summer in Beijing, I participated in public group dancing against my will on two difference occasions.  It’s definitely a community-building tool, and, you could go as far as to say, it’s a means to understand your national identity and your identity within a group.

The second day of the trip we were either on the bus or in the countryside.  The bus ride was long and the scenery outside was the same thing over and over again:  small villages and towns with corn everywhere on the streets in massive square piles.  After a few hours we finally arrived at Dashiqiao Village, the village where we would be spending the day.  While in Dashiqiao, our CIEE teachers had us divided into small groups, with whom we would harvest corn with our village hosts, eat lunch in their homes, and then as a larger group, visit the Daoist Temple Daiyangguan (岱阳观).

We began walking to the corn fields as soon as we arrived. When harvesting corn, you had to be conscious of your surroundings and your group members’; getting hit in the head with an ear of corn hurts.  Also, it’s a very systematic process (i.e. pick corn, throw corn into the collective pile, repeat) and you usually get lost in thought.   While harvesting corn, I was thinking about home and that maybe I don’t enjoy experiencing rural China as much as I previously assumed I would. In retrospect, I believe these thoughts definitely hinder my understanding of Chinese identity, because rural China is in many ways the, or at least, a defining point of Chinese identity, because China is still largely an agricultural-based society.  Come to think of it, this is probably why going to Dashiqiao was included in the trip’s itinerary: to allow us, as CIEE students, to experience the roots of Chinese life. After harvesting corn, we ate a homemade lunch with our families, and then walked to the Daoist temple Daiyangguan, where CIEE arranged for one of the villagers to tell us the history of their town’s temple.  As I said, this was a Daoist Temple. Daoism (or Taoism) is a Chinese school of thought that, in many ways, is in opposition to Confucius thinking.  Daoism teaches one to follow the natural way (the Dao) and that the Dao that you are able to know is not the real Dao.  The temple was interesting because it blended Daoist and Buddhist ideologies into one artistic expression, which our Resident Director, Dr. Patrick Lucas, described was common all across China.  I thought that the halls depicting the grisly scenes of hell, deities torturing unrighteous individuals, and the statues of the most prominent hellish deities, were some of the coolest aspects of the temple.  It was a little too ominous though, because of the statues’ fierce expressions bearing down on you unmercifully.  In many ways, it was comparable to Chinese people in the subways just un-ashamedly staring straight at you until you or they get off the train.  It’s a little unsettling.     

After the Daoist temple, we returned to the village, and then continued our journey to Tai’an (泰安), the city where Mt. Tai is located.  That night we went to an outdoor performance about the cultural history and significance of Mt. Tai.  According to the story told during the performance, the voyage to the top of Mt. Tai was, in some ways, a means of passage for past emperors and government officials that goes back over two-thousand years, as climbing Mt. Tai was a passage for emperors to receive the mandate of heaven in order to rule. Doing so now, was a way for modern Chinese to connect to that grand past.  The next morning we also went on this means of passage in the rain.  Some of us took a cable car up, others walked up.  Taking a cable car seemed like I would be cheating myself out of experiencing the significance of Mt. Tai, so I climbed to the top in the cold rain.   I think I stopped a few times, to either rest or take photos with Chinese people.

CIEE Beijing - Top of Mt. Tai
Celebrating a victory over 泰山 (Mt. Tai)

While walking up Mt. Tai, because the mist was so dense, you couldn’t really see anything besides what was in front of you and what was behind you.  After an hour of walking in the rain up steep, uneven stairs, I finally reached the top of Mt. Tai, soaked and cold.  Because the mist was unexpectedly thick at the top, there was no scenic view, just grey abyss.  I’m sure there are ways that you can symbolize the fog as an expression of identity, but I can’t think of any besides that maybe self-discovery should be an inward endeavor and not an outward one. Thus, you shouldn’t have to go on an actual, planned voyage to discover who you are as a person, just dive into the depths of your psychological disposition.   In other words, don’t search outward, because there’s nothing there but grey abyss.  Cheesy concept, I know.

