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In the Heart of the Dragon

Reflections on a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Seminar in China

Tu minority women, Quinghai Province, China
Tu minority women, Quinghai Province, China.

Traveling on the Roof of the World

Jagged brown mountains speckled with green tower above us on one side, while the Yellow River snakes far beneath us on the other. I wonder why they call the river “yellow” because it is the color of turquoise. The river is wild yet somehow welcoming—beautiful but ominous and mysterious—as I peer out at it through the window of the bus while hanging onto my seat. 

The bus seems to be traveling at the speed of light as we round consecutive hairpin turns. The driver blasts his horn, but the sound echoes off the walls of the narrow mountain pass, empty except for the occasional flock of sheep or a passing truck. The passengers bounce in their seats, some laughing and bravely gripping the armrests, while others appear as if they may want to get off and hitch the next ride back to Beijing.

The journey through Qinghai Province, the third poorest in China, was one of the highlights of the 2006 Fulbright Hays Seminar Abroad in the History and Culture of China. In fact, the 2006 Fulbright group was the first Fulbright Hays Seminar Abroad group to ever visit this remote part of China. Our purpose was to meet with students and faculty at the English language program for Tibetan students at Qinghai Normal University and travel to several remote villages and townships to observe and participate in local and cultural traditions.  

Qinghai is located on the northeast part of the Tibetan plateau (Chang Tang)—the infamous “Roof of the World” with an area of 2.5 million square feet, which makes it four times the size of Texas or France. The average elevation is 3,000 meters above sea level.  

Most of Qinghai Province is part of the traditional provinces of Kham and Amdo of Tibet. Qinghai is the birthplace of many influential figures in Tibetan history including Tsongkapa and many of the Dalai Lamas, including the present Dali Lama. In 1928, Qinghai became a province of the then Republic of China and for many years served as a remote penal colony. The province borders the Tibetan Autonomous region in the southwest and is said to offer a glimpse into traditional Tibetan culture.  

But perhaps what is most appealing about this little known province is that it is home to many of China’s 55 different national minorities. Though Han Chinese now comprise about 54 percent of the population in the province, Tibetans account for twenty three percent, while the Hui, Tu, Salar, and Mongol national minorities account for the remaining 23%. It is not unusual to see Tibetans in cowboy hats and Muslim women in traditional clothing walking on the streets of the capital city of Xining. But this is not where our journey began.  

Fulbright Hays Seminars Abroad  

On June 30, 2006, 16 college, university and high school faculty from across the United States and their American Scholar Escort Dr. Ann Thurston Associate Professor of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University, embarked from San Francisco on an ambitious 1-month study tour of China. 

Our group adventure in The People’s Republic of China began in Beijing at the beginning of July and wound its way through the ancient capital of Xi’an, in Shaanxi Province, home of the Terra Cotta Warriors; Shining, the capital city of Qinghai and several smaller villages and towns in Qinghai province; Shanghai; and concluded in Hong Kong at the end of July. Our fascinating voyage offered a window into the complexities and paradoxes which lie at the heart of the ”Chinese Dragon,” as China is often called. Several months after the trip, reflecting upon our thirty days in China, we realize that we have barely scratched the surface of this ancient and complex society despite the intensity and variety of the experience.  

The Seminar Abroad was a once in a lifetime opportunity to experience China as it emerges from its years as a closed and often misunderstood socialist state. Witnessing first-hand China’s transformation into a growing economic giant and world superpower was also an experience that seemed to have a powerful impact on each and every educator who had applied to the program and had been selected to participate.

“We got a much more realistic view of China which books and journals read prior to our trip could not really show us,” said Dr. Daniel Metraux, Fulbright fellow and Chair of the Asian Studies Department at Mary Baldwin College in Virginia. Metraux has lived and studied extensively in Asia, including participating in a previous Fulbright Hays Seminar Abroad in Taiwan. He is now writing a book about his experiences as a Fulbright Fellow in The People’s Republic of China,  “We heard that China was a police state, and to some extent that is certainly true, but I was amazed at how much freedom ordinary Chinese have. They can travel everywhere in China and abroad, start any business, go to school, marry and to some extent pray as they wish, as long as they maintain a quiet, low profile and do not openly criticize the state,” said Metraux.   

The Fulbright Fellows, 13 women and three men, represented a wide variety of disciplines, from art, to economics, Asian Studies, English as a Second Language, education, law, music, and in my case media and journalism. Each had his or her own professional and personal interest in China.  

