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Exploring an Independent Research Topic: Sino-African Relations

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Written by Mpaza Kapenbwa (Williams College)
C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in Kunming, Student Correspondent, Fall 2013

When I was preparing for China, I received plenty of unsolicited advice meant to help me stay out of trouble and have a smooth transition. “Don’t come back a communist now,” I was told. “Be careful, you know they eat dogs over there,” I was cautioned. While I appreciated these well-meant words, I was concerned about something totally different.

CV Starr Middlebury School in China, CET Academic Programs, Kunming, independent research, Sino-African Relations, Yunnan University, Williams College
I choose the Middlebury program because of its research component. Getting to use Chinese to discuss and write about my research meant adding a crucial missing piece to the puzzle. I am interested in the increasing China and Africa economic, political and cultural relations. I have an African and American background, I have written about and discussed this issue with people of different backgrounds but none of them were Chinese. I was, however, worried about whether I would find someone interested in this topic in China. All the literature and scholarship on China-Africa relations is undertaken by western sinologists. Furthermore, even if someone was interested, how open would they be willing to discuss a topic that the government has long treated as a secret because the public might not be receptive to the idea of giving billions of dollars in economic aid to 50 African countries while China itself is still a developing country?

CV Starr Middlebury School in China, CET Academic Programs, Kunming, independent research, Sino-African Relations, Yunnan University
I was in for a surprise when I was introduced to my adviser. He is a graduate student at Yunnan University, our host University, and one of three PhD students researching the China and Africa relationship. He was just as excited as I was when we met because he probably could have imagined an American student interested in this topic. He lamented the fact that even though Africa has become a major part of the Chinese government’s foreign policy, there are, as far as he knows, only 40 scholars in China who study and write about Africa.

CV Starr Middlebury School in China, CET Academic Programs, Kunming, independent research, Sino-African Relations, Yunnan University, Williams College
I asked why there were not more scholars interested in this topic and he frankly told me that not too many Chinese people care about issues involving Africa. It is, to many, still the “dark continent.” My concerns quickly evaporated. I had found someone who would not only be willing to guide me, but also talk about the uncomfortable aspects of the topic because it is only then that progress can be made. Within the first two classes, he was able to help describe my research in Chinese.

Over the course of this year in China, I will have many surprises. I am glad the first week brought about a pleasant one.

Our “Dorm” and Its Surroundings

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Written by  Jack Momeyer (Middlebury College)
C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in Kunming, Student Correspondent, Spring 2013

  China, Kunming

The 15 students of this semester’s Middlebury Kunming have an ideal living situation. Our dorm (if you can call it that), is a branch of Yunnan University’s (云大) hotel. Not too shabby. We receive housekeeping every day, and the walk to class is less than two minutes. Better than that, though, is, our location. The street we live on is called Wenhua Xiang (文化巷) which is literally translated to “Culture Alley.” Every night 文化巷 has a night market at which vendors gather to show off their collection of iPhone cases, shoes, earrings, dresses, and things of that sort. Though I am not positive about this, I am fairly sure that the whole ordeal is illegal. The only proof I have of that is that as soon as a police officer comes by, within 5 seconds the vendors have all their products wrapped in a blanket. How quickly they do it – it’s really a form of art. They then sling the blanket over their back and stand around casually as if nothing has happened. One of my classmates described it perfectly: “Do the police officers think that it’s simply a nightly gathering? Everyone just brings a big ole’ blanket full of stuff and stands around chatting. It’s ridiculous.” It is ridiculous. Some of the vendors have come up with a better system. They set up in the trunk of their own cars. This way, whenever the cops come by, they just shut their trunk, and how can the cops prove that the 40 pairs of shoes, all of different sizes and styles, isn’t just their personal stash?

China, Kunming

Aside from the night market, we have 各种各样 (all sorts of) choices as to where to eat meals. Personally, I like to take advantage of the nearly free meals provided by the University’s cafeteria. I say ‘nearly’ because the meals are not, in fact, free. But just to give you an idea, I pay 2 kuai (the equivalent of about 30 cents) every day for my breakfast of 米粥 (something of a rice porridge) and 6 包子 (meat and vegetable filled bread). For lunch, my meal of rice, a variety of vegetables, and some sort of chicken never exceeds 6 kuai. It’s a fantastic feeling paying that little for so much. On top of that, there are plenty of Muslim restaurants within a minute of our dorm that offer take out fried noodles or rice dishes for around 10 kuai. If you are looking to go out as a group and order a bunch of dishes to share (the Chinese style of eating), there are a handful of restaurants that offer the classics such as 宫爆鸡丁 (commonly known in the States as KungPao Chicken), 鱼香茄子 (Eggplants in fish sauce), 红烧鱼 (Fish in a delicious sweet sauce), and many more. These meals generally come to about 25 kuai per person. Not bad.

