What I learned traveling China

Working in journalism and researching my own articles taught me a lot about the political climate, current events, and pop culture of China, but I learned the most about people during my time travelling. I was fortunate to have a part-time work schedule, that allowed me to travel on the weekends with my roommates.

We travelled first to Beijing, to experience the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and other sights filled with tourists from around the world. Since our tour guide to these places spoke Chinese, I could only catch some of the historical facts, but this was one of the first times I really challenged myself to hold conversations in Chinese and learn about the people around me.

We met a 70 year old woman who beat us at several games of Chinese hacky sack while her family cheered her on, and a six year old girl who we called 妹妹 (little sister), who followed us around the Great Wall and made sure to get in every picture we took. Many of the conversations that I had with children shaped my understanding of the language more than conversations with adults. The children didn’t hesitate to correct us — one boy would even copy what we said in an American accent.

After Beijing, we travelled to the Southeastern Guangxi province of China, where we stayed in Guilin and Yangshuo. These places provided a beautiful contrast from the busy city streets of Shanghai and Beijing, and also gave us an opportunity to be fully immersed in Mandarin. Since Shanghai is a highly diverse and international city, people often know a little English and English translations are all over the city.

In Yangshuo, most people we met only knew a few words, and our language skills grew as we paid attention to their conversation. We stayed in hostels, went on hikes, took bamboo boats down the Yulong River, and climbed rice terraces, all while trying to better understand what it means to be in China.

I didn’t learn the answer to all of my questions about China, and if anything I left knowing that it is a far more diverse and nuanced place than most Americans understand. I learned to correct some of the lingering stereotypes I was taught in my childhood. Stories and remarks from relatives and teachers painted it as a country plagued by overpopulation and pollution, whose government brainwashes its people through news and law.

Although these things do exist, these rumors are dangerously oversimplified and don’t give the people of China the credit they deserve. Perhaps the most interesting conversation I had was with the old man sitting next to me on the three-hour flight to Guilin.

 

We spoke in a mixture of limited Chinese and English, and he told me about all the books he has read (over 5,000, he counted). He told me about his daughter, and said that someday he wants to take his family to America, where he can pursue his dream of becoming a teacher. When he talked about China, he didn’t talk like someone who had been brainwashed. He thought that in the next few decades, he would live to see China become a democracy.

I don’t know if this is true or not, but I admired his hope for the future of his country. In fact, it made me feel guilty because I’d just complained about the state of the American government when China doesn’t even have the privilege to choose their leaders.

The man told me not to apologize. We have the privilege of democracy, he said, but that also means we have the duty to stand up when that democracy fails us. It’s something he hopes his daughter will see in China someday.

My time in China taught me that people are not their governments. People are ultimately resourceful enough to find the truth for themselves, smart enough to see the problem with the systems around them, and hopeful enough to work for change. I hope someday that I can continue exploring and learning about China, because I know there are many perspectives and stories I have yet to hear.

The Shanghaiist: online journalism in China

As soon as I was selected for this program, I knew I was interested in being a Journalism intern. I was editor of my high school paper, I love to write, and I wanted to explore how people and news work together in a country that restricts free speech. Even more, I wanted to gain some answers for myself about the world of Journalism.

On my first day working with the Shanghaiist, I didn’t know what to expect. Before coming to China, I had expected that my job would involve shadowing one of the superior editors, learning about the process of creating and publishing an article, and maybe eventually getting to write an article of my own. But when I finally found the Shanghaiist office, my boss assigned me a project almost immediately.

I realized that I was going to be doing everything: researching the article topic, writing the article, finding and editing pictures, adding citations, and even coding with html to perfect the article’s appearance on the Shanghaiist website.

My first story was about the Bollywood wrestling film, Dangal, and its immense popularity in China. Like many of the articles I would write, this one required intensive background research, since I didn’t know what the film was about, never mind the story of its success. In order to write a knowledgeable and accurate piece, I had to look at many different articles, movie descriptions, and reviews before I could form my own perception.

I began to realize that is where journalism in all countries, but especially in China, gets complicated. With a story like Dangal, it was easy to get to the truth. While I still had to check to make sure all of my sources were reliable, it’s much harder to manipulate the truth when dealing with something as straightforward and non-political as a popular movie.

