Unpacking China

I spent my last semester in Hangzhou, an hour bullet train ride outside of Shanghai. An academic advisor described Hangzhou to me as “Shanghai on vacation.” It is smaller than Shanghai and has a more relaxed culture, but the features are pretty much the same— each as a body of water, malls, and a booming economy.

I was quite confident that after having a semester in baby Shanghai that this semester would be an absolute breeze, but I was wrong. When I came to Shanghai, I already knew how to use Chinese apps, the Shanghai subway, and felt pretty well-adjusted to Chinese culture. However, there are certain challenges of living in China that just don’t go away no matter how much time you’ve spent in the country. For me, a lot of these challenges have been intellectual.

Last semester, I was bound to a Chinese language pledge and didn’t get much of an opportunity to interpret a lot of the cultural, ethical, and even situational challenges that I grappled with while in China. Many of my questions stemmed from comparison to the Western context. All of my professors were Chinese and because of media censorship in China, many of my concerns related to issues and information that was censored in media and sensitive to discuss. Within my cohort of American students, we lacked the language skills to be able to tackle a lot of our burning questions. Because I had a VPN to allow me to access Western news, I was able to read about the Muslim internment camps in Xinjiang, op-eds about the societal effects of social credit, or environmental atrocities in western China. But I couldn’t really talk about any of it.

This semester, in my Davidson course and independently with my peers, I was able to unpack a lot of the questions I’ve had sitting in my brain for the past 8 months. But just because I was able to talk about it more, the uncomfortable feeling remained of knowing all this information while the rest of the country does not. The odd frustration of absolutely loving the country I’ve been living in for the past year, but disproving of its institutions doesn’t go away. This semester, I was able to take an upper-level political science seminar, conduct independent research on how public information is used in China, and learn more about civil and corporate law in China through an internship. These opportunities only served to open up more questions.

Studying China comes with an impossibly steep learning curve, and although I’ve been studying the language for six years and have spent a year in this country, I’m only just beginning to scratch the surface. To me, that’s incredibly exciting.