China, Kunming

Many of the students, myself included, also elect to do homework in the area’s cafes rather than in the dorms. Often times, a coffee and pastry will cost more than a whole meal would, but sometimes 生活就是这样 (life is just that way). Anyway, the cafes offer a fantastic environment in which to do work. It’s also pretty incredible how many people, Chinese and foreigners alike, approach a table full of Middlebury students to ask why we are all speaking Chinese with one another instead of English. Just one of the perks of the language pledge, I guess.

 

Coffee in the Spring City

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Written by  Ilana Fogerlson  (Macalester College)
C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in Kunming, Student Correspondent, Spring 2013

 

Let’s talk about coffee shops for a minute. I have two in mind that I feel people should know about: The first is called Fancy Cat, it is located on Wen Hua Xiang (Culture Street, basically, or Foreigner’s Street, if we’re being perfectly honest) up a narrow flight of stairs with a low ceiling. The coffee shop itself takes up the top two stories with windows and a balcony overlooking the activities on the street below.

China, Kunming
I’d like to preface the following description by saying that I don’t mean to be that one girl who’s really into cats… but I am definitely about to be that one girl who is really into cats. This café is home to two such mammals, and their names are Ding Ding and Deng Deng. Frankly speaking, I don’t particularly care whether this café’s drinks are refreshing or subpar, because last time I visited, I got to spend somewhere close to three hours doing homework (read: petting cats) with a kitten asleep on my lap.

China, Kunming
That being said, this café’s prices, by the Chinese standard, might be a little bit expensive (I’m going to assume this is because they are levying a cat fee), and their wi-fi is all but nonexistent. Considering how distracting hanging out with cats can be, I would not recommend this café if you are hoping to get a lot of work done. But if you just want a cool place to relax and some fuzzy company, this is definitely the place to go.
The second café is a little bit closer to home (literally, its gate is about two steps away from the first floor of the Middlebury students’ dorm.
It’s surprising how long it took for someone on this program to wander through the gates and order a drink, but once they did, it instantly became a program favorite.

China, Kunming
The café is almost entirely out of doors; it is home to an absurd number of trees, vibrant flowers, a stone basin full of goldfish, a porch swing, and the sweetest staff anyone could ask for.

I believe the shop is fairly new, so sometimes the coffee comes out a bit bitter, but the warmth of the staff makes up for this ten-fold. The boss is always treating the students who study there to a few extra snacks on the house or Chinese magazines when homework gets to be too much. When it isn’t too windy or dark out, this café is a perfect place to study.

China, Kunming The other great aspect of both these spots is that the number of foreign patrons is extremely limited. If you want to avoid hearing English while you study, these shops are ideal.
Until next time!

Volleyball in Kunming!

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Written by  Jesse Birdsall  (Middlebury College)
C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in Kunming, Student Correspondent, Spring 2013

 

Since first arriving in Kunming, I have been playing volleyball at Yunnan Normal University. Most of the people I play with are Chinese, but there are also a couple of international students too. As I was thinking about what to post for this week, I decided that sports could be a really interesting topic.

China, sports, volleyball

In the United States, most kids are brought up playing some sort of sport. While they may not ever play for a professional team, college or even high school, this sort of culture still exists. Obviously there are sports in China, in Yunnan specifically there is a lot of volleyball and basketball. In fact, basketball has permeated Chinese culture so much, that almost all of our roommates follow the NBA. Recently Yunnan Normal University has hosted some volleyball tournaments for a local middle school. While watching them compete and through my own volleyball experience in China, I’ve gotten another perspective on Chinese culture. Sports and health are approached differently than in the United States. In general, excluding the intense national teams that are picked from a very young age, sports seem to be an afterthought in terms of education in China. While the sports they engage in may not be as extremely rigorous as the ones in the United States, there seems to be more of an inclination towards balance, that sports are just a small part of a person’s life. It is a much different philosophy in terms of approach to sports than in the United States. A lot of my Chinese friends who play volleyball with me seem to be much less concerned about winning and losing than I am. Growing up, I played almost every sport imaginable, which fostered a pretty intense competitive streak. From my experience so far, there seems to be a lot less of that than there is in the U.S. Everyone is there to spend time with their friends and get a work out as a bonus.

China, sports, volleyball

I guess the purpose of this post is not to judge whether one is better than the other, but more to simply point out, hopefully objectively, that there are differences between the two cultures that aren’t readily apparent. Only through rather long periods of time with Chinese people in a sports environment would you be able to notice some of these things. I believe that this experience is something so typically “study abroad” and it is nice to have those moments every now and again. I hope you got something out of this post, if not, I have decided to write about a specific aspect of Chinese culture for every blog post and I hope the next one catches your fancy!