The Sparknotes Guide to My Semester Abroad

Where did you go? Shanghai, for 3 1/2 months. Yes, that Shanghai. All the way in China. Yep. China. For 3 1/2 months.

Did you live in a dorm? Nope, a host family that didn’t speak English. But it was great. I had my own room, internet that actually worked, good food, and they did my laundry for me. It was the Chinese version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding. “Are you hungry?” “No, I’m good” “Ok, I’ll make you something.” Also my 30 year old host sister lived next door with her husband and the most adorable little girl.

How was the food? Lots of rice and lots of noodles, but definitely not the fried rice and lo mein from the Chinese takeout place down the street from your house. Fresh, lots more vegetables, very few fried things, mostly wok style. Got a little sick of the rice there at the end. But as comedian Mitch Hedberg famously said, “Rice is great when you’re hungry and want 2000 of something.”

What did you do in Shanghai? Took classes everyday Monday through Thursday. Language class everyday for 2 hours, elective classes Monday, Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and evenings. All of the electives focused on China and it’s economy or the government.

Did you like living in Shanghai? Absolutely, it’s a great town with lots of different cool areas to explore. Each part of the city is different and interesting in its own way. Lots of foreign influence, definitely more international, but not very touristy. A very livable city.

Did you travel? Yes, a bit, it’s a bit more difficult to travel in China than Europe though. Everything’s really connected but it’s a tough journey. Lots of trains. I traveled both independently and with my program. With the program to Nanjing and Yunnan Province (greatest week of my life, Dali, Shaxi, Tiger Leaping Gorge, Shangri La, Lijiang, and Kunming), on my own (with friends) to Xi’an, Xiamen, Gulang Yu, Hong Kong, and Beijing.

Why didn’t you leave China? China doesn’t like people coming and going as they please, so visas and entries are both expensive and difficult to arrange. That and there was plenty in China to see without adding in the rest of Asia.

What were your favorites? Tiger Leaping Gorge in Yunnan, the Great Wall and Beijing, and Hong Kong

What kind of cool things did you do? Ate some awesome street food, lived with a host family that didn’t speak English, met some really cool Chinese business owners, toured the Coke plant in Shanghai, toured the largest steel producer in the world, hiked the most precipitous mountain in the world, hiked one of the deepest river gorges in the world, learned how to make traditional Tibetan yak butter tea (there’s a reason it’s not popular outside of Tibet), went to a party on the 92nd floor of Shanghai’s tallest building, saw (and shotgunned a beer at) one of the 7 wonders of the world (the Great Wall) and the 8th wonder of the world (the Terracotta Soldiers), sang Wagon Wheel to a bar full of Chinese people that I’m pretty sure has never hosted foreigners before, celebrated my 21st birthday on an airplane (got a fruit plate and a card from the flight crew), got a picture with Mickey and Minnie at Hong Kong Disneyland, rode a double decker bus all over Hong Kong, ran into a good friend’s little sister in Beijing at the Forbidden City, took a LOT of selfies

Do you want to go back? Absolutely. I lived in Shanghai for 3 1/2 months and still didn’t get to see everything I wanted to see in Shanghai, nevertheless in the other cities I visited. I needed more time in Beijing and Hong Kong, and there were a few places I didn’t get to hit, like Guilin, Yangshou, Chengdu, etc. I also want to explore the rest of Asia, particularly the Southeast.

What did you learn? A lot about myself, and a lot about the world. And how big the world actually is. And that I’m just a really, really small part of it. Perspective. I gained a lot of perspective.

And I’m really good at using chopsticks now.

Would you recommend it? Studying abroad in China? Definitely not for most people. It’s not study abroad like Europe. But visiting China absolutely. Yes it’s a little scary, and a lot different, but it’s a whole different experience than what you get in Europe. Everyone should hop a plane and check out China. Plus it’s much cheaper than Europe.

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So in China it’s pretty common for people to refer to others in their family and their close social circle by kinship terms instead of calling them by name.

I learned today that Bobo’s name isn’t actually Bobo. Bobo is a kinship/familial term for small child.

How did I figure this out? Well, you see in China it’s also common to throw your newborn baby a birthday party when it turns 100 days old. Today for my farewell lunch, I got to attend a super traditional family style 100 day birthday part for my sister’s cousin’s newborn.

