Highlights and My Work Schedule

I found this opportunity through a program called WWOOF (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms). Before I started, I was told that my main responsibility would be collecting buckets from the workers in the fields every 40 minutes. Then, I would bring the buckets of blueberries back to the shed to weigh them and record the weights. While I did plenty of that– my day to day work was much more varied. For the first two weeks, I spent most of the day picking the blueberries myself. But, once blueberry season was in full swing, the seasonal employees started. From then, I would sort, clean, and package blueberries; as well as do other things around the farm like planting more bushes or watering. One day I was even in charge of entertaining a group of kindergarteners who were visiting the farm.

Our days would usually begin around 7 am. According to WWOOF, I am supposed to work 6 hours a day. Most days I would work more, until 5,6, or even 7 pm. But, it was ok– I didn’t have anything else to do most days! Before I’d start blueberry work however, Sachika and I were responsible for sweeping in the house and hanging up or folding the laundry that was left out to dry.

It was the WWOOFing experience that everyone who WWOOFs should have. The schedule was clearly laid out, all the other rules were followed, and the hosts were so kind and generous. The farm is owned by an older married couple who speak as much English as I do Korean (read: not much), but their son who lives in California comes for the summer to help out. With him and the other WWOOFer from Japan, communicating was not an issue. One of the most memorable aspects of my time in Korea was the hospitality and generosity I expressed by my hosts. They were nice to me– making me vegan lunches and taking us out to dinner very regularly– but it was how they treated the seasonal workers that really stood out. The other WWOOFer Sachika told me that, like in America, immigrant farm workers often endured low pay and poor working conditions. It was unfortunately a common issue around South Korea. But, at this farm, the workers who were all from Thailand and Myanmar, were like part of the family. They would join us for a home-cooked lunch every day, and often came out to dinner with us. Tae, the farmers’ son, drove them all to and from work every day and would take them shopping for clothes.

Reflecting

 

Right before I left, Tae asked me to write some notes about my experience on the farm. He wanted to know what I liked and what could be improved. I tried to convey to him that I had a wonderful time with virtually no real complaints. But, he insisted I be very critical, to not hold back. As part of my reflection in this blog post, I will explain what criticisms I came up with:

To preface: In my opinion, WWOOF is more than just an organization that promotes organic farming practices around the world. It also has some other environmentally-minded pillars to its mission. One, it supports general environmental conversation, like preserving resources and biodiversity. Two, they aspire to build local food systems that can provide healthy, organic food to all. Both of my criticisms showcase how the farm fails to uphold the values of WWOOF that I have mentioned.

  1. Since there has been a population shift from farms to cities in South Korea, the government offers incentives for people to return to the countryside and farm. Perhaps the biggest is cheap electricity. So, the farm took advantage of this and never turned off the lights in the storage shed, the biggest building on the property. Sure, it would not have saved them money to turn them off at night (since the bill was about $3 a month), but it still uses up resources which contradicts WWOOF’s sustainability values.
  2. This one is a little trickier to articulate. Yes, this farm is a family owned farm. And yes, they adhere to organic practices. But, it does not have much intent on strengthening the local food system. Why? Because blueberries are not a popular Korean food and thus are really expensive. They are sometimes inaccessible for lower income, working class people in an area that is populated mostly by farmers. These blueberries are meticulously selected and sometimes even hand delivered directly to consumers in Seoul. While it is isn’t wrong of them to be in the business to make money (market price is $17 a kilo), I would have liked to been on a farm that tried harder to break down the barrier between income and having access to healthy, organic food in their community.

All that being said, my time in Korea was fantastic– honestly, a dream come true. Tae and his family are opening a café on the property. They told me I have a coupon for free coffee for life there– so I have to go back someday!

Goodbye Shanghai!

After living for six weeks in one of the biggest cities in the world, I was ready to leave and move onto the next adventure (which for clarification was a trip to the Philippines, my homeland and a country I recommend to everyone to visit). From my trip to China, I was blessed with a good chunk of time without any major hitches such that I was able to begin to understand a country I never knew about, a country constantly placed against stereotypes and put under criticism.

In this fast-paced city, I’ve had to learn to do everything for myself. It’s not entirely independent living, but to live in an apartment, travel back and forth from an internship, and take care of all my daily needs all in a country where I’m nowhere near a fluent speaker, I’m quite proud of how I’ve handled it all. The independence I had here only fueled and increased my absorption and observations of China’s culture and history, an experience I wouldn’t have if I had been traveling with my family.

