“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University

“China” & the Crystal Castle of Duke-Kunshan University
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“How’s China?”, a friend Facebook chatted me.

“Uhhh… I’m fine”.  I snuggled further in my sweater in my air conditioned room as I listened to Spotify, responded to work emails on Gmail and drank out of my water bottle.  “I’ll have to get back to you about China”, I responded.  Despite having lived five days at Duke-Kunshan University in China, I honestly have no idea what China is like.

I landed in Shanghai’s Pudong airport which was like any airport but with infinitely more instructions- how to ride the escalator, how to board the train to the arrival terminal, how to get off the train, how to sit on the toilet, how to wash your hands… I waited for my co-workers in Starbucks, where I flipped through the Chinese version of Cosmopolitan.  Despite the foreign characters, the Western models and celebrity gossip in their version made the magazine familiar, even though there was a blaring void of sexy stuff, so much so that they renamed the publication “Cosmopolitan Success”.  Behind my magazine, I engaged in my favorite activity of people watching, which didn’t undercover anything too interesting.  The march of men in suits didn’t surprise me but I definitely giggled at teenage boys with sequin-splashed shirts and technicolor pants so colorful that I wanted a pair.  My boss encouraged us to grab dinner, so we went upstairs for pizza at an Italian Restaurant since we thought our access to Western Food might be limited (it isn’t… there’s a Western option for every meal on campus).  Besides the fact that the waitress insisted on unfolding our napkins onto our lap and pouring a shot-size glass of Evian water as if it were liquid gold (it almost costs that much), we could have been eating at any Italian chain restaurant in the US.

Exterior of a building on Duke-Kunshan University

Exterior of a building on Duke-Kunshan University

A driver shuttled us to the Duke-Kunshan University campus which would be our home for the next month.  As a bit of background, Duke University has a Talent Identification Program where a talent search identifies gifted students who qualify for a 3-week academic summer camp (or as I affectionately call it, “nerd camp”).  I’ve taught for this program in India for two summers but this will be the first pilot of the China program, hosted at a brand new collaborative university developed under collaboration with Duke.

Exterior of a building on Duke-Kunshan University

Exterior of a building on Duke-Kunshan University

Security guards in suits dramatically opened the doors to the “conference center”, whose white marble floors, spacious reception desk and colorful modern furniture made us all feel like CEOs.  Campus is located in an area of China known as the “Venice of the East” because of all the rivers in canals.  The architects designed the campus to appear floating on lakes with lily pads to embrace the ambiance of the surrounding area.  Staff helped us with our bags across the connecting bridges and directed us to suites so new that I had to check the wall to make sure the paint had dried.  Our two-floor room (designed for four people but inhabited by two for this program) had high ceilings, a flat screen TV, vanity sink section and so much space that I couldn’t even talk to my roommate without voyaging from one corner to another.  Instructions on the desk taught us to connect to the high speed internet without problems (although I first thought it was broken because Gmail, Facebook, Instagram and all the websites I normally go to were blocked by the government but a Duke VPN quickly took care of that) and provided a cup so we could take advantage of the filtered water spigot to quench our thirst.  I hopped in the shower, half bracing myself for cold water (as was typical in Vietnam and Hong Kong) but instantly relaxed with the warm stream coming from the “water massage” shower heads.

The TIP staff at a welcome dinner in traditional Cantonese meal.

The TIP staff at a welcome dinner in traditional Cantonese meal.

All this felt great to my semi-homeless gypsy self, especially after living out of a backpack for so long.  I’ve enjoyed being able to enjoy a shower instead of view it as a necessary evil, to eat raw vegetables and put ice in beverages without having to worry about whether it’ll make me sick and to unpack for a bit in a place where I have access to all modern conveniences.  Staff from the university has even taken us out to the town to spoil us with a traditional Cantonese meal and allow us to stock up on supplies at the local shopping mall but all we saw were relatively empty streets, nice cars and modern looking buildings. Kushan feels like a wealthy suburb and business center, where everything is neat, organized and efficient.  Is this China?

Interior of academic building, Duke-Kushan University.

Interior of academic building, Duke-Kushan University.

