Author Archives: rhill25

Political Culture

One of the lectures addressed the history of China-US relations. It got me thinking about differences between our cultures, and how that shapes the relationship dynamics between the two countries. The most obvious difference upon arriving is the racial homogeneity of China compared to the US. I had heard about the 40-some minority racial groups in China, but I think that number is very misleading. In practice, 90+% of the people you would meet in major cities belong to the Han Chinese racial group. Aside from that, I think the most significant difference may be political culture. The US is ostensibly based on a bottom-up democratic approach. China, by contrast, follows a top-down approach. In America, great pains are taken around the value of individual autonomy. Those values are nowhere near as widespread in China. I discussed this issue with a friend, and she brought up the point that our freedoms are not as complete as we like to think in America – the Patriot Act is a good example. Add in our massive wealth gap and the fact that money can do much more to influence political action than a person’s vote ever will; when viewed this way, it begins to seem like the American image of freedom and democracy is little more than an illusion conjured by a clever and rich ruling class. Perhaps we are not so different from the Chinese, and they just avoid beating around the bush and hiding their top-down political processes. Political culture is a complicated issue, and after experiencing China firsthand, I am sure I will leave with more questions than I came in with.

The Chinese love their cigarettes!

Among the most jarring cultural differences between the US and China for me has been the frequency of smoking. It feels like there is a smoker around every corner in Beijing and Hangzhou. Secondhand smoke permeates most public places, to the point that my clothes would smell like smoke many nights despite never smoking myself. I saw several no smoking signs at our hotel and around the Wanxiang campus, but that didn’t stop students and workers in the slightest. Multiple times, on my way to and from class, I would see campus cleaning staff smoking together directly under a no smoking sign. It was quite common to see people smoking near a little children’s playhouse outside our hotel as well, which was not especially reassuring. Taking pollution readings was made slightly more difficult when I had to find a place that someone had not smoked in recently. After seeing the prevalence of cigarettes in China, I am glad to know they are seeing a decline in popularity in the US.

Alex’s Birthday

Back in Hangzhou we were able to celebrate the birthday of one of the Wanxiang student ambassadors who I had grown close with, whose English name is Alex! Alex is the youngest ambassador, yet is also the tallest. He loves basketball and enjoys watching American basketball in his free time. According to Alex, American basketball is better because “they can actually dunk!” In any case, we gathered a mixed group of U of I students and Chinese ambassadors to celebrate Alex’s 20th birthday. I was surprised to see that two cakes were prepared for the occasion instead of just the one cake like I would expect to see in America. I didn’t question it, but internally I was curious. My best guess was that it might have something to do with the fact that he was turning 20, like giving him one cake for each decade or something to that effect. Imagine my surprise when just moments later, the smaller cake was launched into Alex’s face by one of the Chinese students! Quite suddenly, the mystery of the second cake was solved.

Ping Pong – Coach Brady!

I used to play tennis back in highschool, and since then I’ve always loved racket sports of all kinds. In particular, I’ve had a lot of fun playing ping pong with friends back home. Since ping pong is very popular in China, I figured I would get an opportunity to play the sport while staying here. I met a really good Chinese player whose English name is Brady. I tried every trick I could think of, but I was completely unable to beat him! His English is very good and we agreed to practice together when we had some free time. I had never formally learned things like how to properly hold the paddle and how the best players use footwork and spin to help return and control the ball. Brady is very kind and was happy to teach me these things, basically becoming my own personal ping pong coach! I still have not been able to beat him, but I can tell that I am improving. Through ping pong, I have made several cool Chinese friends and picked up a new hobby as well!

Home Visit!

Every person got to go to a different home for a full day last Saturday. I felt quite fortunate because I was put in the group heading to Bruce’s family’s house. I went with Nicole Pudlo and three Chinese student ambassadors Bruce, Alex, and Carrie. I wasn’t sure what to expect at all, so I asked each of the ambassadors about Bruce’s family. Bruce told me his mother was a librarian and his father was a manager of some kind. On the other hand, Alex and Carrie said Bruce was “very rich” and started spinning tales about him living in a “castle”.