After descending Mt. Tai, our planned activities were done and we returned to the polluted chaos that is Beijing.  However, our pilgrimage to understanding ourselves wasn’t over, or maybe it hadn’t even started.  This trip to Qüfu, Dashiqiao, and Mt. Tai allowed us to experience the Chinese pilgrimage, and as a foreigner with no Chinese heritage, I can understand it and respect it, but I once again realized I am unable to fully experience it or to have as deep of an experience as a Chinese person might.  As I mentioned before with the Kong family cemetery, a lot of the places we went to seemed like tourist spots, which seemed to degrade their importance as locations in helping a Chinese national or someone with Chinese heritage understand their identity as a Chinese individual.  On the contrary, maybe these historical sites being easy to accept (just buy a ticket and you’re in) gives the Chinese people going on this identity pilgrimage a sense of self or what it means to be Chinese.

As a philosophy student studying in Beijing, I ask myself, every day, in some way or another, “who am I, who am I really?  What am I doing in Beijing?”

And since this trip I have caught myself questioning when does my pilgrimage start… 

11/28/2013

A Student's Perspective: CIEE Beijing's Excursion to the Countryside: "Environment and Governance in Rural China"

Nat Henry is a junior from The Ohio State University triple majoring in Chinese, Geograpic Information Systems, and Geography. This fall he is a student in the CIEE Beijing Intensive Chinese Language program.  Every semester, students have a choice to participate in different excursions around China focusing on a certain theme. See the blog of Nat's classmate Sean about the other optional trip to Dalian. Nat chose to participate on the excursion titled, "Environment and Rural Governance in China/中国的环境与农村管治".  Students from the CIEE Beijing Advanced Chinese Studies program, and the CIEE Beijing Environmental, Cultural, and Economic Sustainability program also participated on this excursion. CIEE Beijing Center Director Dr. Patrick Lucas, whose research includes historical memory and narrative, and cultural survival and endangerment in China, designed and led this excursion that took students to rural Shanxi and Hebei provinces. Nat agreed to write a blog describing not only what fun activities they did as a group, but also what meaningful things he took away from the experience from spending nearly four days in the countryside.

CIEE Beijing - Late Afternoon Hike
CIEE students and staff explore some hills near a sheep farm in rural Shanxi province.

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It was the final day of our trip in rural Shanxi and Hebei provinces, and we were headed to an old mountaintop temple, but our van’s driver was more interested in discussing the black sludge covering the surrounding slopes. He filled us in on how the sludge came to be: according to him, several years ago, a corporation managed to pay off the right local officials and illegally moved into these mountains. It stripped the hills of their vegetation and some useful minerals, churned out an undetermined product for a while, and then quietly moved out when the operation was no longer profitable. All that it left behind were huge piles of pitch-black, toxic industrial byproduct. After every rainfall, the gunk washes into the local stream, feeds into a larger river, and from what he said, eventually ends up in Beijing.

CIEE Beijing - Rural mining
Looking down from the mountaintop temple at the mining activity below.

I wanted to know exactly how many people are ingesting this poisonous waste, but right then we arrived at the base of the mountain, and it was time to climb. Our CIEE Center Director, Dr. Patrick Lucas, pointed to a pile of ceramic tiles next to the path and told us each to grab a few: by bringing them to the top, we’d be helping out the old man who was single-handedly rebuilding the temple. As I sweated up the steep dirt path and finally laid my tiles on the temple floor, my thoughts drifted between the sludge and that old man. There was a pretty obvious contrast between a guy who devotes the rest of his life to a place and us foreign students who were just passing through. During this excursion, aptly titled “Environment and Rural Governance in China”, we had been learning about the environment and rural governance for the past few days, but as travelers, what power did we really have to change the problems we were learning about? Were we really just glorified tourists who used education as a pretext to see the sights before leaving?