Not really.  We’re at an international university with top-tier resources and being able to drink the water, have consistent (and unfiltered) internet access and air conditioning is relatively rare.  The university was built according to the latest advances in learning space design, with team rooms and whiteboard access in the hallways and classrooms wired for teleconferencing.  These classrooms suggest an innovative education model but that’s not what most Chinese students are used too.  My coworkers who have taught in China before talked about how Conversational English classes are a lecture where 60 students listen passively with no opportunity to practice. Even the program director, who lives close to campus, talked about how much worse his internet is, using losing VPN access around 10 AM.  So we’re in this protected little bubble, which feels luxurious, but doesn’t provide much exposure to the country that I came here to learn more about.

An Early Interest in China

Growing up, some of my best friends were Chinese so it was the first really different culture I was exposed to.  I went over my friend Ling’s house at every opportunity to learn some Chinese words, try to mimic drawing characters, eat meals with chopsticks and help her mom cook.  I went with them to Chinatown in NYC and enthusiastically chomped on chicken feet and homemade dumplings stuffed with “weeds” (according to her aunt… not sure if she intended that to mean something else).

My love of Asian things continued through college, where I served as the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Vice President of the Asian American club for three years.  Ironically, I knew more about the Asian culture than most of my Asian-looking club members, who looked Asian but as adopted Americans, many had rebelled from that part of their identity and knew very little. Because China was one of the first countries I was exposed to, it was one of the first countries I wanted to visit but a course on Tibet and a visit to Taiwan made me lose interest for awhile, especially since I was distracted by learning things about other parts of the world.  However, in the modern world, China’s presence and growing importance is impossible to ignore, so I jumped at the opportunity to teach there.  Furthermore, I’m always fascinated by countries in transition so China would be interesting from that perspective too.

 “Clearly a quick look at China from the outside invariably turns into a thorough investigation of the yin and yang. China had launched men into space, and yet in some western parts of the country men still live in caves. China produces some of the most lavish and poignant movies of our time, yet its literature remains stunted. China is quickly becoming a manufacturer not only of the cheap, plastic goods that stock the shelves of Wal-Mart, but also of high-tech goods like computers, and yet they haven’t quite managed to ensure that the toothpaste they export doesn’t kill people in Panama. It was all very perplexing to me. What exactly was China?… ‘Greg said. ‘You need to go and see for yourself. And you definitely need to teach your kids Mandarin. When they grow up they’ll be working for Chinese companies. I’d move to China for a few years, because you’re not going to understand this world if you don’t understand China.'” -J. Maarten Troost, Lost on Planet China

This experience of being present in a country for a relatively extensive amount of time, interested in finding out more about it, but restricted by a protective, gilded bubble reminded me of a recent conversation.

Length of Stay Does Not Always Correspond to How Well You Know A Place

My first five days in China provide a strong example of how the length of time spent in a place rarely correlate to how well you get to know a place. I have often been criticized for traveling too fast (admittedly, rightfully so in some causes) and people often ask, “How can you understand a place after just spending a couple days there?”
Well, first, I never expect to completely understand everything about a culture or a city, because that would be an impossibly lofty goal. Usually, I aim to learn enough about the culture, values and priorities of ordinary people, usually in the hopes of refining my own perspective.  First, you have to pick a good place to explore… if I stayed in this university for a million years, I doubt I’d learn much about “real China”.  A lot of people “see cities” without leaving the hotel, the tour bus, the backpacker street or the ex-pat area, which could potentially be almost as bad. It just takes a couple days, staying with locals, talking to people about their hopes and dreams, wandering streets that tourists have no reason to go for me to get a much more authentic, unfiltered experience of a plan. Sure, my experience will be filtered by whoever is showing me around and may not be the universal truth but it’s a bit more intimate than what you get by following tourist maps.
Another reason I tend to travel fast is because I notice I am more perceptive, exploratory and open when I’m in new surroundings. When I first survive, my eyes are wide open, absorbing my surroundings, checking out the people around me, mentally mapping the area, sniffing new smells and inevitably getting lost a few times. My favorite part of traveling is just walking around and people watching and immediately upon arrival, the novelty of newness makes wandering around, drinking things in the primary item on my itinerary. Pico Iyer, one of my favorite travel writers, agrees travelers are always the most perceptive on the first day.

