Each Summer, twenty young leaders from across the United States travel to Beijing, China, to learn about modern China and the art of diplomacy. The JSA Diplomat program aims to provide America’s future leaders with the skills to represent their country effectively on global issues. During the month-long session, students can earn college credit in courses in Chinese history and language. They also develop leadership skills through interactions with Chinese and American officials on political, economic and social issues.
These past two weeks have been nothing but eventful. Last weekend the group of us made a trip down to Yunshan village in the Ningbo district of Zhejiang. It is a tiny village surrounded on three sides by pretty large cities. It had held on to its charm, and other than the large highway and train tracks cutting through, it was exactly like I had imagined it, which the misty rice fields. Yunshan is home to one of our friends from our host university here in Hangzhou. We were put up at the town hall offices and our hosts were very welcoming. After settling in a few of us were interviewed by a local news crew as we pretending to shovel around some rice grains. Actually, I am not all that clear who they were, but they had a big camera and a pretty lady with a hand-mike.
Being in a village, we had the chance to eat some of the local delicacies, a good change from Hangzhou food. Zhuting’s family (our hosts) also happen to own a pig farm with more than a 1000 pigs, which of course meant there was a lot of pork on the table. It isn’t abnormal, at a special meal to be consuming such a wide variety of animals that it would make most zoos jealous. But don’t worry we are getting used to it.
Also, we got to walk around the little town along its disproportionally wide roads to the pig farms, duck coops and fish ponds and hiked (strolled) up a mountain in the center of town. We did try our hand at fishing and failed quite miserably, but it was a good way to spend a lazy weekend afternoon. That Sunday I met up with family in Shanghai and made it back to Hangzhou just in time for class the next morning.
After a tiring week of school work, we decided to treat ourselves to the midnight premier of Harry Potter. (I may have watched it the next afternoon too). We had opted for the tickets that provided us with free tea which resulted in a couple of us having to disturb the entire theater audience by having to run out and back in half-way through the movie to head to the restroom. Embarrassing. We laowais are apparently not immune to the competence of all the diuretics we drink daily, all the tea: from longjing to bubble aah.
It has finally dawned upon us that the semester here in Hangzhou is slowly coming to an end – we have less than a month now. One evening, a few of us got together and wrote out a list of things we would like to accomplish before we leave. These include singing together on a crowded bus, taking our professors out to a bar, walk a full circle around the West Lake, eat smelly tofu, eat with our hands etc. We have already made it through a bunch of things on the list but I am pretty excited for the time we have left here.
Today I’m going to tell you about last week’s school festival, Kishibe-sai.
All of the foreign students were randomly split into groups: China,
Korea, America, and Europe. We had to come up with a menu specific to our region and then mass-produce it for the festival. I was placed in
China, and we decided to make gyoza (dumplings), corn soup, and ebi
senbei (some really amazing deep-fried lightly shrimp-flavored chip
things that melt in your mouth). Therefore, the days proceeding the
festival were spent in huge groups rolling dough, mixing meat, and
folding up cute little dumplings.
The folding part is amazingly difficult, but after a gazillion tries,
I got the hang of it. I also took down some notes, so hopefully I can
now make them on my own!
The festival started on Friday, which meant a day off from school!
However, I was signed up to work 4 hours each day, so it wouldn’t be a
super chill time. During my shifts, I helped make more gyoza, serve
customers, and take care of the trash. A lot of people knew what they
were doing more than me though, so I kind of kept to the sidelines and
looked for things to keep me busy. Here’s our booth and our faithful
I also got to help out with Aikido club’s booth for a little while, which was fun. They were also making grilled sandwiches, including one with chocolate and one with pizza sauce, tuna, and cheese… yum! In the photos you can seem them super excited to be photographed.
Worthy of Our Study
As I become increasingly accustomed to China and the Chinese language, the wow-factor of being in a new culture does tend toward wearing off. Of course, not everything gets old: for instance, the older Beijing locals’ habit of adding an “arr” sound onto the end of their words never fails to make me feel like I am speaking to a motley crew of octogenarian pirates. (What is the Beijinger’s favorite day of the week? Tuesday, or XING QI ERRRRRRR!!!!!)
However, day-by-day progress—not being able to read a restaurant menu, and then discovering the next month you ordered your food without even thinking about it—come less and less often. I felt fortunate, then, to experience one of those leaps earlier this week. When three of our program’s Chinese roommates gave us an in-depth introduction to the Chinese education system, I felt a dawning realization that not only was I understanding every word they said, but I was computing their information in the same way I would be when taking in a lecturer’s words back in the United States. The process of merely understanding had always been my unspoken, concrete goal in China. In an unseen instant, that concrete goal of five months found itself irrevocably replaced by a new, more nebulous standard: how to best incorporate what I have learned into my new and ever-expanding worldview. When the range of my vision shifted, I found myself confronting new, hitherto unforeseen issues… and, of course, enjoying every minute of it.
What we learned about the specifics of Chinese student’s long hours can perhaps best be summed up by the fact that the sample sentence for learning to Chinese phrase 朝九晚五, “Zhao Jiu Wan Wu, To work from nine to five,” was “Students are very busy, and they would be thrilled to wake up late and work from nine to five.” In essence, elementary schoolchildren work the hours of full-grown adults. Some of them even wear ties, but theirs are smaller.
My mother, an elementary school teacher herself, surely cries anathema at the importance placed upon pure hours spent whiling away at the grindstone, along with China’s almost tunnel vision-like emphasis on standardized testing. I myself felt a gut reaction that this system was one of lamentable waste; I can’t study more than a certain number of hours a day until I hit a break-even point and begin a slow, muddled decay into ineffectiveness and lethargy, to be deterred only by caffeine or a string tied to my head which upends a bucketful of cold water upon me if the offending cranium droops too far. I think that my own experience, while certainly personal, does speak for something more basically human: no person, when pushed past their personal limits, will take as much out of any experience as when they are fresh.