Travel Study: Narratives of the New China
There's an old Chinese saying that "reading ten thousand books is not as useful as traveling ten thousand miles."
Students in the Maymester Narratives of the New China travel study course not only traveled more than ten thousand miles there and back, they also read books and numerous journal articles. However, their first-hand experience of China arguably made the most lasting impressions. The course was led by Associate Professor of Communication Lisa Keränen. In 2009, Keränen accompanied Professor Sonja Foss and Professor Emerita Barbara Walkosz, both from the Department of Communication, who first developed and taught the course in Beijing. She says the program changed her outlook and made her reconsider her own culture. The course is now in its third year and has expanded to include Shanghai, which aspires to be the world’s financial capital, and Suzhou, the “Venice of China.” Next year, the course will be taught by Assistant Professor Hamilton Bean, who traveled with the group this year in preparation for next year’s class.
The purpose of the course is to provide students direct experience of how China, an enduring civilization with 1.3 billion citizens and more than 5,000 years of history, is transforming itself for the twenty-first century. During Maymester this year, the students used theories of narrative and public memory to consider how conceptions of China’s past and present form competing stories about China’s present and future. According to scholars, part of what makes China so vibrant right now is that it is simultaneously undergoing an industrial revolution and a technological revolution. Keränen notes that it "is a stunning mix of Taoist, Maoist, Buddhist, Confucian, communist, new media, reform and market forces." The cities testify to rapid modernization and development. Eight lane highways sport every known form of land transportation; busses, cars, taxis, rickshaws, bikes, food carts and scooters compete for scarce street space. Throngs of people jostle for tickets, food or limited sidewalk real estate. And markets sprout up for every possible consumer good from high-end art to the tiniest pieces of plastic imaginable. Keys, pearls, rope, jade, car parts, bunny rabbits, pashmina scarves, plastic buckets, Mercedes Benz, underwear, incense, goldfish, meat on a skewer--all can be found on the streets of Beijing and Shanghai.
Site visits included the National Museum, the Great Wall, Tanzshe Si Temple, the Forbidden City, the Number One Silk Factory in Suzhou, the Yu Gardens, the Temple of Heaven, the Bund, Tiananmen Square and more. At each site, students were examining how designers, architects, curators, officials and everyday citizens were constructing narratives of cultural and national identity, and they analyzed what those suggested about China’s present and future.
“One of the most exciting aspects of the course this time was that we had four Chinese citizens who are UCD students participate,” Keränen says. “This opportunity meant we had true intercultural exchange that enriched our understanding immeasurably. For instance, Yinglie (Megan) Li’s family hosted our entire class for dinner. Her mother and father showed us how to make dumplings and smashed cucumber salad, and we talked about the importance of family in Chinese culture.” The experience was very meaningful for both the American and the Chinese students.
In total 10 students participated, and throughout the study course the Beijing students patiently explained Chinese sayings to the American students, showing how they related to China’s past. Every day started with an exercise that Keränen called “Morning Mandarin and Extreme English,” in which the Chinese students taught the class new vocabulary and the Americans taught them words for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). “The exercise invariably led to discussions about the deeper cultural values and narratives implied by the words,” says Keränen.
Kirsten Lindholm, an MA student in communication, is excited about the possibility of teaching in China when she finishes her graduate studies. She says that the travel study course enabled her to retain what she learned: “Rarely do you get as much discussion time with professors as you do during a study course. When you are experiencing first-hand what you’re reading about, it seems easier to apply what you’re learning, and to remember it.”
Betsy Brunner, another MA student in communication, says the course has ignited what she believes will be a new and ongoing part of her research as she enters a PhD program at the University of Utah in the fall: “I am eager to return not only to explore more, but also to learn the language, study the culture, and make plans to visit my new friends in Beijing. Going to China on this program made me reconsider my area of academic focus from a local topic to more global topics. I am brimming with ideas for potential papers.”
The Narratives of the New China travel study course created lasting relationships among the faculty and students. They are planning a reunion dinner in August to reflect on their experiences abroad.
Photos courtesy of student Fan Zhang.