Definitely not a bad way to end my experience in China. Lots of great food, toasting to the new baby, and cake. It was really just wonderful to experience such a family event. Reminded me of my own family get-togethers and made me excited to get on my plane home so I could celebrate with my American family.

No doubt about it though, I will miss my Chinese family. They’ve been such wonderful hosts and have made such an effort to make me feel at home.

And apparently I’m their favorite host kid they’ve ever had (but I’m pretty sure Baba might have only said that because I was in the room).

But it does make me happy to know that now I’ve got family in this part of the world too.

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How to Say Goodbye

“Never say goodbye, because goodbye means going away, and going away means forgetting.” Peter Pan

I’ve never been a fan of goodbyes. Never. I’m also horrible at telling people goodbye, it’s always awkward, I never know what to say or how long I should hold the hug without being creepy or what to do with my hands. Goodbyes are hard. They’re sad. They’re the worst part of any relationship.

Our goodbyes started yesterday a graduation ceremony and a farewell luncheon. So now I can say I graduated from something. First goodbye was said to one of my two Chinese language teachers. Being in a class with only five students for two hours a day fosters a close relationship with a teacher. For Ding Laoshi, we’re the first class she’s ever taught. She’s still completing her graduate degree, so she taught two days a week and attended classes three days a week. After our class pictures, she hugged Kaitlyn and me about three separate times and scurried off before she completely started bawling in front of us.

Goodbyes give you an insight into the impact you have on people. It’s something I never think about, how my interaction and my being a part of someone’s life, no matter how small that part may be, impact another person. The things we say, the things we do, the way we act all carry weight and have different meanings to other people. Seeing Ding Laoshi get so emotional over our leaving was touching to see and to know she really enjoyed being our teacher and having us in the classroom. She’s really a great language teacher and I think she’ll be very successful.

Our other Chinese teacher, Wu Laoshi, had to leave early from the luncheon and we didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

Although I hate goodbyes, I often wonder what’s worse, having to say goodbye to someone or not having the chance to say goodbye at all.

And how do you say goodbye to a place? In approximately 26 hours I will be boarding a plane home. I will say goodbye to an incredible city and an amazing experience. How do you say goodbye? How do you spend those last hours in a place like this? One so far from home and so different.

Unfortunately a good deal of time today has been spent packing. It’s not easy arranging three and a half months worth of clothes (and souvenirs) into two suitcases, a carry on, and a backpack.

But the rest of my day has been spent on quite a few lasts. We (Rae, Kaitlyn, Paige and I) had our last lunch as foursome at our favorite American-style breakfast place (Mr. Pancake House). We made a last run at the fake market (Kaitlyn wanted sneakers and needed another gift), we took our last ride on the metro. Tonight will be my last dinner with my host family, the last night I stay in my tiny little room. It’s sobering. While I’m ready to go home, there are parts of my life here that I’m not sure I want to leave.

It’s been an incredible 15 weeks, full of life and learning and travel and good food and good friends and experiences I will never forget.

Like I said, I hate goodbyes. So tomorrow, I’m taking Peter’s advice, I won’t be telling Shanghai, or my host family, or my friends goodbye. I never want to forget my time here. Instead, I’ll just say “see you soon.”

Because I’ll definitely be coming back.

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June 4

Imagine a line of soldiers advancing, bearing AK-47s.

Imagine being the lone figure standing down a line of tanks rolling forward.

Imagine being in a square full of people, camped out for over a month, weak from a hunger strike, all demonstrating for rights and freedoms we so very often take for granted, without a second thought to the price paid or a moment’s sympathy for those who do not know existence in the freedom we experience everyday.

Today is the 25th anniversary of Tianamen Square.

There are no memorials, no headlines, seemingly no mention of the historical events that rocked the world twenty-five years ago.

News reports claim Tianamen Square and Beijing are crawling with untold numbers of security, many in plainclothes. Activists, professors, artists, writers, anyone that might have a connection to the events have been put under house arrest or moved to more remote parts of the country for a short while. Google has been shut down (We’ve still been able to get access but it’s been very, very slow and finicky). There have been efforts to contain foreign media coverage of the day in China. Reporters from the foreign press have been strongly discouraged, approached, even told they cannot ask Chinese citizens about what happened here not too long ago. There is nothing being said or done.

I’m guessing the government is hoping if no one says anything the whole thing will just blow over. That if they ignore it, it will fade into history, eventually there will be no one to remember it.