CIEE Beijing - Nat and classmate carry tiles
Nat, second, in the long-sleeved shirt, carries tiles up to the temple.
CIEE Beijing - Students sit atop temple
Students sit atop the temple. Nat is pictured in the foreground, far left.

My impotence to solve rural problems was particularly apparent two days before, when we spent a day living and working in a village located on a mountainous divide between Shanxi and Hebei provinces.. I and two other CIEE students stayed in a loess-soil earth dwelling (窑洞) with a farmer named Mr. Wang and his wife, Ms. Gao. Since it was only the five of us, we got the chance to really talk – first while making lunch together, and then sharing one of the best meals I’ve ever had.

CIEE Beijing - Nat's Host Mother
Nat's host mother, Ms. Gao, takes a rest from harvesting potatoes.

I figured out how useless we really were when we followed Mr. Wang and Ms. Gao out to the fields and tried to help them out with the potato harvest. After a lot of back-and-forth protesting, they demanded that we first go to the top of the hill to look at the scenery, and when we came back they would have some work for us. We came back once, then twice, and after an hour no work had materialized. I thought that they were just being polite at first, and then realized that we would only have slowed them down. When I went to help out an elderly couple harvest in another field, I was ridiculously outpaced by a grandmother in her late seventies. One lesson I took from the harvest was that I’m an awful potato farmer and, more generally, a fish out of water pretty much anywhere in rural China. If I couldn’t effectively work in the fields with Mr. Wang and Ms. Gao, then what purpose did I serve other than a temporary curiosity?

CIEE Beijing - Students Walk Home After Harvesting Potatoes
Nat, right, and his classmates walk back from harvesting potatoes.

Mr. Wang and Ms. Gao were clearly happy together, and they were rightfully proud of their accomplishments, but their lives were by no means easy.  Their toilet was a hole in the ground next to a goat pen, and their water had to be pumped in from another hillside. They both got up at 5 AM to start the day’s work and had no chance to rest until the sun had gone down. Additionally, their electricity was pretty tenuous: you could have the television on in their living room, or turn on the light, but generally not both at the same time.

It turns out that the electricity could have been a lot better – but once again, a combination of business and poor governance had made things a lot harder for the town. The mountains surrounding the village were covered with windmills, which seemed at first glance to be an idyllic and green way to generate power for the surrounding towns. As my professor later told us, they’re absolutely awful. They were built as a purely money-making operation and provide power for high-demand cities to the east. Their construction (and the construction of the roads and wiring needed to maintain them) destroyed the mountaintop’s fragile ecology, which will never be recovered. To seemingly add salt to the wound, the windmill deal occurred at the provincial level and completely cut local towns out of the deal. When I first asked Mr. Wang whether his town was powered by the windmills, I got a surprisingly curt “no.” In a more ideal arrangement, the villagers could have served as maintenance workers in exchange for minimal free power usage every month. Instead, they get nothing.

CIEE Beijing - Windmills' sillouette in the early evening sky
Windmills sit above potato fields as the sun sets.

So who does this? Well oddly enough, I had met someone who could possibly fit the bill of a government official who could consummate such one-sided deals. We were in the provincial town of Tianzhen (天镇县), and I was out with a few other students looking for a post-dinner snack. We were clearly some of the first foreigners to visit the town, and as we made our way down a local block, local storeowners abandoned their registers to come out and look at us. All of a sudden, an unmarked black Nissan with darkened windows pulled up beside us, and two burly-looking men get out. As the student in the group with the best Chinese, I’m assigned to talk to them.

