When I came to China I had the goals of improving my language ability, experiencing new things, and learning as much as possible about what real daily life is like for Chinese people. I have gotten that and so much more out of my four months here. The countless people I’ve met in Shanghai and other places around China have each provided their own unique window through which I have seen the reality of their lives. I have gotten the chance to see amazing sights, try amazing food, and simply appreciate living in a truly foreign environment.

I must say that participating in FDANSO, the street dance group at Fudan University, has been the highlight of my experience in Shanghai. Never before have I been in such an environment, one where I knew exceptionally little about what was happening, what was being said, or how things operated. But I quickly learned how to make friends, and through those friendships I was able to understand what being a young person in China is like.

The dancers in that organization are the reason I am thankful to have been in Shanghai, and I feel truly privileged to have been allowed to join them. I learned a great deal about how to work with people, how to communicate, and how to let certain things go. I learned I do not need to know everything that is going on at every moment. I learned that as people we all have similar pressures. And, perhaps most importantly, I learned that sometimes the most meaningful communication happens independent of verbal language. When I was dancing with everyone, or when I taught them a phrase that I choreographed, there were no words that could substitute for the message that needed to be delivered. That’s why I have so much belief in the power of dance. In those moments our language barrier was lifted, and we could share the experience of performing as one group, as opposed to just being a bunch of Chinese people and me, the white guy.

Even given all the challenges, all the struggles, and all of the yearning for the familiar, I can say that leaving is especially bittersweet. I feel like it has been so long since I’ve lived in the world that I knew. But what I’ve come to understand is that being here did not exile me, it’s just made “my world” bigger. I go back to the United States now with a better understanding of the realities of modern China and a new appreciation for our increasingly global culture. Not to mention a few new dance moves.

Christmas Around Shanghai

As I’m sure everyone in the States is reminded constantly, it’s the Christmas season! I am beyond excited to return home and celebrate with my family. Being in China for Thanksgiving was particularly hard, knowing that across the globe my extended family was gathering together and I was the absent one. But missing Christmas would just not be an option. I know a few international students here are staying until mid-January since they have to adhere to the Fudan University academic calendar, which has the semester ending at that time. But since I’m technically on the Davidson calendar, I’m coming home!

Recently I’ve tried to make the best out of being in China in terms of getting excited for the holiday season. I listen to Christmas music on my computer, bought a new sweater, and my friend hosted a really nice Christmas party in her apartment last night where we all played a game of Yankee Swap (they called it “White Elephant”). But nothing can compare to being in Maine this time of year.

But to be honest, there has been a sense of Christmas cheer around the city. I’ve seen a lot more Christmas decorations in Shanghai that I expected. By no means is it as significant of a holiday in China as in the U.S., but I’ve notice a plethora of signs, sales, and figures around the city that seem to suggest that the spirit of Christmas is alive and well in China, or at least Christmas consumerism!

In any case, it’s oddly comforting to see huge plastic trees around the mall and new holiday-themed red cups emerging from Starbucks. Even in the smallest of convenience stores they have messages of Christmas cheer. It’s getting me that much more excited to return to America. I’ll be home for Christmas!


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!

Reflection on Xi’an

Our group’s most recent trip to Xi’an was a great opportunity to experience the  many historical sites the city has to offer. The most notable locations we visited were the terra cotta warriors, of course, along with the city wall and the Great Mosque of Xi’an.

The terra cotta warriors were truly a spectacle. Our tour guide, Dong, insisted that they were not the only remarkable historic landmark of Xi’an, but one cannot deny the global fame they have brought to the city since their discovery in the mid 1970s. The sheer scale of their production is unfathomable, especially given the fact that they are all unique models. Dong explained that the typical terra cotta warrior had a round face, high cheek bones, big lips, and single-eylids (just like him, he said!). Hearing the explanation about how the warriors were built to provide protection for the Qin Emperor in the afterlife made my mind harken back to times when I’ve studied ancient Egyptian history. It seems like these two ancient civilizations had remarkably similar theories in terms of the path of the spirit after one’s passing. And even today, many people in China burn offerings in the form of paper cuttings, what I now see to be something of a heavily watered-down version of the thousands of terra cotta warriors we saw.