Before we began our journey we were required to participate in a 3-day pre-departure orientation in San Francisco led by Ms. Meredith Champlin, Program Officer of the National Committee on U.S. China Relations. (NCUSCR). The committee has administered the Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad Program since 1980 and worked to organize our seminar with the Chinese Exchange Association for International Education (CEAIE). The two groups joined forces on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education and the Chinese Ministry of Education. According to Champlin, the seminars in China are based on the theme “Tradition and Transformation,” with the goal of offering American educators an overview of imperial, revolutionary, and contemporary China. 

“… Transformation might also be used to describe the process the teachers themselves undergo over the course of their month in China, as site visits, lectures by historians, economists and other time spent in such places are markets, Internet cafes, temples, and schools shape the Fulbrighters’ perspectives on China,” said Champlin in a recent interview. Champlin noted that post-seminar evaluations attest to the fact that the seminars in China have been very valuable to participants, “They return to the United States with a much more informed and nuanced view of China and develop curriculum projects that speak to that learning process.” 

Fulbright Fellow Dr. Teresita Ramirez is Associate Professor and Chair of the Economics Department at the College of Mount St. Vincent in New. She said that her most rewarding experience in China was meeting the Tibetan students in Qinghai Province.

“I will never forget the experience we had interacting with the Tibetan students. Their passion for learning and their kind and gentle spirits were simply remarkable. I will always remember the stories they shared with us expressing their love for their families and their deep concern for the needs of their villages.”  

Educational Experiences in China 

Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Wheel, Kumbun Monastery, Quinghai Province
Tibetan Buddhist Prayer Wheel, Kumbun Monastery, Quinghai Province.

In part, the seminars in China were organized to allow participants to gather resources and information for curriculum projects which were part of each participant’s application proposal. The seminars are also based on a “multiplier effect”—meaning that the projects we would create for our classrooms and the experiences we would share with colleagues and the community would “spread the knowledge” we gained about China. 

But accommodating the diverse academic interests of a group such as ours was not an easy task. To make matters even more challenging, none of the participants had ever spent time in China, and except for the brief introduction to Mandarin at the orientation, few of us had studied Chinese. Xie Xie (thank you) and Nihao (hello) and a few other words of “survival Mandarin” were the only words most of us knew.  

Fortunately, our Scholar Escort, Dr. Ann Thurston, brought fluency in Mandarin and more than thirty years of experience with China to the seminar. Dr. Thurston worked closely with our Chinese guides—headed by Senior Program Officer of the Beijing based China Education Association for International Exchange (CEAIE), Mr. Liu Yan—to help the group transcend the language barrier such that less was “lost in translation.”  She also regaled us with tales of her days in China and prepared us for our trip to the western provinces, which included advice on everything from the etiquette of sleeping on the brick kangs in traditional Chinese homes to how to politely refuse offerings of the very potent barley wine that is a common and frequent gesture of hospitality.  

Looking over my now dog-eared itinerary and schedule, the amount of actual physical distance we traveled along with the breadth of topics and issues covered in just one month was very ambitious. For example, our first full day in Beijing began with a 7 a.m. breakfast call, followed by a 9 a.m. lecture on Chinese Palace Architecture and the Forbidden City delivered by a professor at Beijing Normal University, and a 2 p.m. departure for the Great Wall at Mutianyu, about an hour’s bus ride from Beijing.  

Modern Art, Songnian Central Arts Academy, Beijing
Modern Art, Songnian Central Arts Academy, Beijing.

At the Great Wall, we did not merely observe, but climbed and walked as far as we were able. We were told by one of our guides that this was the same section of the Great Wall that former president Clinton had visited, and if we looked closely we would see his name imprinted on one of the cable cars ascending to the starting point of the Wall. 

Most days in each location included at least one to two or more lectures from government officials, representatives of NGOs and university professors on a wide variety of topics ranging from Chinese medicine, Chinese painting, religion, economics, foreign relations, media/journalism, business, folk music, HIV and AIDS, and the science and technological aspects of the 2008 Olympics, just to name a few. Many of the presentations were given in Chinese and translated by Mr. Liu Yan of the CEAIE.  

The schedule also included numerous site visits to universities and secondary schools, museums and such historically significant locations as Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace in Beijing; the Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai Province; the Bund, the Jewish Quarter and former residences of Zhou En Lai and Sun Zhongshan in Shanghai; the Terra Cotta Warriors Museum and the Wild Goose Pagoda in the ancient capital of Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, and the High Court in Hong Kong, just to name a few.  

