Touring vs. Study Abroad : Americans Promoting Study Abroad

The first time I was here in Beijing was four years ago when I earned a study abroad scholarship by Americans Promoting Study Abroad (APSA), a non-profit organization, for five weeks in the summer of 2012. I found the program so impactful that I applied to the APSA Alumni Student Mentor Position in 2014 when the non-profit branched off into Shanghai, China; I was no longer a scholar of the program, I was a mentor. APSA’s mission is to not only promote global citizenship but also to give opportunities to students of color and low-income households who usually do not have the resources to study abroad. Founded by a small group of Americans who wanted to provide this chance of growth only some in our country can so easily afford, it was launched in 2008. It is part of the 100 thousand Strong Initiative, which was pushed forth because there were actually more Chinese students coming to America to study abroad than there were American students coming to China to study abroad. One of the graduates of the program, Jeffrey Wood, was even able to interview Michelle Obama during her first trip to China. APSA accepts scholars from all over the United States, from Boston, New York City, Chicago, Atlanta, Los Angeles, etc.

Right now the non-profit organization is experiencing a transition of Program Management and so it feels like starting anew. We have a new Executive Director whom I have been working with as intern. My work, in the beginning, consisted of data dumps of major sites around the city of Beijing such as the Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, The Forbidden City, 798 Art District, etc. I would also compile historical facts and innovative methods that were used in order to build, preserve, and enjoy these structures and sites.

In a way, the program is almost like a tourist company. I say “almost” because it is the very mission of APSA to not be a tourist company. You know, the ones where you have a guide with a microphone attached to the hip and a tall stick with some colorful flag on it. The one that makes frequent stops and just regurgitate interesting fun facts around the area that you’re touring. We’re not that. Never that. The implementation of the curriculum that APSA provides to its scholars is not just about cultural exchange, cultural immersion, and global citizenship. It is also about leadership development. And being a completely different country is a great way for students to get out of their comfort zone and enter that special place where they learn as independent scholars and leaders. The learning is put mostly on the students to achieve while we have staff members who are there to help facilitate them along the way as we visit each excursion site.

So far we have allied with another non-profit known as “One World Now” and are testing out our new curriculum with their students. We have had good feedback so far as we have reached our learning outcomes but difficulties lie in how our organization, APSA, flows with the One World Now organization. Both simply operate differently in their approach to student learning and teaching. But part of my work lies in accompanying the students to areas such as the ones mentioned earlier and watching as they explore and take in the experience of being abroad. I can only hope that it instills in them the importance of studying abroad and that everyone should have an opportunity like this.

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北京

Ahhhh, Beijing, China, the city with something old and something new all in one place. I only have about seven weeks here and I know with all my heart that I cannot experience this city all in just seven weeks. If that were to be my goal, I would surely fail. So instead, my goal is to simply learn as much as possible from my internship position and to enjoy myself along the way. It isn’t my first time here but I am always simply amazed by the whiff of an almost rancid sickly sweet smell whenever I turn the corner, the leisurely old people dancing at night in parks, the use of squat toilets, and the power of the USD here in this country. That is my broad sense of the city, my more in-tune sense of wonderment overpowers any level of minor discomfort I may have about some of the cultural differences in lifestyle between America and China.

I was lucky enough to be connected to someone who knew almost every ex-pat in Beijing by my Executive Director. I was able to visit the local Queer Space that was actually really close to my apartment. Finding a queer community in Beijing was something I thought would be hard to near to impossible. But I was lucky enough to meet some amazing queer community members here in Beijing. I was amazed at how active the ex-pat community was as well. There were always group invitations to hangouts such as Friday restaurant nights and Sunday movie nights. With the freedom and opportunity I have, I was able to freely explore and enjoy my time here in Beijing as I work for the Americans Promoting Study Abroad non-profit organization.

 

It’s good to be back.