The man in the passenger seat was named whose surname was also Gao (no relation to my village host mother), and he confided in me with a wink that he’s a former military officer.  All of his friends are higher-ups in Beijing now, he told me, but he decided to come out and work in the countryside. He repeated everything he said two or three times, perhaps because he thought that I couldn’t understand him, or because he had possibly been drinking heavily. While we talked, the driver of the car (who seemed to be intoxicated, too) was making his way around my group of friends and aggressively shaking our hands. After we repeatedly refused to go to the Great Wall with them, Mr. Gao gave me his phone number, promised to call me when he visits his military friends in Beijing, and drove off into the night.

CIEE Beijing - Tianzhen
A view of Tianzhen in Shanxi province.

The contrast between these men and the farmers in the village is stark. Mr. Gao and his pal were seemingly breaking the law in plain sight; Mr. Wang and his neighbors  work for 16 hours a day, only to receive the short end of less than equitable deals made at higher levels of the government. Even writing this back in Beijing, the fact that Mr. Gao, the local government official, is getting rich on the backs of people like my host parents still bothers me.

Looking back, I think that one purpose of the trip was to make us care. While examining rural governance and its effects on the environment and the rural population, when I see two men using a rural city as their personal playground, the problem of corruption becomes patently obvious. When the farmer who kindly hosted my classmates and I is getting treated unfavorably through questionable government deals, it really hits home and illuminates the problem in a way that a textbook or newspaper article cannot. When I haul a few tiles up a mountain, just a few out of thousands needed for the temple, I become invested in that temple’s reconstruction. And when a mountain of sludge is filtering into a stream, traveling downriver, and possibly winding up in the up in the water I drink every day, it’s suddenly apparent how many people are affected by these problems.

As I discovered, I’m awful at harvesting potatoes. I can, however, write and speak Chinese. Before I leave Beijing before I hope to have the opportunity to engage in discussions with my peers, some of whom may eventually inherit China, about what I saw in the countryside. Having gotten a glimpse of how things are outside of Beijing and how they affect every day people, it was really powerful and something I will never forget. Hopefully, because of this, we can think of new ways to go about solving some of the issues I encountered.

Thus, perhaps it is appropriate for me to end this where I began. Back at the base of the mountain, I asked our driver why the locals hadn’t done something about the illegal factories, and he got even angrier. “We have no power here! Who are we supposed to turn to?” He looked up the hillside. “The best hope we have is for that temple to get rebuilt. If a lot of tourists visit, they will notice how badly things have gone wrong here, and maybe there will be a change.”

CIEE Beijing - Nat, Classmates and Family
Nat, far right, and his classmate, Takayuki, second from left, pose for a picture with their host family.

11/27/2013

A Student's Perspective: CIEE Beijing's Excursion to Dalian: "Urbanization and Dream for Modernity"

Sean Largey is a junior from Georgetown University majoring in International Politics. This fall he is a student in the CIEE Beijing Intensive Chinese Language program.  Every semester, students have a choice to participate in different excursions around China focusing on a certain theme. He chose to participate on the excursion titled, "Urbanization and Dream for Modernity/城市化与中国现代梦". CIEE Resident Director KuoRay Mao, whose research includes globalization and sustainability in China, designed and led this excursion. Sean agreed to write a blog describing not only what fun activities they did as a group, but also what meaningful things he took away from the experience.

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CIEE Beijing - Sean and Classmate
Sean, right, and his CIEE classmate take in the fresh ocean air!

Historically significant port. Scenic views of the Pacific Ocean. Old-style trolley cars plying the streets. Infamous prison now preserved as a museum. Large Chinese population. San Francisco? Wrong! The city of Dalian in China.

Today the fourth-largest port in China, Dalian (大连) has one of the shortest, yet most colorful histories of any major Chinese city. Sitting above China’s northernmost warm water port in Liaoning province, the area that is now Dalian drew the attention of the Russian Empire, which in 1898 leased the port from Qing-dynasty China to serve as a naval base. Not long after, the Japanese wrested Dalian from the Russians in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. From then until the end of World War II, the Japanese expanded Dalian into an administrative center for their imperialism in Northeast Asia. The Japanese defeat in 1945 restored Dalian to China, though true control of the city fell to the Soviet Union, which demanded a lease of the port and built up heavy industry in the region. Only after the gradual souring of Sino-Soviet relations did China reassume full sovereignty over the city.