The lectures and site visits provided an almost overwhelming amount of information. However, several prominent themes seemed to emerge. One was the deep and rich historical traditions in China that seemed to pervade almost every topic. The second theme was the rapid contemporary economic transformation of a socialist economy into a market economy.  “I was truly amazed at how much China has embraced the market economy,” said Economics Professor Teresita Ramirez 

“The benefits of private entrepreneurship are evident in the bustling cities of Beijing and Shanghai. One has to be there to appreciate the many choices that they have in the goods and services that they purchase…I hope though in this fast paced transition to a market economy, the Chinese government does not forget how to take care of its people who may be left behind and who do not have the resources to compete in a market economy.”  

Though most of the lecturers represented the Chinese government in an official capacity, many were surprisingly candid about China’s current achievements and problems. Many speakers noted the growing disparity between the newly wealthy and the working poor, and the efforts of the government to address these issues. 

“The poverty was also quite shocking, expected in rural areas, but not in big cities,” said Professor Metraux of Mary Baldwin College 

Though prosperity was evident in China, so was poverty. I was surprised to see people begging—even in the streets of Beijing and Shanghai. Many beggars were disabled. Our guides told us that though disabled people were eligible for government subsidies, some felt that they could make more money begging from tourists in the streets.

As we were to learn, in China today, there is a huge “floating population” of migrant workers—some displaced from rural enterprises and farms—who come to big cities in search of day labor. The issues of education for the children of migrant workers and health care and other necessities for the families of migrant workers is a major concern for the Chinese government. Many NGO organizations have also sprung up to help alleviate some of these problems.  

Meeting the Chinese People

Welcome banquet Hosts, Minhe County, Quinghai Province
Welcome banquet Hosts, Minhe County, Quinghai Province.

Though the seminar was structured as a group experience, there were several opportunities to spend time one-on-one with Chinese families, both in Beijing and in Qinghai province. The two experiences provided a stark contrast between the “haves” and “have-nots” in China. In Beijing, each member of the group was matched with a student at one of the top high schools and his or her family for a short overnight home stay. 

I was matched with a 17-year-old student athlete with an interest in science. Though he at first seemed rather withdrawn (“I am a shy boy” were the first words he spoke, adding that he didn’t know much English), he later opened up. He was especially enthusiastic about sports, mainly the NBA, which is very popular in China due to the prominence of Yao Ming, the Chinese basketball star whose picture is ubiquitous in Beijing. “Michael Jordan is God,” were among the first words spoken to me by my young student friend as we walked along on the perfectly groomed playing fields of his school. As it turned out, there must have been some careful thought given to this pairing since I, too, am a sports fan and had written so in the biography I submitted to the seminar organizers. 

All the students matched up with our group had English names. My student called himself Ted. Ted was responsible for entertaining me for an afternoon in his home while waiting for his parents—both working professionals—to return home. As it turned out, Ted was very fluent in English and also very curious about life in the West. Surprisingly, we were able to carry on a four-hour conversation about a variety of topics, all the while with a large television set tuned to World Cup Soccer matches in the background. Whenever he didn’t know a word, he would punch it into a small computerized device in order to find the translation.

When Ted’s parents arrived home we all cooked a dinner of traditional Chinese dumplings together. My dumpling-making skills were not up to snuff, much to the amusement of my hosts. Neither of Ted’s parents knew English, so Ted acted as the interpreter. Somehow, we managed to communicate quite well.  

By Beijing standards, the family’s 2-story condo-style apartment was comfortable and spacious. Ted’s room was covered with large posters of NBA and other sports stars, though his mother later confided through an English-speaking friend that she had taken some of them down in anticipation of my arrival. Ted also had his own computer and spent a lot of time text messaging his friends on his cell phone.  

After dinner, I told Ted and his parents that they were welcome to ask me anything they wanted about the U.S. Much to my surprise, Ted’s dad asked me, “What do you know about Tiananmen Square?” I was rather taken aback and didn’t quite know what to say. So, I carefully described what I knew from the television and other media reports at that time. This led to a surprisingly frank and lively discussion about politics in our two countries. 

In Qinghai province, Fulbright Fellows were offered another opportunity to participate in a brief home stay, this time with a Tibetan family in the town of Tongren. We were warned in advance that the conditions would be spartan, most likely with no running water, showers, or indoor toilets. We would sleep on a traditional Chinese kang, a kind of brick bed that is heated with pipes during the winter and covered with thick quilts. 

While a few members of the group declined to participate, most were excited about this rare opportunity to spend time with a family in a traditional country home. Two Fulbright Faculty members were assigned to each family, all in the same small village. Each pair of Americans was accompanied by a Tibetan student from Xining who acted as an interpreter. 

My “roommate” and I were assigned to a family living in the last house in the village, which we reached by hiking along a dirt trail. Friends and relatives seemed to drop by unexpectedly, most likely to get a glimpse of a foreigner—rare in this part of China.  

