Leave your bison chip wherever you go

The following post is a translation of an article written by Chen Si’an, a Taiwanese student at Fudan University who spent this summer working at Yellowstone National Park. Originally published in the Fudan Taiwanese Student Organization Monthly Newsletter. Republished with consent.

When I picked up my pen to share this story, I decided to not give everyone a day-to-day account of my summer work experience, because my story is too absolute and probably would be a bit boring. For this reason, I’ve used a simple style to give examples of the important things I came to realize from my “Work and Travel” in America’s Yellowstone National Park. I believe this will be of great benefit to everyone’s future lives and work attitudes.

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1. Be brave enough to say hello and start up a conversation with people you don’t know

Asians generally give foreigners the impression of being introverted and shy, but this kind of fixed thinking is completely without reason. When I first arrived at Yellowstone’s Old Faithful gift store, everyone, including the boss, the chefs, and the other workers would always really warmly strike up conversations with me. They’d endlessly ask: “How do you like America?” “Is there anything I can help you with?” and the classic “How do you feel today?” I really couldn’t get used to it, because this kind of excessive warmth is rarely seen in Taiwan or the Mainland.

The first few days after my arrival led me to a realization: This type of warm greeting towards other people isn’t specially focused on newcomers, but is a practice deeply planted in the hearts of every American. At first, every day hearing “How do you feel today?” while eating breakfast, “How’s everything going?” while eating lunch, and “Is everything alright?” during dinner might give one a headache. How come they’re always asking the same question? Really, though, this is a great conversation starter. It expresses your care for the other person and lets them choose to discuss the things they feel comfortable sharing with you. Following from the place they open the conversation at, this shows respect for the other person, and allows you to enter more deeply into their feelings and gain a lot of interesting and valuable experiences.

 2. Don’t be miserly about praising others, and have a moderate amount of self-confidence

The traditional virtue of Chinese people holds that one should always be modest. For this reason, when receiving praise, our reaction is always to insist “I’m not good enough, so-and-so is much better, etc.” Regarding other people’s merits, we also just hold on to them in our hearts, and rarely directly stand up and say, “Hi, I think you look really good today!” When I had been in Yellowstone for just a week, however, I discovered that Americans are really accustomed to praising others. For now, we’ll not think about whether they’re genuine in doing so or not – what can’t be denied is that those being praised will be very happy, and that this happiness will persist for a long period of time. They [Americans] can find something in everyone that’s worthy of praise. For example: “Your necklace is really beautiful, I’ve never seen one of this design before;” “I wish I had eyes as beautiful as yours;” “If my math was as good as yours, that would be great!” If praising someone doesn’t take any energy, but will bring them a good mood for a whole day and start a good relationship between you and them, then why not go for it?

When receiving praise from others, don’t be coy; smiling and saying thank you will better express your bearing and self-confidence. At the start, I would always answer, “No, I am not that good.” Afterwards, however, I discovered that this is not a very friendly answer, because it makes it hard for the other person to keep the conversation going. Don’t make the other person emphasize that they really think you’re okay. Happily saying thank you, accepting their good intentions, and complimenting them back is a much better way of cultivating relationships with other people.

3. Don’t concern yourself over working more than others, just conscientiously do what you have to do

My work at the Old Faithful Gift Store was restocking and tending the cash register. Old Faithful is the most famous place in all of Yellowstone, and every day the tourists are an endless stream. While on duty, there’s basically no time to use the restroom or even take a short break. My salary was lower than the kitchen workers, I didn’t get part of the tips like they did, and I also had to run here and there moving stock around or tending the register for, at the very least, seven and a half hours. For this reason, when I was working I’d always discover that lots of people who had the same job as me would be in the back room, resting and chatting, even though out front there’d be a huge mass of tourists out front unable to find the things they wanted.

I’d always be working and working, pushing a cart back and forth to restock, or running to grab different clothing sizes for customers. Although I wasn’t getting higher pay for this, I was getting worn out. This is a kind of work attitude, though: you’ll feel satisfaction from bustling about for a whole day and seeing the smiles of customers. You won’t feel like you frittered away a single moment. Perhaps because of this [attitude], I got training to become a cashier faster than some others, which gave me more opportunities to come into contact and chat with customers and made my work more varied. Because of this, don’t lightly suffer other’s interference; conscientiously do your own work, don’t grumble, and you’ll have a pleasant surprise waiting for you.

