Thursday, June 25, 2009

Kate Anderson, Summer Abroad Programs Coordinator - Getting Acquainted with China

The People’s Republic of China is getting ready for its 60th anniversary on October 1st of this year. I’ve traveled all over Europe and Australia, but it’s very different being in a country where the language has no commonality with English, and doesn’t even share the same alphabet. In China, saying something louder and more slowly—a strategy often applied by tourists in foreign countries—does not work at all. China could be a challenging country to visit without a guide, but that is not an issue for our program.

Many people speak English in Hong Kong—where our program begins. We had a tour guide for most of our visit to Beijing. And in Xiamen, where our program is based, we have a unique and propitious situation. As many as 40 volunteers from Xiamen University are on hand to help our students, faculty and guests. I knew about this program feature, but I couldn’t have imagined the importance of this, or the generosity of the Chinese students, without experiencing it firsthand. What’s in it for these volunteers? Practicing English. Getting some free meals. Being good ambassadors for their country. It’s all of these to a degree, but what the volunteers give is far, far more than what they get.

Touro Law 2009 Students in front of Olympic Stadium in Beijing

I had three volunteers helping me. Two people were assigned by the program to help me; the idea is that if one of the students is busy, the other might be available. Tide and Candy (they choose their own English names in school) spent just about every moment with me, and Tide’s friend Cindy came along as well. They took me to Nanputuo, an incredible Buddhist temple that attracts the devout from all across the country. The students showed me their campus and school buildings, they helped me shop for gifts in downtown Xiamen and on the island of Gulang Yu, and one of them even took me to the airport (the other two were on a school trip). I was overwhelmed by their generosity and helpfulness. We had fascinating discussions comparing life in China and America. With so many people and so much competition, students in China work hard. They dream of studying in America, but very few people achieve that dream. So they study in China, where dorm life is different. Clean clothes are hung to dry on the balcony of every building. Students only occasionally go out to clubs and bars. The electricity is shut off at midnight in the dorms, so one must get home before then or brush one’s teeth by flashlight. The students I met are positive and optimistic. They have economic freedom and opportunities their parents didn’t have, but still the government censors information and there is no freedom of speech. Is more enough?

Stree scene in Beijing

Street vendor in Beijing

China has become more expensive, but for Americans, mainland China is overall very inexpensive. The exchange rate of almost 7 RMB to the US dollar means that a ride on a bus, one yuan, costs about 14 cents. You pay double that for an air-conditioned bus, which is well worth it in summer. Taxis are also inexpensive on the mainland. Hong Kong is another story. Transportation is reasonable, but food prices are comparable to being in New York City. A drink at a fancy bar can be as expensive as an entire meal at a local joint. Beijing provides the most shopping opportunities, but be prepared to bargain. A number of our students were extraordinarily good at this. When you’re first quoted a price of 1600 RMB, but end up paying 60, you know there’s a huge mark-up for foreigners. Markets are awash in ‘double-A fakes,’ knock-offs of designer watches, wallets, purses, bags, and sunglasses. Quality varies, but imagine a department-store floor filled entirely with small stalls selling the same items. If the salespeople didn’t have what a shopper wanted, they made a call. A ‘sister’ would appear with the requested goods. You might get taken down to the basement for the transaction, or the purchase might literally take place under a table, as these are copies of trademarked goods.

The Long Corridor at the Summer Palace in Beijing

The signs are everywhere: I am humbly aware that I speak no Chinese, and what little I attempted was probably laughable and all wrong. But I loved the signs in China with unusual, humorous, and sometimes downright perplexing English translations. A few examples:

On a moving walkway:

"Maintenance in progress/Inconvenience Cause Regretted/Do not enter the dangerous!"

At the Ming Tombs:

"Notice: Cherish The Cultural Relics, Please Don't Climb up or Scribble."

Outside the Summer Palace:
"May we remind you: Please be self-restraint and be a good tourist to mold a well-mannered imagination."

Lynne Truss would have a field day....

By Kate Anderson, Touro Law Summer Abroad Program in China

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