Upon actually arriving, I confirmed my suspicions that Alex and Carrie were greatly exaggerating. Bruce’s family lives in an upper-floor apartment that is not especially large. However, what Alex and Carrie said might not have been completely off base. From what I have gathered, it takes quite a bit of wealth to own a home/apartment of even modest size in Chinese cities. Leaving the compact size aside though, the apartment was lovely. It was clear they had decorated the living room with care to display pictures, mostly of their happy family. Bruce’s father prepared a delicious meal for us consisting of various veggies, fish, pig belly, duck, and even turtle! The turtle in particular was a favorite of mine, and I was glad I got the chance to eat it for the very first time.

After the meal, Bruce took us to a series of fun activities: a zoo, a small kid’s amusement park, and a temple on a mountain. Quite unfortunately, the zoo had no pandas so I have still been unable to fulfill that goal. But it did have deer, peacocks, monkeys, and other entertaining creatures. The rides in the amusement park were all designed for people with much smaller legs than my own. Of course, I didn’t let that stop me from ramming full speed into Bruce, Alex, and some random small kids in bumper cars! The temple was a bit of a trek up a mountain, and the day was hot so it wasn’t easy. However, the difficult climb made reaching the top of the temple even more satisfying, especially thanks to the pleasant breeze we could feel at the top. The top of the temple featured a breathtaking view over the city of Hangzhou. All in all, it was a really fun home visit that helped me get to knew Bruce and his family much better.

Hangzhou Polytechnic

Immediately upon arriving at Hangzhou, I felt at home. Nancy and the Chinese student ambassadors were warm and welcoming. They prepared a fun and exciting opening ceremony for us, including touching introductions from the ambassadors. Several introductory seminars were prepared for us to provide information on China’s history, so we could have a bit of cultural context to help us understand this country and its people better. These included famous Chinese thinkers such as Confucius, Laozi, and Sunzi. Our Chinese teacher told us that because China is a very old and culturally rich country, the philosophies of these thinkers who lived so long ago still runs through the blood of the Chinese people.

Language seminars are my personal favorite, since they are both fun and immediately useful. I must say though, that Chinese is by far the hardest foreign language I have ever tried to learn! Between 4 different tones to distinguish and the lack of cognates, it is very difficult to find my footing in this language. For excursions, the ones that stick out the most are the Xixi Wetlands museum and West Lake. Both are signature attractions of Hangzhou, and West Lake in particular was a must-see for its lovely landscape that could have come straight out of a painting. I am excited for upcoming lectures on the environmental plans and developments of China, and expect to learn a lot from them. I am loving my stay in Hangzhou, and only expect to have more glowing praise for this program as it continues!

Goodbye Japan, Hello China!

I am now finally settled in at Hangzhou, but I want to retroactively comment on the blur of activities we have had in the past couple weeks.

The end of our Japan trip consisted of a day trip to Nikko, spending time at night with some local friends, and one night in Tokyo. Although I had been to Nikko on my last visit to Japan last year, there were some new experiences added in, as well as a different group of people, which made it feel brand new. For new experiences, we drove and hiked up to the top of a nearby mountain and later went out on a boat. I got a bit carsick on the bus ride up and down, but once we were there it was beautiful. The boat ride was similarly blissful. We became friends with several locals while we were on the program. One of them named Abdul (originally Saudia Arabian, has lived in Japan for 6 years) invited us over to his house one night. Some of us went there along with Seishirou and Mitsuaki, two of our Japanese friends. We got to experience a young Japanese person’s household, although Seishirou and Mitsu assured us this was far bigger than usual. By the end of the night, we had grown a lot closer to each other. Before we knew it, the Sayonara Party had passed and we were waving goodbye to our hosts at Ashikaga and heading to Tokyo. Unfortunately, we only had the one night to explore this exciting city. We ended up going out to a lovely little alley filled with bright lights and izakaya restaurants. The place was packed, but we managed to find one with open space. We had some drinks and I ate chicken gizzard (!) which tastes as unusual as it sounds. Honestly, it was all pretty good though. I do wish I could have spent more time in Tokyo, but we had a wonderful time all the same.

