Reflecting on a month in China

From October 8th to November 2nd, I was in China. For the first two weeks, I travelled as a tourist covering thousands of miles and taking five internal flights. The trip started in Beijing. Then we moved to Xian, from Xian to Guilin, Guilin to Yangshuo via the Li River, Yangshuo to Guilin to Chongqing, Chongqing to Yichang via the Yangtze River, Yichang to Shanghai, Shanghai to Suzhou to Beijing. We saw many of the highlights that tourists hope to see (in fact our trip was organized by China Highlights) – the Forbidden City in Beijing, The Great Wall, The Terracotta Warriors in Xian, the three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, and much much more, I am also aware that we barely scratched the surface of China’s wonders. China is literally overflowing with locations and sites that never fail to amaze and take your breath away. As I overheard one tourist saying – ‘China never fails to surprise’.

Our final 10 days were spent back in Beijing at the Foreign Studies University, where my husband was lecturing in leadership and talking to students about their aspirations for future study.

In recent years I have travelled a fair bit, making at least one long haul trip a year, but China has been the most challenging trip I have made since travelling round South America in the 70s. There were a number of reasons for this.

The scale of China would take me a while to get used to, living as I do in a small rural village in North West England.  China seems to like doing things on a grand scale from building the Great Wall and Grand Canal, to Tiananmen Square and within the last 20 years the development of Chongqing, Shanghai and other large cities. Don’t forget also that China seeded the clouds in an attempt to control the weather for the Beijing Olympcis.

Development and growth are so fast moving in China; one person told us that a real difficulty was for the Chinese people to keep up in terms of their culture and identity. The older generation have been through the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, economic reform and now ‘the opening’. You would expect their heads to be reeling, or expressions of discontent or frustration, but my sense is that they are resigned to this constant change and just take what comes. For example, for many Chinese, the flooding of their Yangtze River homes for the development of the Three Gorges Dam, was not a disaster but meant that they were relocated higher up the mountain with a better apartment and fewer steps to climb or terraces to plough.

Despite the one-child per family policy, which was very noticeable in Beijing, particularly when children are being collected from school at the end of the day, China’s cities are very crowded. Chongqing, which I had never heard of before this trip, has a population of 33 million. And with crowds comes noise, little room for personal space, and endless traffic jams. Evidently the subways are so crowded that at peak times you are literally pushed on an off at the required stops, sometimes with your feet off the ground. We didn’t try the subways, but more than one person told us this.

China’s approach to managing this huge population and vast land mass, with about 55 different minority groups and all the associated languages and dialects, is control and censorship. Chinese students are renowned in the West for being used to didactic teaching and difficult to engage in academic discourse (at least initially), particularly if they are required to challenge the teacher. This is not surprising when many Chinese undergraduate students are ‘taught’ for at least 36 hours a week and their assessments are tests and multiple choice questions relying on memory rather than analysis and critical thinking. But the Chinese students also know that they could be covertly watched and listened to, their movements monitored and there could well be ‘spies’ within their student groups reporting back to ‘the powers that be’.

Trying to use the internet in China is an interesting experience. For me, blogs (including my own), Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and some websites were all blocked and my online access (when I could get it; it was either very slow or not accessible) was continually interrupted by Chinese websites. It is relatively easy to find ways round this, even for the Chinese, but I wasn’t there long enough to need to do this.  But whilst waiting for a connecting flight in Dubai on our return to the UK yesterday, I picked up a newspaper article which reported on a 27 year old Chinese man who had just been jailed for 8 years for opening an online forum to discuss democracy. And Ai Weiwei’s fight to be free to express himself openly through his art and use this to challenge the government has been widely reported in the West.

We found China’s food to be either absolutely delicious or extremely challenging, depending on where we were and who was helping to interpret the menus. Some restaurants serve dishes that would not be found on a menu in England, such as certain types of animals, e.g. cat, bullfrog, donkey, snake – and the viscera of animals, e.g. intestines, bladder, stomach and so on. Alternatively a Chinese banquet can serve a whole range of very delicious dishes, which are a real treat.

Getting about in a city like Beijing without being able to speak Chinese was not easy. Whilst the students and staff of the Foreign Studies University spoke very good English, taxi drivers, waiters, shop staff do not. Mandarin is a very difficult language to remember, pronounce and write. I think it would take a year at least, to become comfortable with Mandarin; they say that it takes four times as long as learning a European language such as French or Spanish. I can believe it!  I was reminded about how uncomfortable it feels not to be able to communicate even your most basic needs.

