Fall 2010 Issue


Far and Away

Summer study abroad program gives students a glimpse beyond the ‘Great Wall’

George Martinez, Shanese Hogg, Marjorie Biendicho, Dr. Pawena Sirimangkala and Clint Bahadur visit Nanputua Temple, Xiamen, China, on July 7.

“Too big to be ignored,” is how communication professor and Honors Program director Dr. Pawena Sirimangkala described China. With a population of about 1.3 billion and a GDP of more than $5 trillion in 2009, that seems like a fair assessment and one that made China an obvious choice for the Honors Program 2010 summer study abroad program.

“China is a big global partner,” Sirimangkala said. “However [one] feels about China, you can’t deny its relevance in the world. In terms of global impact, it was really between China and the European Union, and many people in the West are less familiar with China and its emergence.”

The trip got off to a rocky start, Sirimangkala admits, with the economic downturn affecting the number of students who could participate. However, the four students who travelled to China were all determined to learn as much as they could about the country during the four-week program, which included language classes and lectures on Chinese culture and history. Each of the four admitted that they didn’t know much about China before the trip, but what preconceived ideas they did have were quickly dispelled upon arriving in the coastal city of Xiamen.

I was really surprised that you saw Benzs and BMWs in the wealthier neighborhoods. There were poor neighborhoods and posh ones just like in any other city. I guess I was expecting things to be more equal, more ‘Communist.’

“In my mind I had images that you would associate with an old-style Communist country with old buildings and people in really traditional dress, but that wasn’t the case at all,” said George Martinez, a photography major. “The city is really modern and the young people are really fashion forward.”

Shanese Hogg, an international studies major, also noticed the fashion right away: “I don’t like the word ‘westernized’ but let’s say the dress in the cities was very ‘globalized,’ and I saw a lot of high heels.”

Getting past the golden arches

The group first spent two weeks under the tutelage of a teaching assistant from the University of Xiamen trying to learn the basics of Mandarin – no easy task. “It was the first time I tried to learn a language not based on the Roman alphabet,” said Marjorie Biendicho, a criminology major who speaks Italian, Spanish and some French. “I actually started to practice the strokes before the trip just to see if I could do it. But it takes years and years to really learn.”

Sirimangkala, who is originally from Thailand, admitted she had the advantage over her students when it came to learning the language. “Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language and so is Thai. So it was definitely, I won’t say easy, but not as difficult for me. Next year we’re going to require that the students listen to language CDs for six months before they go.”

Language and cultural barriers didn’t deter Hogg, who developed an interest in China due to a Chinese friend she met in the U.S. “At first you’re really afraid to make a mistake. I remember the first morning after we arrived in Xiamen, and we were trying to find food. We didn’t want to eat at McDonalds, but we were kind of intimidated even to approach the local street vendors.”

Luckily, the first vendor they approached knew a little English, enough to convince the group to try her dish, which was kind of like “omelet with Chinese veggies mixed all together.”

“It sounds like a little thing,” Hogg explained “but just the fact that we saw her every day in front of the hotel and she always said ‘hi’ and spoke to us, made a big difference. It made me think, ‘I can do this. I can make a friend.’ ”

Hello and goodbye

After the group learned a few phrases, such as nǐ haǒ (hello, how are you?) and xie xie (thank you), communication – while still limited – became somewhat easier and most of the students admitted they were surprised at how open and friendly the Chinese people were.

In fact, Martinez, who was chronicling the trip with his camera, found himself particularly drawn to the faces of people he saw on the street: “There’s something not just open but almost innocent in the faces of the people.”

Among the hundreds of photographs Martinez took was a series of pictures of young skateboarders on the street in Xiamen. “It was interesting because they really acted or tried to act like American guys. They still really look to America for fashion and culture. But the odd thing is that even now (despite the recession) they still think everyone in America has money.”

The question of how they’d be perceived by the Chinese took on an extra dimension for Bahadur and Hogg, who are black. “We weren’t sure how they would react, because we assumed it’s mainly Caucasians who visit China as tourists,” Hogg said.

Although they did get extra attention, Bahadur is quick to point out that it was a very positive experience. “People want to take your picture or they want their kids to take a picture with you. They’re very curious because they’re exposed to African-American culture through TV and movies but they never have a chance to meet anyone who is black.”

One slight tinge of disappointment for Bahadur was how few people he met who had heard of his native Jamaica. “I’d say about 90 percent of the people I spoke with hadn’t heard of Jamaica. When you said you were from Jamaica, you just got a blank expression. Sometimes I ended up just saying I was from the U.S. because it was easier.”

Although many in China might never have heard of Jamaica, Hogg said she was still impressed by what she described as the “global perspective” she saw in China’s cities. Nowhere was that perspective more evident than at the World Expo in Shanghai held May 1- October 31. Built around the theme of “Better City, Better Life”, an exploration of urban life in the 21st century, more than 200 countries participated in the exhibition, which drew an estimated 70 million visitors. “It was a huge site,” Hogg said. “People would line up hours before it opened and there would be a three or four hour wait just to get inside the building. I think people have a real thirst for knowledge beyond China.”