Today marked the culmination of the largest pro-democracy movement in Chinese history. Lead by students and intellectuals, non-violent protests such as hunger strikes and sit-ins were held in the square for over a month before the situation turned deadly.

Today, my Chinese teacher, a graduate student at ECNU, received his master’s degree during the university’s commencement exercises. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

People here go on about their lives as though nothing happened on this day those years ago.

But tonight in Hong Kong, there will be a candlelight vigil in remembrance. All over the world, news outlets are reflecting and looking back at the events that took place here. The rest of the world is remembering, but China is not.

We all have things in our past we would very much like to forget. But those experiences impact who we are today and our future. There are things in our pasts of which we are not proud, countries and governments are no different. China doesn’t take pride in the things that happened in that square. It would much rather the world think today is just another normal day.

They say those who forget their past are doomed to repeat it. China did learn from Tiananmen, but the lessons learned are not the type the general public would be able to perceive. It’s an intangible change, slow, taking its time, permeating as all change in China occurs.

Today is June 4th. For me, the next to last day of exams, for my Chinese teacher, his graduation day. For mainland China, it’s just another Wednesday. But for the rest of the world, today is a day of remembrance. China would very much like the rest of the world to forget this incident, to move on, but these are the types of things of which the world does not easily let go.

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“How was China”

My time in China is quickly drawing to a close, and I find myself thinking, “Where has the time gone?” It seems like just last night I stumbled off a plane, onto a bus, and into a strange, new place, unlike anything I had ever experienced. Since the moment I arrived in China, I’ve been swept into the whirlwind of a new life. Barely had I stepped off the bus at my host university that my new, temporary life began as my host father, who speaks no English, greeted me and whisked me away to my Shanghai home.

I think back on those early days here and it fills me with this sense of amazement in how much I’ve grown and changed in such a short amount of time. Study abroad plucks you from the comfortable, the known, the familiar, everything to which you are accustomed, and lands you in the strange, the unfamiliar, the unknown. It is here, beyond the confines of a life that until this moment has defined you, that gives you the opportunity, if only for a short time, to experience something completely unlike anything you’ve ever known. It is here, in this new, bewildering, foreign place that you learn and grow. For me, Shanghai and my time in China offered a plethora of new and different experiences. I went from living in a town of 60,000 to a city of 23 million. I went from a college of 1600 to a university of 15,800 undergrads (and 8610 grad students). I went from the modern West to the modernizing East. Majority to minority. English to Chinese. Living in a dorm 3 minutes from the classroom to an apartment 20 minutes from campus. Driving a gas-guzzling SUV (good lord do I miss my Tahoe) to riding the metro. Taking weekend trips to Carolina to weekend trips to see some of the most historical sites in the world. Drinking in a dorm room on a Friday night to club hopping in some of the swankiest places on the Bund. My life in China essentially became the antithesis to my life in Greenville/Spartanburg, South Carolina. While I wasn’t necessarily uncomfortable, I was definitely beyond my comfort zone.

They say life begins and ends at the edge of your comfort zone. Study abroad, then, is the essence of life, because study abroad for anyone, no matter where you go in the world, is beyond that comfortable place. It gives you the opportunity to see another side of life, one you may not have the chance to live, one you may not have the desire to ever live again, but nevertheless, that opportunity. The lessons learned, the experience gained, this whole concept of study abroad, gives you this whole new appreciation for the life you’ve left behind, but also a new perspective to view that life going forward. I can’t quantify or explain to you how I’ve changed, I just know I have. It’s the kind of change necessary for life itself. If we never grow and never change, we can’t appreciate the new chapters in our lives. Living in a city, living with a family, living in a new culture, in another country, it’s impossible not to change after an experience such as this one. But I’m pretty confident it’s for the better.

For the foreseeable future after I return home, the question will be, “How was China?” This question is the bane of every student studying abroad returning home because it is impossible to encapsulate the experience that is living in a foreign country for a semester in just a few words or sentences. I could talk for hours, show you every picture I took, and it wouldn’t even begin to describe my experiences or adequately answer, “How was China.” Study abroad isn’t just about living in a new place, traveling, or taking classes in another country. It’s about living, being, in a place that isn’t home, that isn’t familiar, and the living and the being in that place is an education all its own (because to be honest, the “education” we get through these programs isn’t exactly top notch, although my language instruction has been excellent the elective classes leave quite a bit to be desired).