4. Don’t fritter away time, grasp your summer

Yellowstone’s summer is very short, and the rest of the time it’s covered by snow and ice, so the summers are overflowing with vitality. Crowds of tourists, verdant trees, and lively animals can be seen everywhere, and there isn’t a single place not proclaiming life and vigor. Human life is like this too. I had a lot of coworkers who were older Americans. A lot of them are retirees who decided to come work at Yellowstone for a short time period. There are former police officers, professors, teachers, and more, all seizing the opportunity to enrich their lives and come closer to nature. This is a life attitude well worth studying. Don’t waste away the minutes and seconds of your life. I got to meet a seventy-eight year old gentleman, who took us in in a circuit around North Yellowstone in his car during one of our days off. This type of attitude became a big inspiration for me. We’re in the most golden period of our lives, but most of us fail to value and love time and life the way those elderly people do. Youth is short, and a single year’s summer goes by in an instant; for this reason, we really need to hold onto, and not waste away the time available to us.

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The above four points are my deepest experiences from working in Yellowstone. I hope each Taiwanese student can profit from them in their studying and work attitudes and in their relationships with others. If so, my serious deliberations while writing this after eight and a half hours of grumbling work, as my eyelids tremble and I think painfully of the early shift tomorrow I have to start at seven o’clock. To conclude, I want to introduce everyone to Yellowstone’s most important animal. Bison can be seen anywhere in Yellowstone, and everywhere they go they leave their markings: bison chips. Because of this, we should sincerely study the life experiences of the bison. We all have to leave our markings: hard work, amiable greetings, sincere praise. All of these are the markings you leave behind. Live hard, grab ahold of summer and enjoy it, and make full preparations for the long “winter” ahead. Leave your bison chips wherever you go!

Rethinking orientations

This past summer, the Shanghai Taiwanese Student Organization, or Taisheng Zonghui, held a two-day “explanation meeting” for Taiwanese students who would be beginning classes at Mainland universities in the Shanghai-Zhejiang area starting in the fall. The event included presentations and discussions led by former and current Taiwanese students studying in the Mainland and officials from the Taiwanese Strait Exchange Foundation (SEF) and Ministry of National Defense to introduce incoming students to information about the Mainland and challenges they might encounter there. Another topic of discussion was Taiwanese regulations regarding recognition of degrees from Mainland institutions, and officials from the Ministry of Education and Executive Yuan were on hand to explain current and proposed regulations, particularly in regard to Mainland medical degrees, which are not currently recognized in the Republic of China. Officers from the Taiwanese Student Organizations (Taishenghui) of the Shanghai-Zhejiang area introduced their schools to their incoming classmates, and the representatives of the Fudan University Taishenghui were careful to explain the reality of life at Fudan University. Participants had the opportunity to interact and exchange with taishang, Taiwanese businessmen conducting business in the Mainland, and learn about the current status of taishang and the history of Taiwanese studying in the Mainland.

The event also involved informal discussion and bonding between new students, their incoming peers, and their upper-classmates. Officers of the Fudan Taishenghui taught the incoming students how to play Sanguosha (Three Kingdoms Killers), a card game widely popular among college-aged Mainlanders, in the hopes that it would help them more quickly assimilate into Mainland life.

The effectiveness of these activities in preparing Taiwanese students for life in the Mainland is questionable. The most significant issue encountered by Taiwanese students I’ve spoken to at Fudan University seems to be their difficulty in relating to and connecting with Mainland peers. Most Taiwanese students, it seems, spend the majority of their time with Taiwanese classmates rather than Mainland classmates. Various reasons are given for this, with the most commonly mentioned being differences of “education.” It’s understandable: Taiwanese culture and Mainland Chinese culture, after more than 100 years of effective separation, are different in some essential ways, and cross-cultural relationships are not easy. Take a poll of students studying abroad in the United States, and I can almost guarantee that the majority of them will report that most of their friends at school are fellow foreigners. Taiwanese in Mainland China are in a special position. Because of the special political relations between Taiwan and Mainland China, Taiwanese students in the Mainland are neither international students, nor are they local (Mainland) students. They speak the same language, eat the same food, and grew up in a culture with the same roots and similar history to their Mainland peers, but they are somehow, almost inexplicably, different. Not surprising, then, that it’s difficult for many to forge relationships with their Mainland peers.