Finally China is very challenging for disabled travelers – surprising, given it is a country that hosted the Paralympics. Even the main tourist sites such as the Forbidden City in Beijing do not have access into all the Temples. Ramps are in short supply pretty much everywhere and steps seem to be an essential part of Chinese architectural design. Disabled bathrooms and lifts are also in short supply. However, in China the number of people willing to help are not in short supply. Our experience of the Chinese people was that they are warm and friendly, and very hospitable.

So all in all a wonderful trip, leaving plenty of places still to see, plenty of questions still to ask and plenty still to learn about China, it’s history, culture and people. Two books that I found useful whilst travelling for helping me to know more about China and understand something about what it might be like to live in China are:

1)   DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to China – an easy reference book which covers all the main sites. An easy introduction to China.

2)   River Town : Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler.

This provided great insights into life in China, from a foreigner’s perspective.

3 thoughts on “Reflecting on a month in China

  1. suifaijohnmak November 9, 2012 / 11:16 am

    Hi Jenny, So glad to learn about your reflection on a month in China. Your observation that “This is not surprising when many Chinese undergraduate students are ‘taught’ for at least 36 hours a week and their assessments are tests and multiple choice questions relying on memory rather than analysis and critical thinking.” led me to conclude that “teaching” is still strongly emphasized “over learning” in China. This has its roots from Confucius teaching where respects for teachers and teaching forms the basis of education in Ancient China. It was not perceived as “right” for the learners to challenge the teacher, as that would be viewed as disrespectful. Education is greatly valued in modern China, and I reckon you could get a lot of learners in your MOOCs if those people have access to them.
    Thanks again for your precious sharing.

  2. jennymackness November 9, 2012 / 5:50 pm

    Hi John – many thanks for your ‘visit’ and taking the time to comment. I found China an absolutely fascinating place to visit. I was assailed by new experiences 🙂

    I wouldn’t like to say whether teaching is emphasised over learning in China. I wasn’t there long enough to find out, but from my brief visit to a Beijing University, I would say that it’s more that they have a different approach to pedagogy, i.e. if the teaching is more didactic it is because the teacher and the system think that this is a more effective method and will lead to more learning.

    I asked a lecturer what he thought was the strongest discipline in China and he said mathematics, which of course can be, but doesn’t need to be, taught very didactically. We also discussed the concern that the lecturers have that the education system doesn’t promote enough creativity – but we have those discusssions here in the UK too.

    Like you say the Chinese are highly respectful and address their teachers as Dr xxx, not by their first names, and I found it natural and easy to do this too, even though the lecturers I was speaking to were half my age and didn’t have my experience. It’s interesting how we slip into cultural norms when visiting a country – but I did have a lot of respect for these lecturers so I didn’t feel uncomfortable doing this.

    And yes – it would be great if we could have more chinese participants in MOOCs – but my experience of my brief stay in China is that this type of participation is overtly locked down and participants would need to engage covertly, which might be risky? I’m conjecturing here. And of course it would need a chinese student to stumble across a MOOC, because I doubt very much that they are openly advertised.

    Thanks so much for your comment John which has encouraged me to think further about this.


  3. suifaijohnmak November 9, 2012 / 11:07 pm

    I agreed with you, in that it would be challenging for students to participate in MOOCs due to the constraints that you mentioned. Participants need to engage covertly, especially if the discourse involves sensitive topics – from education, to politics and religions.

    It is a taboo to openly criticize any system, organization and community, and a MOOC, due mainly to differences in the cultural values and perceptions between east and west. I wouldn’t be generalizing these “common practices” and protocols, as it depends on the domains and context of learning.

    It would be interesting to have MOOCs that are neutral in the subject area, such as Mathematics, where Chinese are strong at. This would allow participants to further their interests and develop their competencies and literacies using social networks and PLE/PLN.

    There are already hundreds of millions using the social networks for personal interests in China, only that there were only limited publications on how these relate to academic studies or education, due to various factors.

    It is also a huge challenge when the community formed under MOOCs become overtly political and social, as any postings would need to be moderated and checked by the MOOC providers in order to ensure “integrity” and “neutrality” to politics and social issues.

    This is important to avoid any cultural “crashes” and insensitivity and dis-respect to the authority and country’s education system. These are my interpretations, and I do think it may be applicable to any institution, community and country’s system.

    I do find some of Chinese students have a rich knowledge on how to do e-trading through the “e-bay” and FB, but again I could only say this is an observation based on a droplet of water in a huge swimming pool.

    There is a huge untapped area where pedagogy could be tested, when didactic teaching is still hailed as the more effective way of teaching due to the cultural roots and educational values as perceived.


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