China was a lot of things. China was new. Different. Exciting. Big. Smelled funny. Tasted different. Looked different. China was a little bit scary. Intimidating. Overwhelming. China was fascinating. Interesting. Historical. Cultural. Welcoming. Foreboding. Everything all at once. China was, well, China. A place unlike anywhere I’ve ever been and anywhere I will ever go. China gave me a whole new perspective on the world. China taught me that it’s ok to feel small. That we should feel small because the world is so big. And that we shouldn’t try to make the world smaller just because a smaller world is easier to understand.

China was the second best decision I’ve ever made. The first being deciding to attend Wofford of course.

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6 Days/156 Hours/9393 Minutes

However you want to slice it, my time here in Shanghai is coming quickly to a close. I’ve got a countdown on my phone and my computer. Just 6 days left here in this amazing city.

With the home stretch of finals this week, the end of my time here is really starting to hit home. I’ve never been less motivated to do something than now. But today, tomorrow, and Thursday have a pretty tough exam schedule and I’ll be grateful for that to all be over.

Exams being over signals just two more days in Shanghai before I depart. Despite living here for three and a half months, I still didn’t have enough time to cross everything off my list. But that’s life in a way. We make a list and we don’t always get to the things we have planned because of the unplanned things. But I’ll just have to tuck that list away for next time. For there will definitely be a next time.

The weariness, the homesickness, the desire to be done is settling on all the students in my program like a fog. We’re all gamely moving forward, trying to get through exams because the end of exams means home. And while we’ve all loved our time here, it’s time to go home.

Some people may mistake a desire to go home as a sign that we haven’t loved Shanghai or being in China or the experiences we’ve had, but that’s not the case. The truth is I’ve loved Shanghai, I’ve loved China, I have a strong desire to come back and explore more, not just in China but the rest of Asia. But right now my desire to be home is much stronger than my desire to be here.

Things might be a little different if my parents had been able to come visit, or I was studying abroad with the crowd of people with whom I most wanted to share my adventures. I might be able to stick it out a few more weeks. But I miss home, and I’m ready for summer.

So just 6 days, 156 hours, 9385 minutes until I land home. I think I’m gonna make it.

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What a Taylor Swift Concert Tells Us About Cultural Differences

The first stop of Taylor Swift’s completely sold out RED Tour Asia. Shanghai sold out in under a minute. Less than 60 seconds. Fastest selling out show in Chinese history.

13,000 screaming fans, all singing in unison at the tops of our (yes, I happen to be one of those screaming fans) lungs. If I close my eyes, I’m not in Shanghai. I’m somewhere back home, in the US. Because these 13,000 fans are all singing along in perfect unison, every line, every word in English. I can’t tell you what it’s like to be standing in a capacity crowd arena in a country where English is not only not the first language, but is also not the predominant language, and hear 13000 Chinese people singing in English. It’s an incredible moment, I can’t imagine what it must be like for an artist to stand on stage and experience that. Taylor herself seemed a little overwhelmed by that.

When we heard she was kicking off her two week tour of Asia in Shanghai, we thought what the hell, it’s a once in a lifetime chance to see an American artist, of this level of fame perform in another country. Plus we were hoping to see a concert of some kind while we’re here. And she’s cheaper here than back home (everything’s cheaper in China). We, and by we I mean Kaitlyn, diligently stalked SmartShanghai (an awesome website that has listings about all the goings-on about town, targeted for expats, and generally sells tickets for all the big events) at noon the day the tickets went on sale and about a week later, we found ourselves in possession of some highly coveted tickets. The date was perfect too, the last full weekend in the city, sort of a celebration/reward for getting through the semester.

The fateful day arrived, Friday night, just finished a week of exams (but with another to come next week bleh), ready for a good time. Not leaving anything to chance, we left school at about 4:30 to give us plenty of time to eat and get to the Mercedes Benz Area before the 8 PM showtime. We wanted to be there around 6:30 just to be safe, and to make sure we weren’t missing an opening act or something (but Taylor Swift is so fabulous and larger than life that she doesn’t need an opening act).

We were not prepared for the craziness that is Chinese “Swifties” (the nickname for the diehard Taylor Swift fans). As we exited the metro, we were immediately caught is a mass of excited fans. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, was wearing red (it is the RED tour after all), a Taylor Swift shirt or hat, and proudly plastered their bodies will all kinds of temporary tattoos or handwritten song lyrics. It was a mad house. And we got there an hour and a half early. I shudder to think how insane it got just before showtime.

