Archives for December 2012

Blast From The Past

Just yesterday I went back and visited the university where I studied during the sumer before my senior year of high school. I was surreal how little had changed. I went with my friend Julie and gave her a tour of my past experience at East China Normal University with my “National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y)” program, a language-intensive study abroad scholarship that I was fortunate enough to participate in when I was just 17.

I explained how different that program was, especially in comparison to our current experience. While our time here has been characterized by getting out and seeing as much of China as possible, the NSLI-Y program was basically an intensive summer school. Though now we have class four days a week, in NSLI-Y it was seven. All of our meals were located at the exact same dining complex just a few feet from our dorms, where we also had class, while now I can eat a huge variety of foods at various restaurants and vendors all around Shanghai. The level of freedom and life experience that results from the structure of the Davidson in China program has allowed me to learn different lessons from my time in China.

I believe that studying abroad is important for any student who wants to expand his or her impression of the world. Having now participated in two very different programs, I can say that there is definitely value in a program that is academic in the traditional sense as well as one that emphasizes getting out and “seeing it for yourself.” While I certainly have never been as good at Chinese than when I was studying it for hours every day that summer, I have also never had such a full or multifaceted understanding of what real life in China is like. During this semester I have had the chance to meet so many interesting people and do countless interesting things, and there is no class that could have taught me those lessons.

Just for fun, here’s some photos of the campus; it was just as beautiful as I remember it, and the inside of the dorm was just as plain!

NPR In China

what is the world beyond Tonghe, our international student dorm?

I have several necessary characteristics that change my dorm room into a home: lighting incense, wearing my wool socks, making tea, and putting on NPR. Like any addict, I go through phases where I listen to hours and hours of NPR. I have been known to listen to NPR during the entire drive from Virginia Beach, my hometown, to Davidson College–that is a solid six hours. Listening to the audio in China has been one of my strangest NPR experiences of all, though. I can listen to NPR and sometimes find out what is happening outside my own window in Shanghai.

Listening to NPR is relatively pretentious, but that doesn’t stop me from loving it.

I listen to NPR for endless reasons: to be better educated, to hear about the world, to fill the silence, or to soothe my boredom. Although I know that bias and perception influence any news story, I have never been more aware of that fact than while listening to NPR stories on China. I have only noticed a few stories on China, and most are in the context of the U.S. What does China mean for the U.S. presidential election? What does China mean for the U.S. fiscal cliff? Although I am living abroad in Shanghai, these stories do not mean much more to me than they did before traveling. These stories are written for Americans with an American education and cultural bias, and I easily fit that model.

Other new stories, though, have become exponentially more meaningful to me since coming to China. Stories that I used to ignore now represent and mean so much. For example, there was a very brief recent story on Haagen-Dazs winning an infringement lawsuit in China. General Mills, the owner of Haagen-Dazs, sued a clothing company named Harga-Dazs for name infringement. If I lived in the United States, I would not think twice about such a short snippet. But since living in Shanghai for four months, I can see more and more how small snippets like that one relate to the greater themes of globalization, intellectual property, shanzai (a name for Chinese copycat products), and cultural heritage.

As I thought about returning home to the United States, I reflected on how my study abroad experience will translate to my home life. I realized that studying abroad has changed my life in countless ways, even with small moments like listening to NPR. Studying abroad has widened my perspective on an infinite number of topics, and even  the most mundane details, like eating Haagen-Dasz ice cream, will now have a more global meaning for me.


While the Group was Away…

This past weekend I stayed behind while most of the group traveled to Meixian. You know exactly what happened. That’s right, a trip to Han City. This outing was long overdue.

Myself, Shanel, Nicky, and Chai Lu set out early Friday morning. I don’t think any of us had been up so early on a Friday since we arrived in Shanghai. Before we arrived at Han City we made a pit stop at the South Bund Fabric Market. I toyed with the idea of having a winter coat made, but I didn’t like the shop girl’s attitude or price, so I opted out.

The visit to Han City was quite interesting. Maybe I had high expectations for the quality of goods, but many  vendors’ goods failed to live up to my standards. Thankfully, I was able to find a few items I liked. Like always, I bargained until I got the price I wanted. I am especially proud of one item, but again, I can’t let you see it. 🙂

This shopping trip I realized the benefits in group shopping. Nicky and Shanel took us to their friend’s shop. Due to the friendship formed between Nicky, Shanel, and the store owner, Cindy, we made several purchases without much bargaining. I was able to purchase a very nice “something” from Cindy at a price I knew she would never sell to anyone else except maybe family or longtime friend.

While Nicky made his purchases, Chai Lu bought iPhone cases. After she returned and we finalized our purchases, Chai Lu took me to the iPhone booth. With a little reminder to the shop keeper of the price she paid, Chai Lu was able to get me the same price. I found exactly what I wanted for only $3. And of course, I couldn’t leave with just one.

