People's Republic of China
Fall, 2002
Images from Tianjin
Tianjin Seminar Video

As a sophomore at Carleton College I had the opportunity to take part in the Carleton Tianjin Seminar. The seminar was a one-term (three month) study abroad program coordinated by Carleton Professor Qiguang Zhao in partnership with Nankai University. The 2002 Tianjin Seminar consisted of 25 Carleton students, ranging from sophomores to seniors. The main focus of the trip was Chinese language and culture study. The program was based in Tianjin, but I was also able to visit Beijing, Datong, rural Inner Mongolia, Xi'an, Chengdu and Shanghai during my time in China. In the pictures section of this page there is a section dedicated to images of the trip.

While at Nankai University we were enrolled in three courses: Chinese Language, Chinese Culture and Chinese Civilization. For language classes we were split into intermediate (207) and advanced (307) levels, since one of the requirements for the seminar was one year of Chinese language study there was no beginning level offered. These language courses were taught by Nankai faulty. The second course, Chinese Culture, was taught by three "local masters" who specialized in calligraphy, Jingju (Peking opera) and marial arts. The third class was taught by Carleton's own Professor Zhao, with a guest lecture from Carleton Professor Sengjoo Yoon. Chinese Civilization class was a general introduction to Chinese literature, history, geography, and society. All three classes were taught in a mixture of Chinese and English.

The Chinese language course was the most rigorous, although not nearly as stressful as Chinese classes back at Carleton. It was considerably longer than both other classes, but we were given frequent breaks, during witch we'd run out to buy food at the little store down the street. My professor, Wang-laoshi, made the class a lot of fun. He gave us fun assignments such as telling stories and jokes in Chinese. For that I learned that Chinese people don't properly appreciate blonde joke, yet can find "why did the chicken cross the road" hilarious. Once a week this class would take a field trip, the places we visited include the train station, an orphanage and the house part of To Live was filmed in.

Chinese Civilization was not the most exciting class. It was a brief over-view of Chinese history and culture, and so as a second-year Asian Studies major much of the class was review. However there were some new pieces, unique to Zhao-laoshi's style of teaching. We spent a large portion of the time learning and memorizing Chinese poems and proverbs. I only remember one of the poems but several of the proverbs have stuck with me. My favorite of which is " 以史为师 " which means "use history as a teacher". Zhao-laoshi taught us this one while we were visiting the site of the 8th Route Army's historic first victory against the Japanese.

Although I enjoyed all of my classes, Chinese Culture was the most fun. For that class we got to try our hand at some of China's oldest cultural traditions. With the calligrapher we learned the basics of traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting. Chinese calligraphy takes a steady hand and a lot of patience. I only really got comfortable with the character 永 but it was fun and in theory that character is the building block to many other characters because f its stroke diversity.

The martial arts expert taught us two different forms: wushu and taichi. For taichi we had to wake up early in the morning and practice the slow moving, dance-like steps over and over. That was one of my least fond memories (I am not much of a morning person). Wushu is different, it is faster and has some more elements of what westerners normally consider "martial arts". But again the steps were very dance-like and difficult to memorize and execute correctly. You also never have an opponent, which meant you had nobody to react to. As somebody with experience in Aikido and Tae Kown Do, I had a hard time adjusting to this style of martial arts.

My favorite section of the Chinese Culture class was Jingju, aka Peking Opera. Our teacher was a seasoned opera performer, whose talent for voice manipulation and making exaggerated facial expressions was amazing to watch. From him we learned some of the basics of jingju, including one of the more well-known songs. (lyrics begin "su san li liao hong tong xian") We actually preformed that song as a group at a public jingju performance at the Tianjin radio tower. We were completely blown away by the young children who also preformed at the show, but we made the newspapers at "Foreigners doing Jingju!" One of the most fun parts of this class was the day that the teacher brought professional costume and make-up artists and we got dressed up as Peiking opera characters. What a riot!

During the program I spent time in 5 different areas of China: Tianjin, Beijing, Datong/Inner Mongolia, Xi'an, Chengdu and Shanghai. Each place had its own stories, and the easiest way to tell them would be to do it one area at a time. If you aren't sure of the location of any of these cities, please refer to the map bellow:

Beijing, the first Chinese city I was introduced to, was initially a huge culture shock. I am from Minnesota and therefore not accustomed to being in placed as densely populated as Beijing. I also wasn't used to being a spectacle. The people in Beijing, while perfectly friendly, starred at our group a lot. It was something I would have to learn to live with during my time in China. For the most part, though, Bejing was wonderful. We visited all of the major sites: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall, the Ming Tombs, and the Summer Palace. We even saw Mao's body as it happened to be on display the day went to visit Tiananmen Square. I was overwhelmed by the history that I was seeing before my eyes every day. It was beyond amazing. Beijing was also my first introduction to real Chinese food. And I must say, once you've eaten in China all other food will pale in comparison. During my first days I was introduced to what would become my two favorite foods of all time: Peking Duck and Chinese hotpot. Words cannot describe how good these dinning experiences truly are. To get a bit more understand of the level of love fellow students and I developed for Peiking Duck, and if you can read Chinese, read my Peking Duck Adventure. Overall Beijing was a wonder, and I have since been back to Beijing in the summer of 2005 with my husband as part of our honeymoon tour of China. And I hope that I will be able to return again in the future.

