For nearly three weeks in May, 17 UTSA Honors College students, led by Honors College Dean Richard Diem and professors Wan Yao and Zenong Yin, traveled through China. UTSA students Salma Gomez and Zack Dunn kept a record of their experiences and impressions as they visited various cities, universities, and businesses.
First Days in Beijing
Dreams: Originally we believed them to be universal in the sense that everyone has the mentality that they can achieve their greatest goals with hard work and determination. However, when we talked with the students of Beijing Sport University, we were surprised at the goals they described. The majority had very humble ambitions of entering whatever business they were directed towards or possibly becoming athletic coaches.
Most U.S. students aspire to achieve wealth or status. While neither system is right or wrong, the simple difference in the average student’s outlook is what surprised us the most. We are from the same generation, yet we are different.
At the same time, the conversations with the students allowed us to connect with natives of a country vastly different than our own. We shared stories, laughed together and learned from one another. After being in China for 24 hours, we embraced the ability to communicate without a language barrier and getting answers to all our questions. No amount of reading, or attempts to learn Chinese phrases during the 16 hour flight to Beijing, prepared us for the Chiense lifestyle.
Hoping for a "good" air quality day, eating breakfast that includes vegetables, soup, noodles, rolls, etc., walking through the streets at night in a city that never sleeps, going to public bathrooms where the toilet is literally on the ground, having lunch and dinner comunal style, adventurously eating food that we'd never heard of, traveling through the roads of one of the cities with the worst traffic in the world, and being approached by the locals asking to take pictures with us, are a few of the many mind-blowing daily life differences between Beijing and San Antonio.
Every hour held a new experience. Slowly but surely, we learned how to eat with chopsticks, greet and thank the locals in Mandarin, and negotiate prices with street vendors.
We embraced the city's rich culture and continued to fearlessly learn and explore.
The Great Wall of China
"You're not a great man until you've climbed the Great Wall." This catchy slogan stuck to our minds as we moved forward with hundreds of steps already behind us and hundreds more in front of us. Climbing the Great Wall of China was an unforgettable experience that many only dream of doing. It was mind-blowing realizing we were standing higher than some of the mountains around us, and that the phenomenal structure was built by humans centuries ago without the technology we have today. It made us think about the combination of slave labor and time invested into its construction knowing the wall stretches endlessly.
You haven't really experienced China until you've taken an overnight train across the country. Our group was fortunate enough to have this experience on our travels from Beijing to Xi'an. Packed with three roommates each, the cabins were short on space, but not on memories. Waiting in the loading docks and finding our way to our specific train out of dozens there was an adventure within itself. Once we were settled, we began to go over what we had experienced in Beijing and what we were hoping to see in Xi'an.
The conversation concluded with everyone going back to their respective carts while night settled over the landscape. While only a few people in our cohort woke up in the middle of the night to hear the pounding of the rain on the roof, many were able to enjoy the passing cities, farms, and hills.
Xi'an was a city of surprises. The locals are less welcoming to foreigners and more preoccupied with going about their personal business regardless of the situation. There seemed to be permanent honking on the roads, vendors that we offended with our bargaining attempts, locals playing street games without turning heads to see who was watching, and locals openly taking pictures of us all the time in non-tourist places. We saw Xi'an as "a window to know China." It's a combination of the ancient and the modern, a metropolis comparable to Beijing, yet a city with a rich culture and history that gave us greater insight into the everyday life of the Chinese. The fact that the city's streets were grid-like made it easier to navigate and explore. Our hotel was inside a city wall that was reconstructed in the 14th century during the Ming Dynasty.
It was blocks away from the Bell Tower, a beautiful structure that came alive at night right in the heart of the city, which allowed us to conquer the surrounding area by shopping for hours and making it back to our hotel without getting lost. We noticed the population density was higher in Xi'an than Beijing as we ventured through the Cultural Street, Fashion Street, street shops and high-end malls.
We visited the famous Terracotta Army, an excavated army of warriors and horses that were discovered less than a century ago surrounding the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang to protect him in his afterlife. We ventured through the Muslim Quarter, which was easily comparable to Fiesta in San Antonio as there was street food, restaurants, shops, music, lights, people and a festive atmosphere all around.
Our last day in Xi'an we had the opportunity to visit Chang'An University where we met Dr. Zhang Wei, a professor fluent in English with deep passion and pride for his city. While we did not get the opportunity to meet students, this University, much like Beijing Sport University, was welcoming to Americans and happy to have us there. After Dr. Wei's presentation on Mandarin Chinese and the history of Chang'An, we enjoyed a lazy Susan-style meal and walked around the beautiful campus.
We’re now sitting on a bullet train to Shijiazhuang watching cities fly by as we travel 180 miles per hour heading northeast from south central China. We leave Xi'an filled with bright spirits and cultural awareness. Having now experienced two huge metropolitan areas in China, we are anxiously awaiting the rest of our journey to see what else we can learn from China. While the rest of our days are unwritten, the one thing we are certain about is that this study abroad experience is going by much faster than we wished.