Later on I purchased Converse tennis shoes for 50¥. When Ben decided he wanted a pair, I took him to the same shop. Even though the seller tried to say I paid 55¥, Ben left with 50¥ Converses. I knew exactly how much I paid. Don’t let them play games with you.

I found a few parallels between Han City and Qipu. Bargaining goes without saying. At both places I have my preferred booths or stores, and I don’t feel the need to look elsewhere. Yes, my preferred stores are the ones with the best quality, but don’t worry, that just means more aggressive bargaining.

If I have to choose between the two, I enjoy Qipu more than Han City. Han City is for tourists, and I don’t enjoy bargaining with a tourist price. Qipu caters to the Chinese consumer. You can find a few westerners sprinkled here and there, but for the most part, Qipu serves as a cheaper alternative to H&M, Zara, and UniQlo. I thoroughly enjoy taking advantage of that.

Recently, my mom asked me about the quality of my new clothes and “fake” goods. I told her that if you know where to go, then it’s quite simple to find good quality at a decent price. Always remember to bargain, no matter the store. It doesn’t matter how many times you have purchased items from your favorite store, the sellers will always give you an initial rip-off price.

Believe it or not, this past weekend was not my last visit to Han City. In order to haul all my new clothes and such home, I need a new suitcase. Shocker! Let’s see if I can get the one I want for 150¥.

These Niggas Won’t Hold Me Back

As our departure date approaches a lot faster than we want it to, we all have started making an inventory of what we will miss the most. In my case, one of Shanghai’s amenities that I will miss the most is the ease of transportation. Getting around Shanghai is a lot easier and cheaper than in New York, D.C., and Paris. A bus fare only cost ¥2 ($.30); the metro only costs ¥4 ($.60) and a cabs start at ¥14 ($2.25) (no charge for carrying goods in their trunk). However, there is a downside to this: every time you step on the street, you’re risking your life. Indeed, Shanghai (and China in general) embodies the characteristics of both a 3rd world country and developed nation. So while there are good roads, traffic lights and more than adequate signs; the people themselves still have the same mentality drivers in 3rd world countries (without dangerous roads) have. To read more about this, please see Shanel’s article.

Personally, I find that the benefits outweigh the downsides. As a student, I’d rather pay what I pay here for transport rather than what I pay in the aforementioned city; especially if that only means me being more attentive to what’s going on around me.

Besides, the subway lines here are relatively new and clean compared to the ones I’ve travelled in prior to Shanghai.

Unfortunately, the other day, I had an unpleasant experience in the subway; one I had only had in Western subways, and that I didn’t think I’d go through here.

We usually board the train at a station where it’s still quite empty. I was by myself and as the train kept filling up, I noticed that there was an empty seat next to me that no one wanted to take. Initially, I tried to convince myself that it was just coincidence, that people just didn’t feel like sitting. However, I began to notice people notice the empty seat, then look at me and decide to just stand. At first I was confused because in the past, people just go right away sit next to me like it’s nothing. So what was going on? Especially since no one could have made the case that I look menacing: I was dress in business casual, on my way to teach Coco, the 9 year old girl I volunteered to tutor English to. And then it clicked: for the first time, I was in the subway by myself. Usually, Coco’s mother picks me up (in her magnificent Beamer) or pays for my cab fare.

So what difference does it makes whether I’m in there by myself or not? Why am I not threatening when around my peers, but intimidating when riding solo? As people kept eyeing that empty spot all while wishing I wasn’t next to it, I came to the [what seemed to be the most logical] conclusion: it was racism.

Indeed, if you read Shanel’s article on the Chinese’s opinion of AFRICAN people, you will be shocked at the terms used to describe motherlanders. Which led me to this theory: when with my American friends, I’m given the benefit of the doubt; I could be a black American, which is considered cool. I could be Obama’s son, Beyonce’s brother or Shaq’s cousin. But if my dark self is riding the subway alone, I’m most likely Idi Amine’s son; I probably have AIDS and stink. That was my first negative skin color-related experience in China. I decided to get over it since I was going to teach an innocent 9 year old. After all, I’m hoping that by the time kids her age are my age, mentalities regarding race will change once and for all, and racial issues will no longer be a commonality. However, that wasn’t enough to encourage me. As I went through her English workbook, I noticed that one of the characters was a black kid; a vain attempt to provide the student with a diverse set of characters. But take a look at what the kid looked like.

A vignette from Tintin in Congo

Obviously not a flattering depiction of black people. Now I understand why Chinese kids are confused when they see me: they go from seeing the picture above, to seeing me. I’d be confused too.  The worst part is that if one looked at black people’s portraits during the Mao era, they were drawn very humanely. Why then, has backtracking taken place? Why did Chinese “art” go from an accurate, normal depiction of black people in the Mao era, to a racist, insulting one in 2012? I can firmly assert and blame it on the West. Indeed, the only thing that has changed is the penetration of Western culture in China.