The flight from Tokyo to Beijing trip was (thankfully) much shorter than our flight to Japan had been. The time change was only one hour this time. Upon arrival, we met the students from UIUC and UIC and took a bus to our Beijing hotel. The hotel was in a very good location to serve as home base for our forays out to Beijing’s many landmarks. The big highlights for me were Tienanmen Square, The Great Wall, and the Summer Palace. Tienanmen Square was massive and thus seemed empty even though a pretty large amount of people were present. The section of the Great Wall that we visited had so, so many stairs to climb to reach the top. Add in that we were climbing it on possibly the hottest day of the year (over 100 degrees F) and the trek was extremely arduous. Still, I doubted I would get another chance to climb the Great Wall anytime soon, so I resolved to ignore my screaming legs and go all the way up. The Summer Palace was simply beautiful. The architecture of the “marble boat” was exquisite, and lily pad ponds and long galleys added to the lovely atmosphere.

Flight, Arrival, and First Days

Dennis and I arrived at the O’Hare airport bright and early at 2am.  Having been to Japan last summer and loved it, I was incredibly excited to return, but much less excited for the two long flights ahead of us. However, I had no reason to be worried – check-in and security went fine, and before we knew it we were above cloud level on our way to Vancouver. The Vancouver airport is lovely. There were totems that appeared to be of Native tribe design and an aquarium in the central area. Seeing the wide array of nationalities, including Canadian, Chinese, and Japanese, made it really click for me that I was about to embark on an adventure in foreign lands. The second flight was much longer, about 9 hours, but there were no disturbances. Upon arrival, I was quickly reminded that the 2020 Olympics would be hosted in Japan. Of course, in that trademarked Japanese cutesy style, they proudly displayed two adorable mascots in the Narita airport. Dennis, Nicole, and I were absolutely drained when we landed, but seeing Sasaki-san, a funny and wonderful Japanese teacher I had met last year, brightened the moment. He drove us to Ashikaga. Jet-lagged as we were, the rest of the night was mostly a blur, but I remember eating pizza and learning some beginner Chinese from Sasaki-san.

Despite some restless sleep, I felt surprisingly alert Monday morning. We went to Ashikaga University where we met the other students, who had just returned from their homestays. I was happy to meet my homestay mother from last year, Ayako-san. We caught up with each other, and I learned that her son had a baby recently, making her a new grandmother! I was again struck by how lovely Ashikaga is, full of greenery and pleasant residents. In a weird way, I felt like I’d arrived at my second home! That night we had karaoke which was crazy fun, and I met a nice Japanese student our age named Seishirou. Melissa, Francesca, and I had some drinks with him down by the river near our hotel later that night. We learned that Seishirou is coming to our college in Springfield later this year, and agreed to hang out when he does.

Tuesday, we had a language class. We learned a lot of new things, but unfortunately my memory of hiragana and katakana (Japanese phonetic alphabets) was abysmal. We went to Kyudo, traditional Japanese archery, and had an absolute blast. The Kyudo masters there were very old, but had an experienced and wise aura about them. One obstacle for me was that I am left-handed, but Kyudo tradition requires everyone to shoot right-handed and with very particular form. It took a bit to get the hang of it, but in my last shot I was actually able to hit the target! I definitely just got lucky, but I’ll certainly take it. Later that night we had Mexican food, which was better than expected given how far we are from Mexico. All in all, these first three days in Japan were a wonderful start to our East Asian exploration.

P.S. This is missing pictures, I still need to figure that out. Once I do I will edit them in.