Datong was the second stop during those first few weeks of the program. Datong is a small city in rural China, close to the border of Inner Mongolia. Datong was a definitively unique experience that I will always carry with me. In Datong we were greeted at the train station by the city officials and a police escort which lead us to an exquisite hotel in the center of town. During our time there we had little chance to do any exploring on our own as we were shuttled to and from various locations. We visited many places including but not limited to: a wooden pagoda, the town drum tower, a preschool, a new apartment building, coal mine, a power plant and a train factory. The coal mine was interesting because it had been occupied by Japanese forced during WWII and turned into a forced labor camp for the local Chinese. It was a very sad but interesting place, filled with CCP propaganda. After a few days in Datong we were taken by bus further out into the country, to where the crumbling ancient great wall marked the boarder between China and Inner Mongolia. On that boarder there sat a small farming village, which we were able to visit. The difference between the Chinese you meet in the city and those we met out in the country is night and day. It was a real treat to meet those people and see how they lived. We even met two 90+ year-old women who still had bound feet. I just can't believe how different the pace of live is out there.

Tianjin! We finally made it to our "base of operations" two weeks into the program. We were very glad to move into our rooms at Nankai University. I roomed with my best friend and Chinese national Yi Gu. The rooms were comfortable and each had its own bathroom. I did, however, go out and buy my own pillow, since Chinese pillows tend to be about as soft as a bag of concrete. Nankai University is one of China's best universities. Campus is pretty typical for a Chinese school, complete with a lolly pond and a moat of disgusting water. Tianjin is a mid-sized city and suited me quite well. The people of Tianjin were always extra friendly, especially the taxi drivers. While in Tianjin the major activities were not that different from what they would have been back in the states: eating, shopping, clubbing, and, oh yeah, studying. The difference was that the food was amazing, abundant and cheap, the shopping was unique and cheap, and the clubbing was very strange, but not all that cheap. The food was definitely one of the highlights of the trip. Real Chinese food, unlike what you are served at American Chinese restaurants, is incredibly diverse. There are those things you expect to find, such as dumplings and fried rice, as well as the foods that look completely crazy to westerners, such as eel, chickens feet and scorpions, but the real treat are all those little things that you had never heard of and can't every completely explain, such as the food we dubbed "eggy-weggies", a traditional Tianjin breakfast served by street vendors. I had a good time learning all about China through class AND experience while in Tianjin.

Xi'an was our first destination during our mid-term break. The trip was about 24 hours by train, for which we got to ride a soft sleeper. Once in Xi'an we visited the famous Terracotta Soldiers' excavation site. They were cool to see in person. We also got to have a "meal of a thousand dumplings" which included pidgin dumplings. Very interesting. Although the most amusing part of our time in Xi'an was our hotel. It was located in red light district, and it even had a brothel right in the hotel! One of the male students found this out by mistake when he went looking for the weight room (which, it turns out, was just part of the front for the brothel).

Chengdu is the city where Yi Gu, Jack Frew, Tol Lau and I decided to go for the free portion of mid-term break. Chengdu is located in the Sichuan province, which is famous for its spicy foods. But we weren't just there to eat. While in Chengdu we visited 3 sacred mountains. Since the weather in Sichaun is quite warm and moist the mountains were covered with beautiful sub-tropical foliage. The first mountain, whose name I can't remember, was home to the largest Buddha statue in the world. It was carved into the side of a cliff. The second mountain was Emei Shan, and its biggest attraction, for us especially, were the monkeys. There were tons of moneys that lived in the forest of the mountain and came out to get food from the tourists and entertain them with their crazy monkey antics. Definitely a fun day. The third mountain was a Daoist sacred spot. It was very pretty but we were very tired so it was our least enthusiastic day. After our three days in Chengdu we took a 28 hour train ride back to Beijing, and from there got a bus to Tianjin.

Shanghai was the last stop for our trip. We all took a bus down from Tianjin. Shanghai was quite a new experience after spend most of our time in smaller cities. Shanghai is enormous! Professor Zhao's brother is the former mayor of Shanghai so we were given the royal treatment during our tour of Putong New Area. We also had were taken on a river cruise dinner party along the Bund. Shanghai is a beautiful city. After the program ended I stayed in Shanghai an extra week. I stayed with Yi and her grandparents. During that extra time, Yi, Tim, Paul and I visited many fun places including the wonderful museum in the middle of the People's Square which is filled with ancient Chinese art and artifacts. Also, Shanghai is a shopper's heaven, with all the various stores throughout the city its easy to blow through hundreds of Renmminbi a day. One of the highlights of my time in Shanghai was the night Yi's uncle took the whole group out to dinner. There were so many courses we lost count. The food was so good that we all ate until we were in pain. The best way to eat in China is when an Chinese person is ordering, that is certain.