Having exchanged hands so often, Dalian witnessed and was transformed by several competing visions of modernization. Over the National Day holiday, I was among the group of students that participated in the CIEE-led excursion to Dalian, to explore this theme. Under the leadership of Dr. KuoRay Mao, a CIEE Resident Director in Beijing, students spent three days exploring the city, and exploring the theme of our excursion: “Urbanization and Dream for Modernity.” CIEE arranged a variety of activities – visiting sites that ranged from over a century in age to just a few years – to let our group see first-hand the different development paths Dalian has followed over its history.

On Wednesday, October 2, we departed from Beijing for Dalian by overnight train. (For those who have never traveled by train in China before, the first night in hard sleeper class is always an interesting experience.) We arrived in Dalian at around 7:30 the following morning and drove to our hotel by van. The Russian goal in designing Dalian was to construct a “Paris of the East.” As such, the street grid resembled the Parisian model: many boulevards crisscrossing and intersecting at roundabouts. My own first impression of the city on that first drive was to note that it is certainly built-up, if perhaps lacking some of the glitz one finds in the architecture of Beijing and Shanghai.

After checking into the hotel, our first destination was Dalian’s old harbor. By the harbor there is an old building in the Western Neoclassical style. In fact, it was constructed by the Japanese, who in the heyday of their empire equated “Western” with “modern.” This building once served as Dalian’s customs office, yet the world has changed around it. Shipping has moved up the coast to the new harbor, and developers have filled in much of the old harbor in order to put up more apartment high-rises. This is indicative of an economic shift in the region: though Dalian is still a large and critical port, as Dr. Mao explained, much of its economy is based upon seaside real estate.

CIEE Beijing - Xinghai Square Construction
Construction cranes tower above park-goers.

The next stop revealed as much. We drove to an overlook in the Dongshan Scenic Area that afforded us not only great vistas of the Pacific Ocean, but also a panoramic view of Dalian itself. From there we saw street upon street of new apartments (like the picture above) and still more sprouting up. Dr. Mao shared the fact that only around thirty percent of those apartments are occupied, meaning that much of the city stretched out before us was essentially a mirage. The Chinese real estate bubble is much discussed in the Western media nowadays, yet here that abstraction was made manifest before our very eyes.

CIEE Beijing - Dalian Scenic Panoramic
A panoramic perspective of Dalian's modernization

We left Dongshan to eat lunch and then proceeded to Xinghai Square (星海广场), the largest city square in the world. Greatly inflating the prices of the surrounding real estate, the square is the brainchild of a recently imprisoned Chinese politician, who got his political start as mayor of Dalian. At one end of the square is a procession of bronze footprints leading to the sea, terminating atop a large structure resembling both and open book and a pair of wings—metaphors for Dalian’s glorious future. The footprints were cast from Dalian residents aged one to over one hundred. A pair of the imprisoned mayor’s own footprints march along with the rest, and had been gilded before his fall from grace. Yet to those who know where to look, other symbols of his challenge to Beijing’s authority remain: the square itself dwarfs Tiananmen and at its center is a huabiao (华表) in mimicry of those found at the Forbidden City. This same man was also the one responsible for the glittering convention center we saw from the old harbor earlier in the morning.

CIEE Beijing - Dalian Footprints-Sean
Park-goers surround the bronze footprints.
CIEE Beijing - Dalian Xinghai Square Kites
Kites being flown in Xinghai Square.
CIEE Beijing - Xinghai Square Huabiao
The Xinghai Square Huabiao towers above park-goers.