So is racism imported from the West? I don’t know. I don’t even care. It’s just frustrating and annoying. I can read/write a 1000 books and have a 100 intellectual conversations about the issue: it still won’t solve anything. As long as the White man keeps pillaging our homelands and financing our genocidal leaders, we Africans will never be able to rise and show what we’re really capable of. And maybe they know that… Maybe that’s why we’re treated like and kept head under $h!t. *drops mic, walks out*

Pieces of History: The Terra-cotta Warriors

The Emperor Qin Shi Huang’s Mausoleum Site Museum is the home of China’s largest and richest burial tomb. Day after day, thousands of tourists come to this site to see the world-renowned Terra-cotta Warriors and Horses. Remembered as China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang ruled from 246BCE to 221BCE. He is most famous for unifying China, linking the different sections of the Great Wall, and creating the Terra-cotta Army to protect him in his afterlife.

Qin Shi Huang’s mausoleum was one of the main stops on our program’s trip to Xi’an. Before visiting this site, I knew very little about the Terra-cotta Warriors and Emperor Qin. I had only seen brief sections about the Terra-cotta Warriors on television programs or the warriors photographed in textbooks. When I walked into Pit One, the largest excavation site, my jaw dropped at the scene. The warriors were truly breathtaking. In Pit One there are an estimated 6,000 warriors, and only 1,000 have been recovered so far. Hundreds were lined up within Pit One’s archeological site, and no two figures were the same. Each life-sized soldier had his own unique facial features, clothing style and body build. During our time at the museum, our tour guide, Allen, told us about the history of the Terra-cotta Army. He was able to answer all of our questions and point out details we should not overlook in the archeological sites. Below are some things I learned from at Qin’s mausoleum.

  • In 1974, local Xi’an farmers discovered the Terra-cotta warriors while digging a well near Qin’s mausoleum. They reported the artifacts to the local officials, but they never imagined a whole army underground. I thought the warriors were discovered long before the 1970s. It is hard to believe such a spectacle was hidden for thousands of years. Allen told us that there were no records of the Terra-cotta Army, so there was no reason to search the land around Qin’s burial site.
  • According to Allen, there are stories of other farmers finding parts of the soldiers in the soil before 1974. When these farmers discovered the Terra-cotta Warriors, they only found pieces of the soldiers in the soil. Due to the deep superstitions, the farmers were initially afraid of their findings. They believed that the pieces they encountered were actually demons, monsters or ghosts wanting to haunt them. It is said that one farmer even tied the terracotta soldier parts pieces he found to a tree and shattered them to avoid bad luck and fortune. These farmers wished to erase their findings and did not report the artifacts to local government.
  • When the Terra-cotta soldiers were placed underground, a wooden structure was built on top to hold the ground ceiling from caving in. This structure did not withstand time. According local history, the wooden ceiling was burned and destroyed by looters thousands of years ago. Thus, almost all of the soldiers and horses uncovered and displayed at the museum were broken and had to be restored by archeologists. Only a few of the 6,000 soldiers were actually found in tact. This surprised me. For some reason, I thought the Terra-cotta Warriors were discovered in relatively good conditions inside a large tomb, like a scene from an Indiana Jones movie. But, in hindsight I should have expected the clay warriors to be broken after all of these years. Some untouched sections of the pits were on display to show the original state of the findings. I saw that some of the terra-cotta pieces were larger, such as a whole leg or bust, but most of the pieces were smaller and embedded in the dirt. Allen told us that the restoration process takes about two years. Each piece must be carefully separated from the dirt mounds, cataloged and placed in the right position.
  • The Terra-cotta warriors were all painted when they were first buried. The mono-colored warriors on display were already a spectacle to me. I had a hard time imagining the warriors covered in rich reds, blues, yellows and greens. Over the years, the paint has faded due exposure to light, temperature, and humidity. Some of the soldiers were found with remnants of paint on them, but painted parts faded even more after the pieces were removed from the site. The scientists and archeologists are still researching for better preservation techniques. For instance, the covering on Pit Two did not allow as much light into the excavation site as Pit One. This decreased the artifacts’ exposure to sunlight and humidity. Until a restoration process that protects the paint is perfected, soldiers still buried will remain untouched and underground.

Seeing the Terra-cotta Warriors was an experience I will never forget. I now understand the historic greatness of this archeological find. I look forward to following the progress of future extractions and the development of restoration technology. This historic wonder should be shared with future generations, so keeping the Terra-cotta Army alive and close to their original state is important. I enjoyed my time at the museum so much that I even bought two decorative Terra-cotta Warriors from the museum gift shop. Now, I can enjoy this piece of history when I go home.