The show was spectacular. She knows how to perform (although she’s a white girl after my own heart when she tries to dance, bless) and the crowd loved her. It was astounding to me to be in Shanghai, part of a massive crowd, all singing along, dancing, and just having a blast.

Taylor’s a talker, she likes to talk to her audience, which I particularly enjoy. What hit home the most, coupled with the experience of an arena of Chinese people singing in English, was the point Taylor made before singing her hit “Mean.” Despite where we’re from, how far apart we are, how different our cultures can be, there are certain distinct underlying things to which we all relate. It struck me as funny because I had just had the same conversation with Addison and Michael on the way to school that morning. No matter who we are, where we’re from, how we’re raised, what our culture is, we all want and seek certain things. We all want to be loved, to feel safe, to be successful at something, we all just want to find our place and above all be happy.

It’s these underlying desires that make it easier to relate to one another. It’s people singing songs about love and happiness and friendship like Taylor that can bring so many different people together, and for one night, just a few hours, we aren’t so different. It’s a reminder that while many choose to focus on the things that make us different, which keeps us divided, there are many things that make us alike. We’re all just people, living in the same world, trying to find our way.

So of all my Shanghai experiences and China adventures, I would say this one in particular hit me about what it means to communicate with others. If we want to communicate with people, foster better relations and learn to understand, we need to stop focusing on what makes us different and sets us apart from one another. If we only focus on those things, we have no time to see the things that are the same. And often times, the things we have in common, those basic desires and hopes and dreams, are a lot more important and are a lot stronger than the differences we think are so important.

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We are what we eat

I survey the table in front of me. A whole fish with steam coiling up into whisps, a large dish of shrimp, with heads, tails, and shells on of course, two or three dishes of qing cai (the general term for anything green basically) of varying size and flavor, cooked in different light sauces or just braised or boiled, a couple more dishes of meat of some kind (maybe some curry chicken and potatoes, maybe a little Sichuan sausage, some really, really fatty beef), and a pot of piping hot soup.

Baba passes me a small bowl of rice (think an ice cream dish-size) and hands out the chopsticks. 吃饭!We dig in with gusto, having a piece of shrimp or two, then a few bites of qing cai, then maybe a little bit of fish. You take a bite of rice in-between, somewhat like cleansing your palate before taking another bite of a different flavor. Everything is fresh, I pass the source of our table fare every morning on the way to school. Often times I run into Mama picking up some vegetables as I’m leaving with Michael and Addison.

Brother-in-law puts it away, shoveling it in like it’s his last meal. Baba eats his fair share as well. Sister typically has about half the amount of rice everyone else has in their bowl, picking mostly at the food on the table but only eating a fraction of what her husband puts down. Mama generally chases Bobo around for the first 10 minutes of the meal or so and then finally sits down to eat. By that point they just turn on the TV and Bobo’s locked in a hypnotized trance, unable to take her eyes away from the screen. Mama’s always the last one done, preferring to go after what everyone has left over. Any substantial leftovers go into the fridge and we continue to eat on them for the next few days.

This is the normal routine every night at dinner, and it’s typically my favorite part of the day. I love sitting down to the table to eat and try new things and enjoy the favorites I’ve picked up along the way. There’s so much in food, so much to learn about where you are, about the culture, what food means to people, and there’s no better way to experience it than to be in the house, having a meal, listening to the chatter between a family. If I forget for a moment that I’m in China, looking at the table jogs my memory immediately. It’s a testament to how far from home I am, how different this place is just by one glance at the dishes on the table. The vegetables, the soups, the cuts of meat, the heads still on the fish and shrimp, the (lack of) place settings. A good 75% of the time I don’t recognize the ingredients. I ask the Chinese name and promptly forget, but I’ve enjoyed the anonymity of eating I’ve enjoyed over the semester. When you don’t actually know what it is, it’s a little easier to swallow. There’s something incredibly refreshing, almost liberating, in blind tasting. I had a similar feeling exploring the street food in Xi’an.

Anthony Bourdain (I would kill for his job) said this about food, “Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalistic feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from the get-go.”

He couldn’t have said it any better. To me, food is the closest thing to a physical manifestation of feeling or emotion as we can get. Not only is food and the preparation of food a physical labor that embodies feeling and effort, but its a physical representation of you, your home, your story, where you come from, what’s there, what that means. If you want to know about people, where they come from, what’s important to them, watch them cook and share a meal with them.

