China: Journey to the Other Side of the World

 Forbidden City photo opps

Forbidden City photo opps

*Because this does not exist anywhere else on the Internets (except for where it is buried in some digital archives) and partially because I was too lazy to think of something else to write about, please enjoy this column I wrote for the June 23, 2015, edition of the Manistee News Advocate about my trip to China. For another ditty about China (and Argentina), see Buenos Aires vs. Beijing: Which is the Better City?

On my list of places to visit, Asia had never really presented a particular draw for me. So I surprised myself last month when the pieces fell into position and I spent most of May on the other side of the world in China.

It was a three-week long supplement to a psychology course I'd taken at the University of Michigan during the winter, and it was purely by chance that the whole thing came together. What started out as an offhand remark by a friend I hadn't seen in a while and my initial shrugging off of the whole idea turned into a flight leaving from Manistee Blacker Airport at 4 p.m. on May 3.

My 24-hour-plus journey to the other side of the globe would see me stop at two airports in Chicago and one in Zurich, Switzerland, before arriving at the final destination: Beijing.

Our group consisted of two U-M professors — Kevin Miller and Kai Cortina — who are both involved with the School of Education and the Department of Psychology, 16 undergraduate students, and two graduate student advisers.

Members of the group came from Dearborn, Grayling, and Hudson; from D.C., New York, and northern Illinois; from Lebanon, South Korea, and Germany. Three of our group members — the two advisers and a student — were from China.

 Compulsory stop at Beijing's Olympic Green

Compulsory stop at Beijing's Olympic Green

We journeyed to Beijing with the purpose of comparing results of studies we'd undertaken while in Ann Arbor from January to April, the same studies our Chinese counterparts had conducted in a similar time frame at Beijing Normal University.

The studies generally had to do with the field of educational research: students' perceptions of teacher instructional quality, female attitudes about education and career, and students' conceptions of willpower depletion, perseverance, and grit. It was all interesting stuff, but the most enriching part of the experience was being able to work side by side with the BNU students.

As one might imagine, Chinese college students have pretty busy schedules. They study quite a bit, and at BNU and other colleges across China they must become fluent in English, which they begin learning at a young age, if they hope to have a chance of getting into professional school in either the United States or the United Kingdom.

One student I worked with, whose English name is Rowlin, was a prime example of the way these students attack their studies. For our group project, he sorted through and compiled so much data and statistics that we had more than we knew what do with. The spreadsheets were extensive and a testimony to Rowlin's dedicate work ethic, the reason he attends one of the top 10 universities in all of China.

 Representin' at the Great Wall

Representin' at the Great Wall

At BNU, and at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi'an, another city we visited during our three weeks, the students were incredibly welcoming.

Some of them had visited Ann Arbor in late January and early February as part of the grander cultural exchange program that our own trip is a component of, and so a few bridges between our groups had already been built.

They were happy to escort us around Beijing and some of them accompanied us when we made the trek to the Great Wall at Mutianyu.

Along with the educational bits, sightseeing was a large part of the study abroad trip in China. The agenda included the usual touristy spots — the aforementioned Great Wall, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square — and places that might not come so easily to mind when thinking of China — the Temple of Heaven, the Summer Palace, the Lama Temple. 

While in Xi'an, we also paid a visit to the mausoleum of China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who had an army of more than 8,000 terracotta soldiers manufactured to protect him in his afterlife.

One of the most memorable outings, however, had nothing to do with decadent palaces or 10,000-mile long walls. During the last week of the trip, our group traveled a little ways out of the city to visit a migrant school. Its operation — due to China's internal migration laws — is technically illegal.

The kids there were from various provinces around the country, and I was told the government could come in at any time and shut the whole thing down if it so desired. Sans a government shutdown, we were there that day to instruct a lesson in English for the children. 

The BNU students helped set up the visit and provided us with a lesson plan. We divided ourselves amongst the classrooms, and in my group was Professor Cortina and a classmate. Kai figuratively shredded the lesson plan and, shortly after going over some of the kids' favorite things to eat and drink, we were attempting to lead a classroom full of Chinese fourth-graders in a round robin chorus of "Row, Row, Row Your Boat."

 Nadine holds serve at the migrant school

Nadine holds serve at the migrant school

They got the idea, but it was one of those things that worked better in theory than in practice. Seeing how excited the kids were to have us there was the most rewarding part of the experience.

I handed out a lot of high fives, my classmate got in a table tennis showdown, and another classmates was asked to sing an Ariana Grande song by an elementary student who'd written down all the lyrics in English and Chinese. 

After scarfing down countless steamed and juicy buns — baozi and xialongbao Wikipedia tells me — and nearly being run over time and again by the chaotic traffic of Beijing; after becoming somewhat accustomed to herbal tea and well-skilled in the handling of chop sticks; after memorizing the Chinese phrases for "I don't know," "thank you," and "I don't want spice," and spending an afternoon with a Chinese family that told me I'd have a place to stay should I ever come back to the city; it was time to climb back aboard Swiss Air and return to the States.

Aside from the physical souvenirs, I brought back connections to people on the other side of the world and firsthand experience of a different culture. The one question that remains after all the studies have been dissected and discussed: where will the next adventure take me?

-LTH