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Culture Shock/Grind

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Written by Josiah Stork (Middlebury College)
C.V. Starr-Middlebury School in Kunming, Student Correspondent, Fall 2013

Before I left for China, a bunch of people asked me what my expectations were.  I told all of them that, before starting something new, I earnestly try to not have any expectations.  When going to a new place, joining a group, doing any sort of new thing, if you have expectations, reality will never match up to you what you expected.  Even the best of experiences won’t be the same as you imagined, and you will feel let down.  This will make the adventure of a lifetime feel disappointing.  So, before I came to China, I had no expectations.  Or so I thought.

CET Academic Programs, C.V. Starr Middlebury in Kunming, Middlebury College

After arriving here, I found that, unbeknownst to me, I had one expectation.  I expected culture shock.  Not only that, I expected culture shock to be, well, shocking.  You know, like sticking your finger in an electric socket, or jumping into a freezing cold lake.  I expected there to be some moment when I would just have this swept-off-my-feet kind of feeling, and I would just think Wow. I’m in China.

CET Academic Programs, C.V. Starr Middlebury in Kunming, Intensive Chinese Language in Kunming, Middlebury College

That seems only natural, right?  When you go to the exact opposite end of the world, you expect to be shocked.  Unfortunately, as far as my experience goes, that isn’t really what culture shock is like.

For this reason, I’m going to switch terms.  I don’t like the word culture shock, as it brings about the idea of a shock.  I feel the term culture grind is much more accurate.  You see, it’s not as if the Chinese walk on their hands or wear their clothes backwards, or some odd, obvious, shocking thing.  The only real differences lie in people’s expected behaviors.  For instance, it seems that the Chinese have no problem with staring at white people.  While this seems rude from an American perspective, it’s apparently within the realm of Chinese manners.

CET Academic Programs, C.V. Starr Middlebury in Kunming, Middlebury College, coffee in China

It’s these kinds of small things that, if you don’t take notice, will just grind on you.  You’ll feel agitated without any good reason and then realize that you’ve been obsessing over some cultural difference.  Perhaps you’re annoyed because you roommate tells you what to wear and when to wear it (a Chinese way of expressing concern).  Perhaps the root of your agitation lies in the fact that Chinese people give you things and you don’t know what to do (there’s some unspoken rule about denying the gift twice and then accepting… but it seems as if there are some exceptions to this rule).  If you obsess over these small things, you’ll drive yourself insane.

So, I have two thoughts to offer anyone else entering a new culture.  One, if the natives are doing something that bothers you, forgive and forget.  In this case, realize that they don’t mean to offend you, they’re likely either expressing concern or curiosity.  If, on the other hand, you’re worried about offending a local, forget about it.  I hate to tell you, but you will certainly make mistakes, and you will probably offend someone.  However, as Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”

CET Academic Programs, C.V. Starr Middlebury in Kunming, Middlebury College

To my friends studying abroad or entering some new culture: Make mistakes, offend people, be offended, forgive, forget, and move on.  Next year, you probably won’t remember how annoying such-and-such was.  You’ll just remember the good food, new experiences, and (most importantly) great people.

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!