The first thing we noticed upon our arrival to Shijiazhuang was the pollution. Looking out the train window as we approached the city, we could barely see the tops of skyscrapers because of the gray smog that hung over the buildings. We had been warned back home and advised to bring masks, but we felt like we had to see to believe that these conditions existed. We left the train with a mixture of disbelief and amusement, as we were short on breath going up stairs and dragging our luggage to the bus. We had masks covering our nose and mouths and developed an appreciation for clean air back home.
We got on the bus to Hebei Normal University to experience Chinese dorm life for the first time. Our time at the University was short, but full of great experiences that will be sure to last a lifetime. We started out our tour with some morning Tai Chi. With the majority of the group having never practiced Tai Chi before, we were anxious to spread out our wings and fly with the students who were advanced in their abilities to move their bodies and relax with focus and form. The repetitive nature of their movements calmed our group and it seemed to hone our focus for the rest of the tour. We then participated in a fast-paced aerobics class that was a strong compliment to our Tai Chi experience. Having to focus on combination and pivots proved difficult for a large majority of the group, but we are excited to be able to say that we participated in such unique activity with other Chinese students.
To cap off our tour, we witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime mini-musical concert from the student orchestra. As the suspense of the music built, so did the excitement of the UTSA students. Never before had anyone been so close to a Chinese orchestra, it was incredible to see them play and work in harmony to create a truly magnificent piece. Once they finished, we were offered a chance to play with their instruments, which many of us had never seen before.
The Hebei students engaged their UTSA visitors with open arms as the cultural diffusion of music spread throughout the entirety of the room and unified us as one. We ended our day with a relaxing dinner where we got to recap our experiences during the day. Every student left that University feeling enriched, spiritually and emotionally. It was exactly the kind of experience we wanted to have in our journey throughout China.
We anxiously awaited our arrival to Tianjin University during the five-hour bus ride to Tianjin. It's here that we met the Chinese students individually assigned to spend the next few days with each one of us. Ann and Echokan were our respective language partners whom we had the opportunity to learn from and get to know on a personal level. They were fluent in English and very helpful in translating throughout our stem cell, construction, security technology and animation business site tours. We had many questions about one another's lives, and we laughed and shared stories. We sat in a Chinese classroom to compare and contrast Chinese and American culture, and learned about traditions such as the Spring Festival, a nationwide event to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
The students taught us about Chinese family dynamics and customs during special occasions, such as the bride wearing a white dress and changing to a red dress halfway through a wedding. They also taught jianzhi, traditional Chinese paper cutting and how to make a Tianjin specialty called boazi, which were steamed and stuffed buns similar to dumplings. We taught them how to use a knife and a fork and how to sing "Happy Birthday."
It was an amazing experience to create a bond with these students. The last day they hosted a talent show for us. We saw a variety of performances from taekwondo to Chinese instrument playing and Chinese flag dancing. To conclude our time together, we exchanged gifts, which consisted of t-shirts, pictures, chocolates and more. After spending four days with each other, it was heartbreaking having to say goodbye and embark on our separate ways. However, we’re looking forward to keeping our connections to the students and communicating with them via email and social media to maintain our Chinese-American friendships.
Our last night in Tianjin would have not been complete without riding the Tianjin Eye, a 400-f00t-tall Ferris wheel built on the Yongle Bridge above the Hai River. We saw a breathtaking view of the city and enjoyed the 30-minute ride. Tomorrow morning we leave this city filled with unforgettable memories and a more in-depth knowledge of the daily lives of students similar to ourselves.
Back to Beijing
Our journey ended where it began, in Beijing. Although we had only spent a few days there in the beginning of our journey, returning to the same hotel gave us a sense of coming home. We had a perfect ending to our journey. We perfected our bargaining techniques at Silk Street, we deciphered the subway system and toured the city paying two yuan instead of the fifty yuan it would have cost us if we had taken a taxi.
We lighted Chinese lanterns and watched them fly away into the night sky, we visited local markets where we saw seahorses, starfish, cockroaches, and squid on sticks, and a few of us adventurous eaters ate fried scorpions with a “when in China” mindset. We had heart attacks riding in the passenger seats of taxis as the drivers drove aggressively, blasting their horns through Beijing traffic. The girls got manicures for $1.50 and we had amazing feet and back massages by Chinese masseuses. Our days started early and ended late as we tried our best to make the most out of our last days in China.
On the flight home, it occurred to members of our group that this would be our last few moments together before we went our separate ways. In the course of our nearly three weeks in China we had visited four separate cities, four different universities, dozens of restaurants, and countless cultural districts; but it was all a part of one “China experience.”
One of the biggest lessons we walked away from this experience with, is that you cannot assume you truly know something until you've lived it. Many of us had preconceived ideas about China that were simply untrue.
At the end of the day, there is something that every American and Chinese person has in common: we’re all people. We all have the same basic needs and emotions and we all want to feel connected to something in this vast world we live in.
It was truly inspiring to connect with such a diverse culture that has so much to offer to the world. It is our hope that we can return to UTSA and San Antonio with broader insights on how to guide our respective communities. We will use the knowledge we gained in China to promote intercultural communication and lead our generation to better and brighter futures working as one.
Featured/top image: UTSA Honors students at the Great Wall of China. Photo courtesy Salma Mendez and Zack Dunn.