The city wall was an unexpected joy for many of us on the trip. Dong informed us that it was a popular tourist activity to rent bikes and ride along the wall, and we did not hesitate at the chance! Besides the excitement of finally riding a bike again (something I haven’t done in probably a year) it was also a great opportunity to see the surrounding city. Dong told us about how the city usd to be contained by this wall in addition to a moat that runs along its outer border. In ancient times the bell tower would ring, signaling all the farmers out in the countryside to return to the city, and another bell when they should wake up and get to work. Since then, of course, the city has grown to a size that doesn’t permit such a small border. But I loved experiencing this historic site on two wheels, even if it was a bit of a touristy move.

Last was the Great Mosque of Xi’an. This was a remarkable place because of the juxtaposition of Chinese-style temples with Arabic text written on their signs. What stood out from this place was that the nature of Chinese religions is such that the synergy of multiple ideals and traditions is not only permitted, but is commonplace. The best part of the mosque was the fact that it was still active, meaning that we were able to see those (men) who chose to worship there on a daily basis. It was also the most quiet and serene place we visited on our entire trip in Xi’an, which was a great chance to catch our breath after a wonderfully full day in the city.


Dance Judging

I had a very Chinese experience recently when I went to have my dance reviewed & judged by the senior members of FDANSO, the group in which I’m choreographing a dance to be performed on November 27th. I had missed the first round of judging because I was in Beijing, but my group still performed without me. So this was the first time I was performing the piece with them in front of an audience. I thought I was acting cool but as I was sitting and waiting for my group to go one of my friends said, “Are you ok? You look really nervous. Relax.” So I suppose I wasn’t very convincing.

We were in this big multipurpose room on campus where everyone could sit and watch the pieces. After each dance the judges, mainly one guy, would talk for at least 10 minutes in a tone that I knew was not positive. I was anticipating a few critiques, but I was not exactly ready for the Tiger-Mom-esque criticism. I didn’t put too much pressure on myself, though. I knew that this was a cultural experience and nothing they could say would discount the work me and my dancers had done. That said, it still wasn’t easy.

A really awesome group would perform and then I would hear the guy say, “Last week you were the best dance. This week you are very average. Lower level.” Then a popping/locking duo went and looked like they were straight out of one of those super cool YouTube videos. Everyone in the group was cheering and smiling, but then the judge said, “You must stop looking at the ground. If you look at the ground, the audience will hate you. You will be boring.”

Finally it was time for my piece. I was prepared to put on a good show, make eye contact, live in the moment, all that good stuff. The music started and as soon as I looked up at the head judge’s eyes, he had this look on his face as if someone was holding dog poop in front of his nose. Confused and disgusted, I would say. So I would look at some of the other judges, who’s faces weren’t much better, and then back to him, and he still had that face! I just kept on swimming, finishing the piece with mostly smiles and cheering from the audience. Then my dancers gathered around and prepared for the whipping we were about to get. He talked for about 10 minutes, but here is the abbreviated version:

“It looks very sloppy. Not everyone is doing it correctly. Last week was disastrous, this week you are barely average, but only because he (*points to me*) is here. He dances with great power but the rest of you (*flails his arms and hands in the air in no apparent pattern*). You must practice more. Ugh.” *Throws his arm in the air as if he was swatting a fly, then assumes a face of utter disappointment.*

So, that was great!

I suppose going from “disastrous” to “barely average” is an improvement, right? I talked to my friend Yazhi afterword and she explained to me how it is typical Chinese style to only mention the bad things so that people know what to improve on. She said there is so much pressure to produce a high-quality show because Fudan University ranks the student organizations 1-5 stars, and beyond 5 star there is “Model 5-Star,” which is the title FDANSO currently has. (The only other group on campus to have this, she said, was the Den Xiaoping (Chinese Communist Party reformer) study club for “political reasons.”) This means they get more funding & support from the school. We have something similar at Davidson, but nothing that involves the level of scrutiny and pressure at Fudan.

I learned a lot about Chinese culture and myself from this experience. Back at Davidson I review dances for the show, but my feedback typically only includes, “Good job, keep practicing! I love it!” While here the attitude is totally different. Yazhi said that Chinese people aren’t mean, they just want to produce the best material possible. She said that China has so many people that it is impossible to not judge and rank everyone in the name of efficiency. I learned that more than ever here, but I am still super thankful for the opportunity to show work in Shanghai and to learn how to function so far out of my comfort zone.