I’ve learned and observed a lot of the stark differences there are to living in an Asian metropolitan city compared to my American suburb. I’ll never forget the vastness of this city and how its able to accommodate and I would say mask the 25+ million people that live in it. The times  I became aware of the massive amount of people was when I’d ride the subway at rush hour or visit the Bund at night, it was those times that amazed me at just how big our world really is. By the end of my time here, I saw a lot of Shanghai, but there was a lot I didn’t get to see.

My trip to China reminded me just how much I love Asia and how much I love being Asian. I absolutely loved the food culture that was here. It was amazing how I was able to order so many dishes and share all of it with my friends, how easy it was to find a street food stall and order something tasty to satisfy my cravings, and how many options there were.

There are also so many small details and characteristics that I loved seeing in the people of China (but to be fair there are many things that I found a dislike to). I loved those times I would see people practice Buddhism on the subway, silently praying with their beads as the subway brought them to their stop. I loved going to Fuxing Park and seeing the number of quirky activities going on, especially the portion of the park where groups of elderly would come together to have debates and arguments. I loved the quality of service I got from so many workers and employees, there were so many times that the language barrier made things difficult and yet the Chinese didn’t get angry or upset with us, but instead found humor in it and gave patience to it.

China, just like any other country outside of the U.S, requires an open mind and a full presence to really grasp what life is like there. I valued every moment and every experience. I have to go back and I’ll have to keep going back to China and elsewhere too!

Interning as a Journalist for the Shanghaiist

When I began to apply for the internship to be a journalist for the online media outlet, The Shanghaiist, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I’m a biology major, not an English one but I decided to go for it because Shanghai was the place I wanted to be and I like any opportunity I can get to improve my writing skills. My application for the internship required me to write a couple article drafts but I didn’t know if I was in the right or wrong, if my writing was sufficient, if it had enough voice, and enough spice that the Shanghaiist wanted. Soon enough, I got it and there we go, Shanghai Summer was set.

For my first day at the office (which by the way was the most convenient location in relation to my apartment its just get on Line 9, go two stations, get on Line 11, go one stop, exit and walk for two minutes and bam you’re there), I was given the basic rundown as I settled into my cubicle. Pick a topic or headline that’s happened within the past 1-3 days, look into it more to know all the facts and opinions, and just write with the audience in mind and with your own sense of flare if it needed it. When I finished drafts I would send them to my editor and within a day or two they were up, reading for the readers of the Shanghaiist to feast their eyes on. It wasn’t hard to adjust to the routine, I could bust out 3-4 drafts on a super productive day, but on other days it would be 1-2 depending on how much I needed to research in order to be confident enough to write about it.

Writing articles centered around Asian and China news provided me with the opportunity to just become more aware of what goes on in the world. I came into my internship not particularly liking news and journalism. I may be ignorant or denying of reality, but when most of the news I hear about is regarding war, death, and sickness it easily just makes me want to shut my ears and dwell on the brighter things. So having this internship really challenged me in that I had to find comfort in discomfort.

Out of the 36 articles I wrote, some were fun, some were shocking, some were enlightening, and some just spoke to the reality of the world we live in. Some of the fun ones I did would just be short reviews on YouTube videos that makers based in Shanghai would make, or some rare occurrence meant to make you laugh like my article about China rebuilding a poorly designed fake Sphinx (again) which angered Egypt (again). What I did a lot of times was take on tough topics (the discomfort) but ones that were relative to health and science, my forte as you will, such that I was able to add my personal knowledge of the topic, explain the vernacular better, and create the tone that aligned with my feelings towards such topics (the comfort). I will say that there was one time I turned down a topic my editor sent me because the discomfort was too much.

That being said I wrote about a large variety of health/science-related issues such as sperm banks in China being incredibly selective, the death of an expat teacher resulted in saving the life of five others thanks to his organ donations,  a doctor receiving a weak prison sentence despite infecting multiple patients with HIV, and the black lung disease epidemic in China. Although a lot of times these articles didn’t have the information to brighten someone’s day, they were informative and I began to see the value in journalism, I began to see that journalism (when done honestly and accurately) is something that brings knowledge to the people, and I am a big believer that knowledge is power and learning is a lifetime activity.