Just off Xinghai Square is a museum devoted to the history of Dalian. The exhibit housed artifacts dating from Dalian’s genesis as a fishing village, through the periods of Russian, Japanese, and Chinese rule down to the modern day. Afterwards we made a final stop at the circle that has historically been Dalian’s central business district. This was ringed by more Japanese-built, Neoclassical buildings, nearly all of which have become branches of major Chinese and international banks. Done for the day, students were then free to get dinner and explore the city on their own.

CIEE Beijing - Dalian Foreign Bank
Banking in style!
CIEE Beijing - Dalian City Skyline Panoramic
A view of Dalian's central business district.

On Friday, our group met for breakfast, then set off to drive Binhai Rd. (滨海路). This scenic coastal drive runs atop cliffs overlooking the Pacific. At one point along the road, we left our van to walk around and enjoy the cool sea breeze, a refreshing respite from the air of inland Beijing! From there, we continued our drive all the way down to the southernmost tip of the Liaodong peninsula. The British had constructed a lighthouse here at the point where the Bay of Bohai meets the Yellow Sea. Walking down a long flight of stairs, we descended the cliffs to stand amidst the salt and spray and look out on the imaginary boundary.

CIEE Beijing - Dalian Seaside Shot
Escaping to the seaside off of Binhai Rd!

The afternoon we spent touring Lüshun (旅顺), better known in the West as Port Arthur. Once a separate city, Lüshun was the military port of the old Russian leasehold, before the Chinese subsequently merged its administration with that of Dalian, the civilian port. After a hearty lunch at a local restaurant, we visited the first item on our Lüshun itinerary: the Russo-Japanese prison.

Originally constructed by the Russians, this prison essentially developed into a concentration camp under Japanese rule. Within these walls, the Japanese colonizers abused and executed many Chinese and Koreans, as well as Japanese political dissidents. The prison contained all of the unsavory elements one would expect: dark cells, a torture chamber, medical wards for experimentation on human subjects, and a gallows. The complex stands as testimony to another kind of modernization—the mechanical, social Darwinist modernization of the early 20th Century. Most interesting from my perspective was how the CCP has attempted to co-opt the suffering of the Chinese at this place. As Dr. Mao pointed out, although the mistreatment of prisoners is a historical fact, the prison was never known for having jailed Communists. Nevertheless, the prison museum contains many poems allegedly written by “party members” who suffered there at the hands of the Japanese.

The next stop was the top of Baiyu Shan (白玉山). Atop this hill the Japanese constructed a monument commemorating their conquest of Dalian/Lüshun during the Russo-Japanese War. Looking out from the hill, we could see the entirety of Lüshun and imagine the course of the siege that raged there for months. Below the hill is the harbor, and from such a vantage point it is easy to see why so many imperial powers would have coveted it. Yet where Russian and Japanese warships once fought for regional dominance, the Chinese North Sea fleet now lay quietly at anchor. As the sun set, we made a final stop at the terminus of the South Manchuria Railway, one of the first in China, then returned to Dalian.

CIEE Beijing - Dalian City Port Panoramic
Taking in the breathtaking views in Lüshun.

The group enjoyed a delicious dinner together that featured fresh seafood jiaozi (dumplings). After dinner, students were once again free to explore on their own and the majority of us chose to return to Xinghai Square. We enjoyed ourselves at the small amusement park near the square, which in my opinion had educational value to it—everyone left knowing the Mandarin for “bumper cars” and “let’s go again!”

CIEE scheduled the final day in Dalian as a free day for students to explore as they wish. Possible activities included visiting the zoo, watching dolphins perform at the aquarium, and eating in a revolving restaurant. I personally went with a group of fellow students to explore more of old Dalian. After a breakfast at a quaint café we had discovered the previous night, we went down to the Russian part of the city. This part of the city retains many old buildings constructed in an imperial Russian style and is now the site of a large street market. While similar to many markets found elsewhere in China, this street is unique for featuring quintessentially Russian products: matryoshka dolls, ushankas, and even Vladimir Putin playing cards.