Our host family made its living by farming, and like many families in the village was considered fairly well-off by local standards. But the home had no indoor toilet or kitchen and far fewer amenities than the middle class family’s apartment in Beijing. In order to cook, the woman of the house got up very early in the morning to make a fire in what looked like a grill in the outdoor courtyard. Though there was a kind of wooden outhouse in the courtyard, we were told it was “too small” for us to use. So, we hiked into the woods in the evening with a flashlight to use the “facilities.”  

But we considered this an adventure, not a hardship. When we were invited to visit the next-door neighbors—who were hosting two of our group members—we encountered a very lively situation. The lady of the house smiled and laughed constantly. She urged us to help make the special type of barley bread common in the province and we all joined in, washing our hands in an outdoor basin in the courtyard before rolling the barley dough in our hands. We were served the infamous Tibetan yak butter tea, and even though it was not something that tasted like anything we had ever had before, it would have been rude to refuse it.  

Later, the lady of the house dressed us up in the traditional Tibetan robes worn by nomads who herd yaks. We posed for photos in our new outfits, our robes draping across the floor.  

Then the real fun began. It seemed that every young girl between the ages of 10 and 15 had been invited by the young pre-teen daughter in the family to come by and participate in a Tibetan dance party. The father, twinkle-eyed, hauled out a boom box. When the music started up everyone was dancing. I will always remember gliding rather ungraciously around in a circle under the moonlight trying to follow the steps of the traditional Tibetan dances with a group of beautiful dark haired young ladies, the merry, laughing woman of the house and her husband and two children joining me and my three Fulbright colleagues.  

Village women greeting Fulbright students in Minhe county Quighai province.
Village women, Minhe county, Quighai Province.

The Media in China

I teach Journalism, Communications, and Broadcasting. I was interested in creating a Curriculum Project on media in China. Prior to the trip, I had read quite a bit about Internet censorship and the lack of a free press in China. I expected that media in China would be rather monotonous—perhaps almost non-existent. The reality was far different. There is media everywhere in China. Even on a city street on a hot summer day, one can see people crowded around a TV set, laughing at a sitcom.

China Central Television or CCTV—the state owned broadcasting network—offers numerous channels, including a very popular news channel featuring a 7 p.m. nightly newscast watched by millions of people across the country. Other CCTV channels are devoted to soap operas, sitcoms, game shows, sports programming, talk shows, and documentaries. The production values of the Chinese TV programs that I saw, both in my hotel and in private homes, were surprisingly good. Had I known Chinese, some of the content may have equally been of interest. I remember one CCTV talk show in Xi’an that was actually quite fascinating, even though I didn’t understand much of the conversation. It featured a group of young Chinese men sitting in a circle discussing relationships between the sexes in modern China. 

Newspapers, magazines, and television abound in China, especially in the big cities and even in a province as remote as Qinghai. Several national and regional newspapers have huge circulations. Many of the poorest Chinese can read and write and seem to be avid media consumers. I even observed saffron-robed monks at various temples who appeared to be technologically savvy with cell phones in hand.  

In big cities, people who can afford computers use the Internet at home and those who can’t, use Internet cafes. A recent report from the Chinese Ministry of Communication about Internet use in China by the state news agency Xinhua says that there are now 132 million people online in China, though this may be a conservative estimate. I must admit, however, that after one sojourn to a smoky back-alley Internet café my interest waned. As one of my fellow travelers remarked, the Internet cafes are not populated by activists yearning to email about democracy but with teenage boys playing video games. 

“Free press” seems to be the issue which most fascinates Westerners. While in Beijing, our group had an opportunity to meet with an editor of the English language “China Daily” newspaper. At that time, a proposed law by the Chinese government to have journalists request prior permission to cover “events” such as natural disasters was being discussed in China as well as by the U.S. press. The proposal also called for news organizations that were “inaccurate” in reporting about such events to be fined substantial sums. There were news reports by the U.S. press that this regulation could also be extended to foreign journalists in China.

During our meeting with the China Daily editor, our group politely turned the tables in what almost seemed like a press conference, with the American teachers firing questions at the good-natured editor. When asked about the proposed new laws and censorship, the editor calmly told our group that there were no “government censors hanging over the desks of every reporter,” as Professor Metraux put it. The editor said the newspaper had the freedom to cover whatever it wanted, but that the editors were also aware of the content that the owners, i.e. the government, approved and disapproved of. I concluded that the newspaper may not be overtly or directly “censored,” but as a government-owned entity, it practiced a form of self-censorship.  

According to Asian scholar and Fulbright Fellow Metraux, while there is no “free press” in China, “the media is not entirely a propaganda tool of the government.”   