By the end of this internship, I left learning so much and appreciating more of what journalism and how it connects and informs people. I remember checking the views on an article I wrote about Einstein and his secret racial views against Asians and being in shock when I found that it hit over 10,000 views. For me, it meant that thousands of people had become a little more educated and knowledgeable of a beloved scientist who wasn’t always a saint. I am glad I did this internship, it was a unique way to begin to learn and understand what dynamics, issues, and advances China has.

3. Final Reflection

You’re Chinese, why don’t you speak Chinese?

I’ve been getting this question since the first trip to China that I can remember when I was eight. After people got over my strange appearance and learned that I couldn’t speak Chinese fluently, it was always the first thing I heard. This country has a way of claiming people as its own even after generations of ancestry removed from the homeland. This question, which often disregards the fact that many Chinese families have been in the US since the 1800s and have no need to speak Chinese, comes from a different conception of citizenship based on culture and shared ethnic ties, that stands in contrast to the multicultural conception of citizenship that I’m used to in America. (Though China has many national minorities,  the largest ethnic group and the biggest cultural power is still the Han).

What’s interesting to me is how that question has changed. In 2006 people used to ask it with an air of lightly disappointed chagrin – especially my Chinese family. Didn’t I know that Chinese would be the most important language in a few years? This year I heard it with a tone of frustration and a bit of disbelief. Chinese is popular, and China is the most powerful country in the world, so why don’t you know the language already? Whenever I meet with new people in China, after they ask me where I am from, the next question is always about my language skills. People ask me why I didn’t speak Chinese as a child. Sometimes, if my mother is there, they question her parenting.

But it was on this particular trip that I heard something for the first time: the idea of “爱国,” or loving one’s country. This probably means I haven’t been listening. But for some reason, in the few trips I’ve made to the country between 2006 and 2016, Chinese people never came across to me as especially patriotic before. Yes, there is the CCP, and the government-sponsored yearly culture showcase that is broadcast on CCTV, and there is the CCTV broadcast itself and the very patriotic national news – but I never connected this overtly patriotic national media to the thought processes of the average Chinese person. I always thought that Chinese people found the concept of overt patriotism funny, maybe even American. Yet here I was in a circle of professors and students, talking uncritically about the concept of love and loyalty to one’s country (even one’s ancestral country). Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention, but I think it has something to do with China’s economic and political rise.

On Change

The funny thing about the Nanjing Population Training Center is that its umbrella organization – the National Health and Family Planning Bureau – dissolved earlier this year. I think in May. Therefore the place that I worked for had to go through a scramble to change its focus in the few months before I arrived. They seemed to do it well. By the time I showed up to work, everything from the organization’s research projects to the focus of the presentations it gave to healthcare workers was geared toward healthy aging.

This change seemed to affect the professionals who gave the talks as well. I met a professor who, until a few months ago, had been doing research focusing on gender inequity among rural females. She switched over to aging studies recently.

Though I am just an outsider looking into a system that is far too opaque and complex for me to understand, I think I may have witnessed the change in family planning policy from a microscopic perspective. It affected everyone from average people to the university professors and researchers with whom I spent my time, who were all helpless to resist this change.

I had an illuminating conversation with Zhu Laoshi about this change. She is from the Hui ethnic minority. I mention this only because she was the only Hui person I have met on this trip. She was a quick-witted, fast-talking woman in her early thirties, who also believed wholeheartedly in the Chinese government’s ability to take care of its people. She explained to me the problems with the new family planning system (not everyone wants to have two children, but now there are more older people than ever) and described the disparities in quality of life and educational attainment between rural and urban youth. She also was honest about China’s problem with pollution. But she was convinced that all of these things were getting better.

To me, this seemed sad at first. How could she trust the authorities to protect the interests of average Chinese when she had no control over what they chose to do? But then I thought about my experiences. I stayed in a hotel and training center paid for entirely by the Chinese equivalent of the department of health – meaning that up-to-date health information was disseminated to eldercare workers all around the country. I visited a new model for a holistic health care center, a pilot that was intended to be spread to the rest of the province if it was successful. And I saw my grandmother get a CAT scan for only 200 yuan out of pocket.

All this is not to say that everything in that country is run correctly – but I learned that there are other ways of caring for people than in democracy. And the concept of a government that is fair to its people is not exclusive to a Western democracy. When I was in China, I witnessed a healthcare system that was actually meant to care for people – and that represented a belief in a common right to health that I just don’t see in the US.

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