This wasn’t the case with other articles. Before I arrived to work at the Shanghaiist, I expected to be limited in what I could write about online. Instead, I found that I had the freedom to write about any topic and could even choose my own pieces, since independent online newspapers like the Shanghaiist are not controlled by government regulations.

I quickly learned the names of independent, English language news sites like ours that gave credible information and learned to treat government news agencies like Xinhua and People’s Daily with a measure of skepticism.

On the 28th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, I wrote a story about the Taiwanese president’s call for China to acknowledge the massacre, which they have ignored for decades. This was one of my more sensitive topics, especially since the details of the Tiananmen Square massacre are not taught in Chinese schools or addressed by the government.

Of course, the government-controlled media didn’t say anything about this story, so I used information from unregulated Chinese sites and Taiwanese newspapers. The story was published that day and received several angry comments calling me a communist, among other things. And although the Shanghaiist caters mostly to English-speaking readers, I was amazed that something like that story could be accessed — online, unblocked, and for free — by the Chinese public. The Shanghaiist and newspapers like it represent significant steps forward for free speech in China.

Over the course of my internship, I wrote many articles like that one, some more controversial than others. I learned the dangers of letting personal bias creep into journalistic writing and the difficulties of finding truth among a host of sources with their own individual biases. Most of all, I learned that it is the responsibility of the individual to learn how to locate the truth for themselves, whether journalist or reader. It’s one lesson Americans can learn from China.

A first look at life in Shanghai

When my plane landed in Shanghai, I remember feeling instantly overwhelmed. I’d just traveled for nearly seventeen hours across time zones and the Pacific Ocean, and now I faced a multitude of taxi drivers shouting prices in Chinese. I managed to find one who didn’t overcharge me, and as I watched the city lights from the car window I began to understand what a vast, new place I had come to.

Last summer at that time, I would have had no intentions of ever learning Chinese, let alone going to China. My  public high school offered just two languages, both with unimpressive programs. When I arrived at Davidson, I decided on a whim to take Mandarin, and that reluctant choice led me to an elementary Chinese class that I absolutely loved. I attended lunches at the Chinese table and applied for Davidson in East Asia, not thinking that I’d be living halfway across the world in a matter of months.

Before this trip, I’d never even flown by myself. The first night I spent in Shanghai, before my roommates arrived, I slept in my small apartment bed, knowing that I was 12 hours ahead of everyone I cared about back at home. From our window on the 25th floor, I could see the skyscrapers, busy streets, and overpasses that I’d be navigating for the next couple months, and I wondered how I would possibly survive in Shanghai.

The next day, I went exploring for the first time. I bought a SIM card from a store down the street and ordered the wrong meal at a restaurant, ending up with a single fried fish instead of the noodles I thought I’d ordered. My life, at least for a while, consisted of little mistakes like that one: mispronouncing words, bumping into tables in crowded restaurants, and getting lost in the subway. Once I gave the taxi driver the wrong address and ended up under a bridge in a different part of the city until I could hail another cab.

I made many mistakes like these during my first few days in Shanghai. I had no choice but to stand out, and once I accepted that I was navigating a new place, meeting new people, and speaking a new language I felt less scared than before. I learned that I didn’t mind making grammar mistakes or mispronouncing words in front of locals. I didn’t mind people staring at me on the metro or laughing when I ordered the wrong food at a restaurant. In fact, throughout my travels to different regions in China, I found that as a whole, Chinese people treat foreigners with unparalleled kindness, curiosity, and respect — an attitude vastly different from the way many Americans treat those deemed outsiders.

The people I met wanted to practice their English with me and to teach me new words in Chinese. They wanted to know where I’d come from and most of all — why I’d come to China. At the time, I didn’t have a complete answer to that last question. I knew that Shanghai was the complete opposite of my North Carolina hometown and of Davidson, too. I knew that something had compelled me to fly far away from both. Maybe it was a need to be a part of a larger, global community. I found great comfort in being able to participate in city life by walking to work each morning and eating a quiet breakfast on the train.

Maybe it was a need to remove myself from my own life for a little while. I was far away from my family, my friends, my school, and my country, and I was able to look at each with the needed perspective of someone on the outside.

Maybe I didn’t have a concrete reason for going to China at all, but going there has certainly changed the way I think about myself, about other people, and about the world.

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