Editor’s note: Lauren Jones, a third-year student majoring in English and Economics, is blogging about her Semester at Sea experience. If you’ve missed her earlier entries, start at the beginning: Ready to Set Sail on Semester At Sea
As Americans, we hear so much about China. It’s the up-and-coming world superpower, the most populous country in the world, holder of our national debt, maker of our goods, communist, polluted, and sender of thousands of college students to the U.S. While I can’t take an incredibly insightful stance on any of these issues after spending six days in China, the country definitely surprised me, and I learned a lot about the way it works. I spent most of my time in China in the towns of Guilin and Yangshuo, located in southern China. These places are known for their unique terrain and outdoorsy things to do – they’re away from the cities where the majority of Chinese people live, and even in the rainy, 30-degree weather, all the area attractions were sold out (arriving in China at the end of Spring Festival, the Lunar New Year, had a lot to do with it). You won’t see a ton of skyscrapers here like you might in Shanghai, but you will see gorgeous karst rock towering above the city.
I spent the first day in Yangshuo, the site of a huge outdoor market built alongside the mountains, and I had a lot of fun learning to haggle with vendors. The next day, I visited the Longsheng rice terraces, about two hours outside of Guilin, and had an opportunity to visit the villages where the Yao people live. They are a minority group in China known for growing really long hair – and they’ve become a tourist attraction themselves. The rice terraces they help cultivate, though cold and barren for the winter, were absolutely gorgeous.
While I think “culture shock” is a strong way to put it, it definitely hit me that we were out of Western culture in China. Though very few people spoke English, my friend Francesca and I were able to get along well with the help of our map (with Mandarin), a few phrases we had learned from Semester at Sea, and our phone calculators we could use to show prices while haggling. There were a few some major culture changes we noticed in mainland China, across Shanghai, Guilin/Yangshuo, and in the Longsheng villages:
Aggressiveness: In a country with 1.4 billion people, it pays to be ahead of the curve. We noticed that people were very intent on achieving their objectives, whether they were boarding the train or aircraft, selling you something, or driving in traffic – no one was afraid to be vocal and assertive.
Traffic and general living conditions: Many parts of the mainland are much less developed than the bigger cities in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong, and the greatest hazard for foreign travelers in China and many of the countries, Semester at Sea told us, is traffic. In Guilin, many of the stoplights flashed only yellow, and the streets were always packed, so both drivers and pedestrians had to be ultra-aware. We also got to experience Chinese bathrooms (squatters), and found that a lot of comforts we take for granted weren’t as prominent in China – like heating in restaurants or on buses, and the availability of soap and toilet paper.
Media: We did notice the government influence in the media. The big difference is in TV, where all of the stations had a CCTV logo in the corner – meaning they were government-sponsored. I also got to read an English-translated newspaper during my flight to Guilin, and the political sections were written in with a very pro-government stance; the decision to drill for oil, for example, should be lauded because it was going to both reduce pollution (?) and improve the economy.
In our experience, so much of adjusting to this new place was about having a good attitude, accepting your situation, and being assertive in asking questions. We did our best to blend in to the often-packed streets in China, and we had a great first-hand experience taking a sold-out overnight sleeper train – with triple-stacked bunks – to meet the ship in Hong Kong. Almost all the SASers came back from their various destinations in China with the same thing on their minds: going somewhere warm!