The activities organized by the Taishenghui may be inhibiting active relationship-building with Mainland peers, however. When Taiwanese students come to the Mainland, they encounter some initial barriers in relating to their Mainland classmates due to differences of cultural and educational background. Normally, they would have to push through these barriers in order to escape the solitude of the exchange student in a new place. Now, however, upon arriving in the Mainland, they’ve already established relationships with many Taiwanese peers, and it’s easy to fall back on these relationships as a safety net and give up on establishing relations with Mainland peers altogether. While the Taishenghui summer explanation and introduction activity undoubtedly is a great event and very effective at helping incoming Taiwanese students adjust and easing their concerns, it may have negative effects towards their overall level of assimilation down the road.

I have often wondered if the same thing can be said of the STRIDE program at Davidson College. STRIDE is a special orientation and support organization for minority and first-generation students at Davidson College. Prior to school beginning, STRIDE participants have the opportunity to meet with other students, both incoming and current, and faculty members to discuss being a minority student at Davidson College and the challenges that prospect entails. This undoubtedly has many incredibly beneficial aspects for incoming students. However, the question should be asked whether or not it inhibits the long-term integration of participants into general college life.

It’s possible that the positive effects of orientation activities like STRIDE or the “explanation meeting” of the Taisheng Zonghui outweigh the negative impacts down the road. However, we should rethink these types of activities and make sure that is truly the case, and, furthermore, be aware that orientation activities of this sort may not be the optimal activity for all students.

Real name registration “not very effective?”

Around a year ago, Chinese authorities began instituting a new measure for online censorship and control: real name registration. Starting with the Beijing Internet Information Office, authorities around the country began establishing regulations forcing online social media sites, particularly microblogs, to require users to provide their real name, verified by the national ID number of the user. As a censorship method, this would seem to be highly effective. While an individual might be willing to complain about the government or post objectionable information online under cover of anonymity, the knowledge that the authorities could easily acquire their name and address could turn off even the most ardent online activist.

Screen-shot-2012-11-11-at-下午11.05.191-300x74 Real name registration "not very effective?"

The Sina Weibo account of popular blogger, writer, and race car driver Han Han

A similar policy was applied to the video game industry a few years ago in the hope that it would curb excessive gaming by Chinese youth. Video games must require users to submit their national ID number before playing. If the ID number is of a individual under the age of 18, they’re limited to less than three hours of gameplay per day.

The effectiveness of these policies is questionable, however. Discussing the issue with a Shanghainese friend (who happens to be a video game player under the age of 18) today, I learned that it’s common practice among Chinese youth gamers to simply supply a fake ID number in order to avoid the block on more than three hours of gaming. Adult ID numbers can be found through a quick Google search, I was told, which can then be submitted instead of a gamer’s actual ID number. Alternatively, it’s fairly easy to simply guess at a national ID number, as they are at least partially randomly generated.

It has also been claimed that similar regulations regarding real name registration of cell phones are not effective. In China, it often seems that there is a (well-intentioned) law or regulation for everything under the sun, but lack of enforcement makes these rules irrelevant. There’s a joke that China must have the best environment on the planet as it has more environmental regulations than any other nation on the planet.  I think it is certainly the case, as I’ve argued before in this blog. Perhaps my friend’s thoughts on video game real name registration regulations could very well apply to law in China in general: “Not very effective.”

Election Season

I believe it’s fair to say that the Presidential elections we undergo every four years in America have a significant impact on the daily life of the average American.

I’m talking the process of candidates campaigning and then participating in an election, not the results of the election. Clearly, who gets elected is going to have some impact on the lives of every American, as the initiatives they promote, ideology they push, and issues they proscribe can have long-felt and lasting effects. Our country’s leaders impact every American, no doubt, but the process of picking them impacts Americans as well.

Think about it: for the past year (or longer?! Mitt Romney announced his candidacy on June 2, 2011) you’ve been bombarded with campaign slogans, attack ads, and political arguments from almost every media source known to man. You can’t even step out on your own front lawn without seeing the campaign signs your neighbor stuck up. You find yourself turning against friends and family as they promote (or argue against) candidates and issues you disagree with, both online and in the real world. I have literally seen friendships fall apart because of political disagreements (and I’m sure other people have seen this as well).

So, yeah. The Presidential elections affect your life. We can all be glad it’s over now.