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The Sovereign Enterprise

 

Despite a marked lack of natural resources and a relatively short 40-year old history, the sovereign island city-state Singapore is a thriving and pronouncedly unique country. It’s an international business hub, one of the four “Asian Tiger” economies, and a world leader in urban engineering. Many also know the country for its multiculturalism and its harsh penalization of littering, drugs, and the even the possession of gum.

Some refer to Singapore as “the Switzerland of Asia,” and having now briefly lived in both, I certainly understand the comparison. Like in Switzerland, Singapore has exceptional public infrastructure– its airport is one of the nicest in the world and an exceptional network of high-quality subway, light train, & bus lines can transport one virtually anywhere in the city,  encouraging distributed income desegregation.

 

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.08.56 PM It’s also an Asian hub for many large multinational corporations, particularly in the finance and banking sectors, which attracts foreign workers to the country in droves. In fact, a combination of Singapore’s convenient location, low taxes, skilled workforce, modern infrastructure, and marked intolerance for corruption have brought over 9,000 foreign corporations from the U.S., China, India, Japan, and Europe into the country, causing foreigners to contribute 44% of the country’s total workforce. These attractive policies have, among other things, made Singapore the third largest financial center in the world.  Zürich, Switzerland’s largest city and financial hub, holds the fourth highest spot.

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The similarities end, however, when viewing the two from the perspective of governance, an area in which they fundamentally diverge. While Swiss citizens enjoy one of the most direct democracies in the world, Singapore seems to be run far more like a business than the traditional republic it describes itself as. Though the system of government is parliamentary and elections are clean, founder Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party has controlled nearly every seat in parliament since the country was founded and exerts considerable influence over the media, which is controlled by government-linked companies. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is now the party’s head and the country’s new prime minister.  While Singapore has recently ranked among the top in the world for “order and security” and “absence of corruption” it performs far worse in categories like “freedom of speech.”  Furthermore, trials are held without a jury, protests may only legally be held in one designated area, and certain social practices like homosexuality are outlawed.

 

While such statistics may Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.09.34 PMmake the country appear decidedly despotic, they more truthfully represent the government’s prioritization of the country’s national interest above individual liberty or other populist sentiments. Average workers may have little say in the decisions of executives (i.e., legislature and government), but have certainly enjoyed the benefits of Singapore’s explosive growth in productivity and prosperity. And indeed, the government’s policies and foresight have been the driving force behind this growth by making the country one of the most wholly attractive and easy places to do business in the world. Low taxes, loose financial regulations, harsh punishment of crime, the ease of requiring a visa or citizenship as a highly-skilled foreigner, and the pristine state of the city all helped to attract multinational corporations that the country in turn profited from. With duties targeting the more affluent, like the prohibitively expensive S$90,000 ownership license fee that one must pay before buying a car, Singapore has accumulated one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds that it devotes in part to the welfare of all citizens.  

 

Despite the government’s obsession with attracting foreign capital into the city, it does much to mitigate the ill effects associated with gentrification and income inequality through public investment in areas like public transport systems and nearly all the country’s schools. Perhaps most notable is the country’s subsidized public housing buildings, named HBDs after the Housing Development Board that manages them.Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.09.51 PM

The government uses HBDs to protect non-landowning locals from ballooning real estate costs & to promote harmony among Singapore’s many ethnic groups, a task it achieves by establishing a demographic breakdown in each apartment complex that mirrors the country’s as a whole– about 74% Chinese descent, 13% Malay descent, 9% Indian descent, and 3% of other descent.

Though Singapore receives understandable accusations of being a dictatorship in disguise, I find it difficult not to view the country as a phenomenal success of pragmatic opportunism and perhaps one of the best cases against direct democracy in the world. Without the government’s shrewd rule, defined by Lee Kuan Yew’s commitment to the country’s long-term interests over individual input, I doubt the country would have ever established the same beneficial policies that have led to its success as a thriving business hub. This process has resulted in first-rate living standards and access to opportunities for all Singaporeans, as well as an impressively active role of the country in global affairs. And while some may protest leadership, most Singaporeans seem satisfied with the status quo–  85% of citizens expressed faith in the government and judicial system according to a recent Gallup poll.