CIEE Beijing - Dalian City Aquarium Penguins II
A penguin at the aquarium swims on over for a closer look.

Dalian’s proximity to Korea contributes to its large Korean population, and we found a Korean barbecue restaurant at which to have lunch. Afterwards, we took a ride on the city’s streetcar system. The Russians laid down the first streetcar tracks at the turn of the century, and they have been in continuous operation in Dalian ever since. There are modern streetcars that ply the lines, but many of the original 20th Century cars are still in service, retrofitted to meet the demands of a 21st Century city.

CIEE Beijing - Dalian Street Car I-Sean
A street car shares the street with taxis, buses, cars and road construction!

Everyone reassembled in the afternoon for departure. We ate dinner of seafood noodles at a restaurant near the train station and then boarded the train for Beijing, soft sleeper class this time. By 7:00 the following morning, we were all back at the campus of Peking University.

Dalian offers something for everyone: modern landscaping for the architect, Great Power battlefields for the historian, scenic views and fresh air for the naturalist. Yet at all sites, the one constant is how profoundly Dalian has been shaped by competing visions of what a modern city and a modern society should be. The Russians, the Japanese, and politicians on the wrong side of the law have all left their marks on this unique city. As Chinese leaders seek to articulate a new path for their country, Dalian will continue to evolve along with this next phase of modernization.

CIEE Beijing - Dalian Group Shot
Sean, second from right, stands with his CIEE classmates and CIEE Resident Director, Dr. KuoRay Mao (far right).

03/12/2013

Mental Disabilities in China: A Visit to a Beijing Autism Institute

The morning began for everyone at 7:30.

Students from CIEE's semesterlong programs in Beijing were invited to participate in a CIEE-arranged visit to the Hongyuan Qizhi Children's Autism Recovery Center (link in Chinese) in the eastern county of Tongzhou.

In all, 30 students and 7 CIEE staff members attended the trip. After losing an hour of travel time to a wrong turn and hacing to exit the bus to clear a securitycheckpoint due to the convening 12th People's Congress in central Beijing, we made it to the school.

As educators, we strive to arrange activities for students that can help them engage China in a real and meaningful way

The purpose of this trip was to show students an aspect of China that is not readily accessible for them. Participants were able to give a bit of encouragement to the teachers and families, and to enrich the lives of the youth just a little bit, and as it happens most times during service activities like this one, our students get something out of it too.

 When we arrived, things were already a bit chaotic. The top floor which houses the students indoor play areas, was bustling with approximately 40 students ages 2 - 15 running about with teachers in tow.  Almost immediately, we encountered unexpected social behaviors (to us, at least)  someone wanting a hug, or insisting on looking in your bag or camera 

After a brief lunch with the students, we engaged in another play session that lasted for a little less than an hour.

The principal of the school, Mr. Li then came to talk to us about his troubles running the school. As a privately run institute, it faces many challenges, and even staying open is a struggle given funding limitations and social prejudice. Even though this institute was set up primarily for autistic children, yet due to wide lack of support for children with virtually any developmental disability in China, youth with all sorts of backgrounds are in fact at this facility.

For me personally, it pushed me out of my comfort zone (in a good way). I was a little unsure on how I should engage the kids. Given the wide variety of disabilities at the school (as mentioned above), there are two extremes. Some may giggle and throw a ball at you when you are not looking and then run away like any normal 8 year old, while another kid has never said a word in her life and is content sitting on a bench by herself.

What I saw required one to be non-threatening, taking a step back initially, and follow their lead while also being assertive in conveying to them your desire to engage.

It is not that they are unable to interact or engage with us and others, it is in fact we who have not figured out how to engage them yet.

While everyone got something different out of it, it was definitely a special day for everyone.

***Tune in the next couple of days for pictures from the day at the Autism Institute!