Food opens up the soul, good food makes people come together, laugh, tell stories, connect. There’s a reason in most cultures that going to dinner is a many-hour affair because the purpose of sharing a meal is to spend time together. Food brings us together in ways nothing else on this earth can. Sharing food is sharing a little bit of yourself with someone else. You pick dishes based on your tastes and experiences. Often times different foods have memories, sharing food leads to sharing those experiences. Cooking for someone is pouring yourself, your emotion into something that you present to someone else for their consumption and pleasure. I can’t think of a better way to show someone you care for them or love them than cooking for them.

There’s a reason we make a casserole when someone loses a loved one, there’s a reason we celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, holidays with an important homemade meal or a nice dinner out somewhere. There’s a reason food is so important. It’s who we are. So it makes sense that the best way to get to know people and places is to eat. Eat with them, eat their food, watch them grocery shop, watch them cook, cook for them, share the stories and memories that accompany everything on the table.

Eat, drink, and learn about the world (and yourself) with every bite.

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Could You Say That Again?

So, after three months of living in a foreign country, with a host family that doesn’t speak English, attending language class everyday for two hours four days a week, you would think I’ve got the basics of communicating down.

That’s a big, fat NO.

Example: Flashback to last week when I was getting ready to leave for Beijing. Because we were leaving straight from school to go to the train station, I had to schlepp my suitcase to class that morning. Baba asked me if I needed help carrying my things to campus. Thinking he was asking me about the chicken sandwich from KFC I had been supplied with for breakfast that morning, I replied, “KFC back home has a similar one, but it’s not quite the same.” I’m pretty sure he was very kindly refraining from laughing at me.

For the most part, I do ok. I can tell a taxi driver where to go. I can tell my host parents about my day and how school is and some other conversational topics. I can talk to my teachers and tell them about my weekend plans. These are all in-person communications though.

Then tonight, I got a phone call from Baba. I’ve determined you’re not fluent in a language until you can have a full phone conversation. When you can speak to someone without needing to see hand gestures or lip read. He had originally called me earlier in the day and told me to call him when I left the dorm that night and headed home. Then he called me again and proceeded to speak very rapidly in Chinese, blurring slightly into Shanghainese, which I was having a very difficult time wrapping my mind around. I thought he was telling me they were in the neighborhood and were gonna pick me up from the dorm or something of that nature. Turns out Baba had left his bag in the apartment when the family left that afternoon for one of their usual weekend outings. I have the other set of keys. Hence the need to call me. I should really learn the Chinese word for keys.

I arrived back at the apartment to see Baba and Mama on the curb, waiting for either me or Sister to get back. Very embarrassed, I explained that I just didn’t quite understand what he was asking. And apologized for the 5 missed calls I had because my phone had been on silent. Being the ever-cheerful and understanding host parents they are, they laughed and assured me it was absolutely no problem. We all proceeded happily inside and enjoyed some fabulously refreshing yellow watermelon. Watermelon was a welcome treat since today was so humid I basically swam home.

Also didn’t know yellow watermelon was a thing. Apparently it’s very expensive. But I know the word for watermelon so that’s a good thing.

Although I feel like I’ve learned a lot in my time here, I definitely feel as though my language skills have improved, it’s situations like these that make me realize I still have a long way to go in terms of really becoming proficient. But it doesn’t deter me at all, rather makes me want to try harder and work more at being able to really communicate and speak the language. Which is good, I’ll need some motivation to study over the summer. I know from experience- a two and a half month break from Chinese does not do any good for the old noggin.

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Is China Ready for Democracy?

No. Point blank, flat out, absolutely not. Even if the party would allow democratic reform, China genuinely isn’t ready for a democratic system.

Since day one, Chinese civilization has looked to one central source of power for governance. This is a 5000 year old civilization that for 4,900 of its history was ruled by an emperor, king, or warlord, and following that reign, a new authoritarian regime took control in the form of the Communist party. This is people who’s culture accepts a government or a higher power dictating the fate of the nation.

While that culture may be changing due to the changing nature of the world, it doesn’t by any means suggest China is ready for democracy. China’s history is no stranger to pro-democracy movements. The May Fourth Movement, the Nationalist party that briefly controlled China following the fall of the last dynasty, and of course Tiananmen Square are all examples in China’s history where a lot of people got really fired up about democracy and tried to say something about it.