Arrivals “in my experience, come with an exaltation of novelty and wonder, outpouring and relief, that nothing else can quite efface; they are the foundations for one’s perception of a place, which subsequent events and understandings will only revise, refine and perhaps correct. My unfailing rule, whenever I want to write on a place, or truly to experience it, is simply to walk and walk and walk, wherever whim summons me, for as much of the first twenty-four hours as possible, in that state of first encounter when I will take in everything–my feet scarcely on the ground–and everything will seem new and strange to me. Few events, if any, in the next twenty-four days, will make so deep an impression” –Pico Iyer, The Shock of Arrival

Humans are creatures of habit. When I stay in a city for more than a few days, I find myself visiting the same places over and over… frequenting the first café where I know I can get good coffee, taking the same route to the metro so I don’t get lost, maybe even eating the same meal at the same restaurant because it’s tried and true. So once I reach a certain familiarity with a place, I find myself spending more time blindly blazing trails to accomplish missions instead of just enjoying the novelty of a new place. Sure, there’s value in getting to know a place more deeply and refining some of those first impressions, but I think staying somewhere also creates the danger of becoming numbed by routine.  Here’s an awesome, short Vimeo video that discusses the danger of routine who has been biking through the Americas, so his life doesn’t pass by him when his brain is on autopilot.

“Once we’re on solid ground, we embark upon the sadder, more responsible task of domesticating the place and putting a name on things, gradually improving on (or dispensing with) our first preconceptions, and coming to find a way around the dream. We learn to read a few of the signs, we come to superimpose a map on streets, we harden into theories, into habits. Gradually, in fact, we move from summer into autumn, and towards the deeper, slower journey that ends, as Eliot writes, when we “arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” –Pico Iyer, The Shock of Arrival

In my most recent conversation about this, my friend pointed out, “Katie, the way you travel feels like a lot like dating”.  I’m not sure whether he meant it as an observation or a critique but he’s probably right.  Certainly, in the case of China I’m looking forward to diving in the underbelly of this country and making my way past these safe, superficial first impressions.   Even more, wherever I settle, I’m looking forward to getting past the “getting-to-know-you” stage but hopefully without forgetting to how appreciate what is around me with fresh eyes and open ears.

The Importance of Unfamiliarity

 “I know of no better or quicker way to step into my greatness than to step out of what’s familiar.” ― Vironika Tugaleva

In general, in our everyday lives, it’s so easy to become blinded with routine and follow what is familiar. Traveling heightens how exhilarating a new experience can be. Even in everyday life, it’s important to create foreign experiences so you can open your eyes and see things differently.

Even though my experience at Duke-Kunshan University has been a bit too comfortable, predictable and familiar to have too much of an impact on me, I’m going to do my best to teach my students the importance of being uncomfortable.  I know I’m going to be teaching kids who know how to get good grades, know how to do math and know how to please their teachers. Those aren’t skills they need to learn from me. I hope my class will disorient them a bit and create a sense of vulnerability where they’re open to exploring a new definition of learning.   We’ll see how it goes.

“I have realized; it is during the times I am far outside my element that I experience myself the most. That I see and feel who I really am, the most! I think that’s what a comet is like, you see, a comet is born in the outer realms of the universe! But it’s only when it ventures too close to our sun or to other stars that it releases the blazing “tail” behind it and shoots brazen through the heavens! And meteors become sucked into our atmosphere before they burst like firecrackers and realize that they’re shooting stars! That’s why I enjoy taking myself out of my own element, my own comfort zone, and hurling myself out into the unknown. Because it’s during those scary moments, those unsure steps taken, that I am able to see that I’m like a comet hitting a new atmosphere: suddenly I illuminate magnificently and fire dusts begin to fall off of me! I discover a smile I didn’t know I had, I uncover a feeling that I didn’t know existed in me… I see myself. I’m a shooting star. A meteor shower. But I’m not going to die out. I guess I’m more like a comet then. I’m just going to keep on coming back.” ― C. JoyBell C.

Song of the Moment: I Mua– Nahko & Medicine for the People

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1 Comment

  1. Gabriel
    Feb 22, 2016

    Cool! That’s a clever way of loionkg at it!