Singapore Summer Immersion Program
China:  Save the Best for Last?

As eye-opening, intense, and wonderfully enlightening as the first six weeks of the trip have been, I can’t think of a better place to spend the last four days then in Kunming, China. I was certain of this from the moment the Eastern Yunnan Airline plane touched ground and the pilot announced the current temperature of 63 degrees Fahrenheit. “63 degrees Fahrenheit?!,” we all exclaimed. “This is HEAVEN!” And having come straight from Bangkok, with an average temperature of over 100, this did indeed feel like heaven to our sunburned bodies. We were met immediately by two of the friendliest students I’ve ever met, proclaiming their excitement for the next few days in outstanding English.

It might be an understatement to say that all I knew of Kunming, capital of the Yunnan Province, were the tidbits of information we’d gotten in preparation for the trip. I think the organizers sensed this relative unfamiliarity with the region, as we were immediately were escorted to the University for a presentation on the Yunnan Province, which as we soon learned is comparable in size to the state of California, with several million residing in Kunming alone. This statistic continued to shock me over the next few days, because the city undoubtedly had a small-town feel and a relaxed pace about it. After a briefing on the area’s rich history, highlighting the arrival of Islam in the 13th century with Kublai Kahn, and the ethnic diversity of the province, we departed for a traditional Chinese dinner. Here we met Yunnan Univ. students and were introduced to the infamous “rice noodle,” a dish that nobody seemed to be able to get enough of throughout the trip. I think I speak for everyone when I say that we formed great individual bonds with these students. Amelia, a third-year Chinese student, was worrying about her English exam that day that tested her on Shakespeare. I assured her that most of the English-speaking natives on our trip couldn’t understand Shakespeare either, so thy hath not reason to worry.

That night we split up into our small groups that we’d meet in the following day, and I’m slightly embarrassed to admit that us four Americans convinced our two Chinese students to play bumper cars (twice!), but I do believe we introduced them to a new favorite pastime. The next day we regrouped, and took the public transportation downtown, which seemed much more relaxed and less crowded than any public transportation we’d taken in Bangkok or elsewhere. The city’s laid-back atmosphere really seemed to surface, and was mirrored by the architecture, which is very spread-out and horizontal, whereas in Singapore and Thailand it had been very clustered and vertical. I think a lot can be said about these cultures by the architecture alone. We arrived at a beautiful park and pavilion (with a stop along the way for us to buy jackets), and spent the day walking around the gardens and riding a three-person bicycle, a special memory for me, as it was my first bike-riding experience. Lunch was an experience as well, as I attempted to order for everyone; let’s just say my order was “lost in translation.” For the second time, I began to feel strong bonds with university students I’d known for only a few days. I’ve really realized that all people are essentially very similar, but have also seen the overwhelming ways a culture shapes its people.

The ensuing morning I came down with some sort of food poisoning as the rest of the group traveled to the Stone Forest, which someone else will likely do a post about. That night, a group of us ventured to the “smoky street,” an extremely local area full of smoke, roasting meats on skewers, vendors, and outdoor pool tables. It was dirty, smelly, foggy, and absolutely wonderful. I think China is in many ways the first place in which I’ve definitely felt like I’m on another continent. Although the street of our hotel is used to foreign travelers, the city as a whole is not touristy and I found myself really having to fend for myself and really work to try and communicate. We were encouraged by Professor Levine to forego the hotel breakfast and instead try the local street food, such as fried bananas pancake. We found that this tasted better and gave us a chance to practice the Mandarin we’d learned in our weekly lessons back home in good ole Ginza Plaza. This is definitely the least-Westernized place we have visited and it was exciting and discomforting at the same time. Here I felt the most “immersed” of all the previous cities, and that’s when I really attuned myself to the cultural differences, such as the outward friendliness and affection that seemed to be standard in the society.

The next day we heard a lecture on Yunnan Ethnic Groups at the Ethnic Museum, and learned about the 5 major ethnic groups of the region, which total about 7.8 million people. It was intriguing to walk through the museum and see traditional ethnic clothing unlike anything I’d ever seen, my favorite being the detailed outfit made of tree bark. The long history of China lends itself to so many cultural and historical lessons that we didn’t even scratch the surface of. We left then for the Ethnic Village where we ate lunch (they actually served us French fries, and I wasn’t sure what to think about that) and walked around. The different ethnic groups sang songs and put on performances in an interesting but touristy way. We departed there for the Western Hills where we hiked and took a cable car up to the top of the mountain. We had the most gorgeous view of the mountains and picturesque but very polluted water. As with all group activities, we ended with a souvenir-shopping spree and a hearty dinner.

In a final-recap session the next day in Bangkok, Prof. Levine asked us to evaluate and draw conclusions from our time in China. Some seemed to think it was relaxed, clean, and overall enjoyable; others found it dirty, unfriendly, and hard to feel settled. I’ve found that much of my perception of a place is determined by the friendliness and helpfulness of our student guides. Luckily, all of mine have been extremely outgoing and I felt especially welcome and at ease in China. We discussed the sense of open-ness in the society. The students were more reluctant to discuss politics or the government, a contrast to the Thai students I met who seemed very politically-minded and quick to make judgments or criticisms. Communism definitely had a noticeable but subtle presence in Chinese society. It was another culture shock to be back in Bangkok for even a day, where people were once again bold in speech, dress and action. I loved that we got to travel between the two cities, which reminded me of traveling between NYC and basically most American cities. It was a great way to end the trip, and I now felt ready to be home after seven and a half weeks of cultural immersion.