If, and that’s a mighty big if, the Communist party decided to listen to a pro-democracy movement and begin making a transition to a democratic system, it could not happen overnight. This is not a country where the government can be overthrown and a new regime installed overnight. Switching to a democratic system in China would take generations of phasing in democratic elements to the existing system. A gradual change is the only way a democratic system could be successfully incorporated into Chinese society.

Even with a gradual change, there are still massive hurdles China faces in adopting democracy. If China were to become a democratic nation, it would take India’s place as the largest democracy in the world. But China is home to 1.35 billion people. 50% of that population is still rural. Not everyone is educated. Not everyone knows what democracy means. India proves that a nation that size and with the same similar demographics (poverty, lack of education, rural vs. urban, etc.) can exist and be successful, but you must remember India is a former British colony. Since the 1800s, Great Britain’s influence has existed and intermingled with Indian culture, politics, and government. While Great Britain and other Western powers may have controlled Hong Kong, Shanghai, and a handful of ports along the coast, the West didn’t leave much of a lasting impression on China.

Many argue that China is more likely to become democratic because of the recent economic boom. I can tell you right now that that logic is ridiculous. A booming national economy in no way, shape, or form indicates a country is ready or able to adopt a new form of government. The success of the economy is due mainly in part to having a strict, authoritarian government that can react quickly, implement new policy, etc. Michael (my downstairs neighbor) made a great observation about the upside to a one party system: in a one party system, the government can swing hard right, hard left, or walk straight up the middle if that’s what the situation deems necessary. There is no fear of public outcry or long, drawn out debate of potential solutions. The government can act quickly and swiftly in a moment of crisis. This is extremely important in developing nations, which China most certainly is. Because yes, despite having the second largest GDP in the world, being the biggest exporter, second biggest importer, blah blah blah, China is still developing and has a long, long way to go before it joins the ranks of the developed world.

Does that mean Chinese people shouldn’t have a say in their government? Absolutely not. They should have a right to express their grievances and trust their government to provide for the welfare and common good of the people. But in a way they do. The CCP’s biggest fear is civil unrest. If the people aren’t happy and choose to do something about it, which is common theme in China’s history, the government tends to come out on the losing end of things. Historically the Mandate of Heaven charged the emperor with taking care of the people. If the emperor failed, the people revolted and replaced him with a new emperor, one designated by Heaven to be the new leader. Obviously the CCP doesn’t believe it was mandated by Heaven to rule China (or maybe it does, they have some interesting beliefs over here), but a history like that gives the government the incentive to keep the people happy.

And as long as the people are happy and content, does it really matter how the government achieves that? Yes and no, but that’s a discussion for another time. The biggest point on that is that even though Chinese people can’t express their voice at the ballot box, it doesn’t mean the government isn’t listening to it’s people. I think the West automatically equates communism and other forms of authoritarian government with no voice for the people and that’s simply not true. The government in China is currently making a shift from priorities like rapid economic development and national growth to domestic problems and tackling issues that are important to the people. For example, since 2009 China has been undergoing a massive healthcare reform that includes socializing insurance. Medical costs in China can be exorbitant and payment is often demanded up front, which has prompted the people to speak out and the CCP noticed.

The United States and most Americans are inclined to believe that democracy is the cure-all for any other country’s problems. We believe in democracy because we see it work every day. Other nations study the way we practice democracy and want to copy it. The Presidential election is the smoothest transition of power in the world. But the US basically wrote the book on successful democratic systems. And the US is also a developed nation. Developing nations need a strong government that can marshal the country in the right direction, which is what China has. The CCP changes and evolves to fit the needs of the nation. In the 1980s and 1990s, the nation needed economic reform to get itself out of the hole Mao Zedong dug. In more recent years, the nation needs the CCP to tackle social and domestic issues, on which the government is now beginning to focus its attentions.

Many people hear communism and think Soviet Russia, but that’s not the kind of authoritarian communism here. Chinese communism is distinctly that, Chinese. I’m not saying the Chinese don’t deserve more liberties or don’t deserve democracy or that democracy will never work here. None of those things are true. But China is different. China is not the West. China is not a fully developed nation. The government is still in its infancy. All these reasons and more disqualify China from any and all solutions that developed nations generally think best, like democracy.

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