Baby Steps

As I nervously exited the Emirates Airbus 777, I couldn’t help but praise the solid ground that once again comforted my tired legs. After nearly 30 hours of travel, I was ready to eat some real food and sleep in a real bed. The Pudong International airport allowed for a cushioned start to my chinese experience as the signs quite thankfully included directional English as well as chinese characters. Finally, after around 30 minutes or so of waiting for my bags, I exited the airport and breathed my first true inhale of the smoggy air and hailed my first taxi — I was going to my new home.

The ride in the taxi was quite memorizing. I was immediately thrown into the Chinese urban fire as the taxi driver neither spoke any English, nor seemed to care about either of our well beings as he soared through heavy traffic. As we crossed the Pudong bridge, I couldn’t help but gasp as I caught my first gaze of the vast, outstretching urban jungle that is Shanghai. I quickly snapped my first photos of the city scenery.

After nearly 40 minutes of navigating heavily populated streets filled with countless restaurants, people, fruit stands (literally countless), and scooters (also, literally countless), my taxi driver informed me that we had arrived at 999 Changshou Lu – the address of my new home. I exited the cab and was warmly welcomed by my wonderful host! Exhausted, yet thrilled, the two of us made our way to the elevator. The light ding of the elevator made my stomach churn as I nervously stepped out on the eight floor and made my way into my new, temporary home.

The apartment was wonderful. Spacious, air conditioned, wifi accessible, and even better — I had my very own bed. I couldn’t help but to continuously repeat thank you as she showed me around her home. Our initial conversations were about basic things like discussing my job, schooling, and travels, my host encouraged me to take my first adventure around the block. With a sudden rush of both anxiety and adrenaline, I grabbed my backpack once again and ventured into the crowded streets for my very first time.

As I exited the apartment complex, I was immediately engulfed by an alien world. In my first 300 steps I had seen at least 1000 people in the bustling 6PM rush hour. While I was entirely physically overwhelmed, I couldn’t help but feel electrified by the city atmosphere. The further I walked, the more energy I garnered from the horns, yells, and sour aromas of street food wafting in the evening air. I entered a convenience store to make my first purchase — a 2rmb bottle of water. With a leap into the unknown, I cautiously uttered my first attempt at making a purchase in China. To my surprise, the cash register greeted my attempt a warm smile and a chirping giggle as she handed the bottle back over. Although I had certainly botched my attempt, I had accomplished my first true task in my new home. With a new breadth of confidence, I ventured back into the streets once more.

After an hour of navigating the winding alleys and busy streets of my block and feeling like I was some modern Marco Polo, my body decided it was time to go home. The jet lag was finally setting in as I located my apartment and entered my bedroom. As my face hit the pillow with utter exhaustion, I couldn’t help but let out an exhale of relief.

My first day in China brought about several revelations. The most obvious being the stark contrast between classes in urban Shanghai. An interesting aspect about Shanghai is the constant bombardment of western media and advertising. Shanghai is the epicenter of international business in China and therefore focuses a great deal of attention on appealing to western interests. While there is a heavy influence of western culture in Shanghai, there is an equal influence of traditional China. The black and white contrast of past and modern surrounds you at all moments. You can wander through old cobblestone alleyways echoing the memories of an old China and walk another 100 yards and find yourself standing in a bustling shopping mall with a variety of high end designer brands, and of course, a McDonalds or Starbucks. I believe this contrast is and continues to be the most shocking aspect of my stay in Shanghai.

As I look forward to the rest of my trip, I cannot help but to wonder which adventures I will encounter next. More so, I am thrilled at the opportunity to explore Chinese culture in a city that is rapidly developing and brilliantly intertwining the concepts of traditional and modern China.

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