Meanwhile in China, the country is gearing up for an event of even greater magnitude than the US Presidential election: The 18th Party Congress, an event that happens once every five years and sets the tone for the policies the Party and government will adopt in the coming five years. And this Party Congress is particularly significant as it’s also the beginning of a leadership change, which happens about once a decade in the PRC. (For a really incredible overview of the political structure of the PRC and the upcoming leadership transition, check out this primer by Patrick Chovanec, a professor at Tsinghua University)

This is big, right? I mean, it only happens once ever ten years! That’s, like, two-point-five times as often as an American Presidential election!

IMG_1079-300x224 Election Season

“The success of Scientific Development is glorious – Welcome the Party’s 18th victorious convening – Happily welcome the 18th Party Congress!”

Well, not so much. Yes, it’s important, but my feeling is that it has very little impact on the daily life of the average Chinese. You can still see signs announcing and “welcoming” the upcoming Party Congress, just like the campaign signs in the United States. There are even ads on TV welcoming the Party Congress (although they’re all short, boring, and probably less common than political ads in America – and certainly less negative).

Apart from that, however, life goes on. No one talks about politics, or gets in political arguments, or loses friendships as a result. In fact, the only complaining about how annoying the leadership transition you’ll hear will likely come from we foreigners, who have more difficulty using the internet than usual. That’s about it, though.

I’m not saying that China’s system is better than America’s. Rather (as many others have pointed out much more eloquently before me), it emphasizes harmony over freedom. It’s possible that’s a reflection of the society the system is built around. It’s also possible that it’s merely a reflection of the desires of those who built the system. Most likely, however, it’s a bit of both.

An International Space

Four times this semester I have found myself at the Kerry Parkside Center (嘉里城) in Pudong District, Shanghai. The site of upscale apartment housing, a five-star hotel, and a shopping mall, the Kerry Center seems like modernity incarnate. Its developers would certainly have you believe as much, and the presence of dozens of internationally recognizable stores and restaurants seems to suggest that the Kerry Center is a particularly international and cosmopolitan spot in a very international and cosmopolitan district of China’s most international and cosmopolitan city. Supporting this notion, each time I’ve visited the Kerry Center, I’ve had an experience that has reinforced in my mind the idea that the complex is meant to be a new cosmopolitan core of Shanghai.

My first visit to the Kerry Center was only a few weeks after I arrived, when a friend and I attended the Kerry International Beer Festival. Coming to Shanghai, I had been surprised by the sheer number of foreigners living and working in the city, but I was truly blown away by the crowd present at the beer festival. More than two-thirds of the people present were Caucasians, from all over the world, of all different ages, and from every walk of life. As my classmate Tommy pointed out, you could really see the Shanghai expat community at this beer festival, and it left me with a lasting impression of the Kerry Center as an international space.

My second and third visits to the Kerry Center were occupied by meals at two different restaurants located in the complex and conversations of a very international nature. My second visit was a trip to the Blue Frog Bar & Grill, one of the restaurant’s many locations throughout Shanghai. I went with my roommates, a Chinese American from California and a Taiwanese who studied high school in New Zealand and is attending college in the US. As usual, our conversation really was a cross-cultural experience. My third visit to the Kerry Center was to have lunch at Baker & Spice (a Chinese cafe with a very cosmopolitan atmosphere and very international prices) with several Taiwanese women whose husbands work in Shanghai and learn about their experiences living in the Mainland. This visit also elicited a lot of cross-cultural exchange (which will be discussed in great detail on this blog at a later date).

My most recent trip to the Kerry Center was to attend the pH Value Fashion Show held at the Kerry Hotel from Oct. 22nd – 23rd. I’d been invited by a classmate, whose uncle was one of the organizers of the event. We went for the evening of the 23rd, and saw the last event of the show. This was the first fashion show I’d ever given a second thought about, not to mention actually attended, and it was quite an interesting experience. The models were everything I’d ever imagine models to be (which is to say, incredibly skinny and strangely tall), the clothing ranged from (what I’d call) sensible to somewhat outrageous, and I was slightly underdressed for the event (most of the men wore blazers). Seeing the fashion show really reinforced in my mind the idea that Shanghai in particular (and, increasingly, China as a whole) sees itself on par with the West as an “international” place, with everything the West has to offer (including fashion shows!)

Yours truly crashing the red carpet at the 2012 pH Value Fashion Show in Pudong, Shanghai, PRC.

During each of these unique cosmopolitan experiences, the Kerry Center presented itself as a fashionable, modern area that was sophisticated and enjoyable. Every locale has a unique feeling to it, and the developers of the Kerry Center have been very careful to cultivate the feeling their complex has, shaping it into a global space in which its easy to forget that you’re in China at all.

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