By the time this article appears online, I will already be in China; however, as I write it, I am between two trips to the Middle Kingdom. This past semester, I studied abroad in Beijing, China through ACC Hamilton’s language-intensive program at Minzu University. Before this semester, I had been studying Chinese for ten years, and many of my friends know me as a self-designated China geek. In keeping with the title, I decided to return to China for a summer of research and travel.
My second stint in China will look a lot different than the first. I arrived in China in January with little authentic understanding of Chinese culture beyond what I had gleaned from my Chinese classes and two weeks spent between Beijing and Shanghai in 2012. Like most people traveling to China without much in-country experience, I was excited to experience the amazing food and beautiful temples and to finally immerse myself in language study after ten years in a classroom.
To claim three months offered me a great understanding of China would be presumptuous. If anything, I realized that the term “Chinese culture” is more of a Western construct and umbrella term that encompasses the diverse cultures of China’s dozens of regions, as well as those of China’s Han majority and 55 ethnic minorities. So, in June, I will arrive with only an extra glimpse’s worth of understanding of everything that China has to offer, but so many more specific reasons to be excited. So what does a China geek get excited for anyway?
The first focal point of my excitement is China’s parks. Many friends have questioned my obsession with parks in China–how are they different from parks in the United States? The main differences lies in the people. As I witnessed in Beijing and Chengdu, a southwestern Chinese city, parks in China are constantly teeming with people of all ages, from children with their parents to senior citizens participating in community activities.
Chinese parks buzz with activity in ways that American parks do not. In the United States, people mostly keep to themselves or their small groups. In China, however, if I spent more than a moment observing a game of cards, a group dancing, singing, or practicing calligraphy with water on concrete, people jumping rope or playing other improvised sports, it would not be uncommon for people to start a conversation or invite me to join in. In China, community is key, and in many cases strangers are invited in rather than feared. Especially since I will be lacking a class structure to practice my language skills this summer, I am especially excited for the social atmosphere of parks all over China to make conversation and get a glimpse of the different forms community can take on. You can read more about my thoughts on parks in China here.
Another reason to be excited is that I’ll return to using arguably the best communications app currently in existence, Tencent’s all-powerful WeChat. For foreigners, WeChat provides a combination of services provided by Facebook, Instagram, as well as calling, texting, and video chatting services; for anyone with a Chinese bank account, the app also offers services like WeChat Wallet (which allows you to pay friends and pay most vendors) and integrates dozens of other features, from gaming to purchasing entertainment or travel tickets. Read more about WeChat (and internet censorship in China in general) here.
My excitement is not limited to parks and technology; I could spend thousands of words talking about the food (nope, not above it), Beijing’s hutongs, small alleyways that provide another kind of glimpse into the Chinese sense of community, the capital’s up and coming coffee shop and bar scene, and countless other things. In the meantime–time to get packing.