‘Gated’ communities

While the grandeur and scope of the expo is representative of a nation that is now the second largest economy in the world, the students were also surprised by some aspects of China’s economic boom – primarily the inequity in income. “I was really surprised that you saw Benzs and BMWs in the wealthier neighborhoods,” Bahadur said. “There were poor neighborhoods and posh ones just like in any other city. I guess I was expecting things to be more equal, more ‘Communist.’ ”

Dr. Betty Diener, a management professor in the Andreas School of Business, travelled to China on a Fulbright grant in 2001 and taught at Tsinghua University. She is not surprised by the disparity between Westerners’ perceptions, or in some case misperceptions, of China and the reality, especially since the change in many cases has come at an astounding pace.

“China calls their system ‘socialism with a Chinese character,’ ” Diener says. “But the changeover from the traditional Communist system has been really swift. If you’re at the lower end of the economic scale, you can start a small business and keep the profits. And, if you’re already at the higher end of the economic scale, say in the army with good connections, you can figure out how to take over and own a formerly state-owned enterprise. Once the government said ‘to be rich is glorious’ the gates were open for everyone to acknowledge that they wanted to improve their quality of life. The speed with which they’ve done it is unbelievable.”

China’s burgeoning prosperity, however, has brought its own set of problems. “I met a well-educated man in Shanghai, who was upper middle-class and had a law degree,” Hogg said. “And he explained it like this: Many people who live in cities can’t afford their own apartments. So 10 families rent an apartment, and let’s say 30 people all live together in that small apartment with bunk beds stacked up. He said, ‘we can’t think of ourselves as a global superpower until everyone can afford their own dwelling.’

I’d say that most of the Chinese I spoke with recognized that with growth there also lies a lot of problems.

Diener agreed, adding that the Chinese government is also very aware of and concerned with worker unrest in the wake of the “new China” and the resulting economic upheaval.

“Wages are rising. And, at the same time, so is civil unrest. Last year, there were more than 40,000 demonstrations, strikes, etc., in China over working conditions, wages and other issues. The government worries continually about this,” she said.

The ‘social’ scene

Although the students were surprised by some of the seemingly “capitalistic” aspects of China’s socio-economic structure, there was one place where it was evident that China was still very much a Communist country: the Internet café. “You could almost forget you were in a Communist country until you did a Google search,” Biendicho said. “On some of the searches I did, those relating to Communism or the government, I believe, the search engine would only take you so far; a lot of things were blocked.”

Google’s widely publicized battles with the Chinese government over censorship may have received a lot of media attention, but other forms of social media such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube are also blocked. “I know there are government-developed and monitored alternatives to Facebook, but most of the young people I saw at the Internet cafés were using computers to play games or watch movies rather than using them for social networking. But maybe that’s just what I saw and maybe that’s just at the Internet cafés,” Hogg said.

It’s just a matter of time and education, Diener says, before Internet access in China catches up to the West: “China has the highest Internet usage of any country in the world. And, access to education will be a further driver of usage in the future. So usage, though huge, is still right at the beginning of the curve. There’s no way that the government can block everything, either technically, or socially.”

Smart move

Internet censorship aside, all four of the students enthusiastically answered “yes” when asked if they would like to go back to China. Bahadur, whose senior project is on how Western companies are investing and branding in China, sees opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs. “The opportunities are there; you just need proper connections. I’d like to go back but have the trip be more business focused.”

Bahadur is smart, Diener said, to make the effort to become familiar with Chinese language and culture – a must for those hoping to do business with the global giant in the future. “Anyone doing business in China really needs to make a commitment to understand their culture. This includes their language, their customs and their values,” Diener says. “The Chinese don’t need to change. They have 1.3 billion people, but if we want to do business in their country - either in marketing to them or in outsourcing our production to them - we are the ones who will need to change.”

For Hogg, who is researching the government’s policy on Mandarin language and how it will affect China’s continued rise to prominence on the world stage, the trip only confirmed her passion for international study. “I’m looking at graduate programs in Japan and I’m very interested in international law, so that might be part of my plan,” she said.

A chance to see more of inland China and its countryside would be a big draw for Martinez, whose senior project will focus on how young people in China see their country.

Biendicho, the criminology

major whose senior project will be on corruption in China, would simply like to have a more in-depth experience in the country. “Even though China is undergoing massive changes, you could still see some of the core values and beliefs that came from past generations. You get a sense that they honor past generations, even as they’re trying to catch up to the world.”

Sirimangkala hopes her next trip will include a whole new group of Barry students eager to experience the country that is just too big to ignore. “We would definitely do some things differently based on our trip this year. It’s a tough country in a lot of ways, but one that just cannot be denied based on sheer population, the government’s determination to be part of the global community, and our vested interest in its economy. I think all the students feel the decision to go to China was a good one.”