“Yes, the paper was carefully monitored, so reporters had to be careful with what they said and wrote about,” he said, “ But even here there is room for some interpretive independence.” 

Metraux recounted asking the China Daily editor during our meeting what would happen in the event of a plane crash where a reporter at the scene counted 100 bodies, but the government said only 60 people died. 

“Our informant replied that the journalist would face little recrimination if he reported both sets of numbers. He also told us of instances where the paper had launched independent investigations of lower level government corruption which it felt safe in exposing without recrimination from authorities. Naturally, he did not say what he would do if his paper found that a high official was involved in some criminal acts.”  

The China Daily and other English language newspapers in China sometimes employ what are called “writing coaches” to assist the Chinese staff. These coaches are usually Westerners and are employed to ensure that the English language is being used properly. But some coaches also act as unofficial editors. They may at times encourage Chinese reporters to develop stories in more depth and utilize more direct sourcing. It is a common practice among Chinese journalists to use surnames only for attribution so as not to identify sources, since there are only about 300 surnames in the Chinese language. Attribution with a source’s full name is a small journalistic step forward.  

The China Daily and other news organizations support training in Western style journalism for their employees, with some being sent to the U.S. to participate in journalism education seminars. The NCUSCR has also been involved with journalism exchange and education with China on an ad hoc basis for nearly thirty years.   

The NCUSR also sponsors a student internship program with Time Warner Corporation for students at Fudan University in Shanghai to work at various Time Warner companies in the U.S. According Champlin, since its inception nine years ago, the program has helped 36 Chinese students interested in journalism to work at TIME magazine; Fortune Magazine; HBO; CNN, and Warner Brothers, among other divisions. 

While in Shanghai, our seminar group met with two of the Time Warner interns, one who had just returned from working in New York at Time Magazine and the other who was headed to Atlanta to intern at CNN. The returning student was about to begin working in China with Xinhua, the government news agency. Champlin said about a third of the program alumni have continued on to graduate school to study in a program related to their work with Time Warner and some have gone on to work in the media in the U.S. and China.  


Chinese Flag, Bund, Shanghai
Chinese Flag, Bund, Shanghai.

My journey to China continues. In Spring 2008 I traveled again to China as part of the Institute for Shipboard Education “Semester at Sea” Faculty. In less than two years China has continued to change and grow in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Members of our shipboard community who visited Beijing reported that the city appeared to have been “cleaned up” for the Olympics. There were no beggars in the streets and things seemed to be almost boarded up, according to one observer.

All eyes were on China prior to and during the August Olympic Games. The run up to the games was a bumpy road, strewn with controversy and calamity, including protests in Tibet and Western China and the devastating Sichuan earthquake and its aftermath. The role of the press has been called into question in both of these situations. 

Since I visited China in 2006, there has been a relaxation of some of the laws regarding foreign press coverage in China. Most notable are the new regulations granting foreign journalists more freedom to report in China, mainly due to the 2008 Beijing Olympics.  

Though the regulations went into effect on January 1, 2007 and are set to expire on October 17, 2008, a report by the Xinxua News agency in December 2006 quoted a top publicity official of the government saying that “if the new regulations prove beneficial to our development and to exchanges between us and foreign media, and if they aid communication with the international community, then I imagine there will be no need to change the policy.”  

Recent events in China have put this new law to the test. In March 2008, with protests erupting in Tibet, reports of a media blackout in the Chinese press were rampant in the West. However during and immediately after the devastating earthquake in Sichuan, the state run press in China received praise for its more open coverage of the disaster and rescue efforts, though some newspapers such as the Boston Globe have called for more in-depth coverage of the disaster and the government’s response. 

As I learned in China, the overriding philosophy of China’s leaders is to seek change but to seek it at a measured pace. China has certainly grown tremendously in the last 15 to 20 years. Even those who have re-visited China as recently as two to three years ago say they don’t recognize it today. As the saying goes in Beijing, the construction crane is the new national bird.  

The old is making way for the new in China. On the one hand, one can witness the older generation out practicing Tai Chi or playing Chinese chess in the early morning while young people openly stroll arm and arm in the streets. In Beijing, one can witness the omnipresent building of vast new structures, but one can also walk through the old hutong, or ancient alleyways that once dominated Chinese cities. 

I was fortunate to get a glimpse of China in transition—with the old and the new co-existing. Some Chinese and China watchers fear that the new will eventually obliterate the old ways. Only time will tell how this “sleeping giant” will evolve. As for me, I am eager to take the next step in my journey to know this country and her people.  


Related Topics
Study Abroad in China
Study Abroad Participant Report

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