Bridging a divide
UGA's extensive public service and outreach in China has led to an array of opportunities for students to study in a country that was once off limits to outsiders
Men and women whirl with colorful parasols and fans, moving in a line that wanders steadily across the plaza to the beat of drums. It’s Friday night in the city of Yan’an, in the Shaanxi province of China, and people of all ages have congregated to celebrate the start of the weekend. A group of newcomers arrives in the square—Westerners, who pause to take in the sights and sounds. When the drumming stops, they’re surrounded by locals who stare curiously. There are a few tense moments as the strangers contemplate each other, but the shyness evaporates with the first tentative “Ni hao” (knee how), which means “Hello.”
For the next 20 minutes, eight UGA political science students pose for photo after photo with the people of Yan’an, bridging the language and cultural gaps with smiles.
“It was like a bonding experience with the people,” says senior Marlene Otero.
When the music starts again, Otero and juniors Peyton Edwards, Lucy Weathers and Amanda Williamson join the dancers, following a woman who leads them in a series of movements similar to line dancing. From the sidelines three young Chinese women shoot video of Edwards on their cell phones.
During the months of May and June, 72 students from five UGA colleges and schools traveled in China, studying in disciplines as diverse as law and genetics, political science and fashion merchandising. It is just the fourth year that UGA has offered study abroad in China, and they already are among the most popular programs of international study at the university.
Though the programs are new, UGA’s relationship with China is not. For 10 years, the Carl Vinson Institute of Government has provided government training to Chinese officials. The institute was one of the first to develop training programs for China after the country opened its doors in the 1980s.
During the past decade, almost 900 Chinese government officials have attended Vinson Institute programs in a variety of locations including Beijing, Tianjin, Jiangxi Province and Qinghai Province, and have traveled to Georgia for training as well.
Those connections have led to significant economic development opportunities for the state of Georgia and UGA study abroad.
“Dealing in China is such a personal matter. You build relationships and that’s how you get things done,” says political science professor Bob Grafstein, whose Maymester in China was UGA’s first regular study abroad program in that country. “With the Vinson Institute’s help, some of that spadework was already done.”
The political science program is carefully structured to balance academic and experiential learning. The program also adds an insider’s perspective through a native instructor like Rioxi Li. In Li’s class on Chinese society and culture, the students gain an understanding of the complex cultural dynamics that surround them—something they can’t get by reading a book or visiting a tourist site.
By leveraging the Vinson Institute’s ongoing relationships with Chinese administrative institutes—government training schools—Grafstein is able to give his students a more complete experience that includes lectures from officials, a visit to the National Administrative School (“their Harvard of government training,” he says) and the pleasure of meeting students their age who are being trained for positions in government.
For senior Emily Yeager, the best part of the trip was meeting Cleo Sue, a student at Beijing Administrative College who wants to be a translator—like her. Both speak French, so they spoke in multiple languages.
While she and Sue had a lot in common, Yeager found that there were also a lot of differences between the American and Chinese students.
“Seeing how they see America is different than I thought it would be,” Yeager says. “They respect the U.S., but are also extremely proud of their history and culture. They respect us, but don’t want to be us.”
Compared to traditional semester-long study abroad programs, these Maymester trips to China are short, usually three to four weeks. Groups try to pack as much as possible into the time there. They visit the obvious tourist attractions, like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, but they also explore the commerce and culture of the country.
In Beijing, students traveling with the College of Family and Consumer Sciences get a lesson on freshwater pearls, one of China’s exports. The Chinese freshwater pearl industry boomed in the mid-1990s when the Chinese began producing gems that rivaled neighboring Japan in quality. China now produces 1,500 tons of freshwater pearls a year, 99.9 percent of the world’s supply.
Local markets are popular with students. In south China, where genetics professor Rodney Mauricio took his group to explore native invasive species, the students would return from the village laden with bags of fresh mangoes, lychees and mao dan, a fruit surrounded with a skin of soft, pinkish-red spikes about an inch long. Some of the girls visited a local seamstress to order handmade outfits—long skirts and modest tops in colorful fabrics with embroidery or gold foil.
“It’s fun to watch others experience Asian culture for the first time,” says Kina Le, an August graduate, who emigrated to the U.S. from South Vietnam at age 5. “I think it’s an eye-opening experience.” Dining is an adventure. The students learn early on that what passes for Chinese food in the U.S. is not traditional Chinese. The Chinese use the whole chicken as food, for example. It is not uncommon to see a chicken head or chicken feet floating in a bowl of soup. Chopsticks can be tricky, as law students with Don Johnson’s study abroad program found when they stopped for lunch at a restaurant near the Great Wall. On the table before them was the wheel of fortune (a lazy susan) filled with dishes of shredded pork, eggplant, chicken and peppers, and zongzi (sticky rice and dates wrapped in bamboo leaves). The wheel turns constantly so the students have to serve themselves quickly, which is difficult with chopsticks.
Mauricio’s group got to have lunch with a Dai family—an ethinic minority prevalent in the Yunnan province near the Laos border. The daughter, Janice Yi, was a graduate student working at the Xishuangbanna Botannical Gardens (XTBG), where the genetics students spent two weeks doing research. Yi’s father took the class on a walk through the neighboring rainforest before they sat down to the 12-course meal her mother had prepared.
“The cultural education involved with this program has been done very well, and that’s a crucial part of study abroad,” says Tim Wang, a senior at Ohio State University. “It helped broaden my perspective of what an academic culture could be like.”
Understanding each other’s culture is important in developing relationships, says Steve Wrigley, director of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government. That’s why public officials from Georgia who travel to China to lead training classes also visit historical and cultural landmarks. When the Chinese officials come here for training, they learn about American history, society and food as well as government. The training in Georgia takes the Chinese to cities like Savannah, Macon and Dalton, where they meet officials who hold positions similar to theirs.
“We really make an effort to involve public officials in Georgia in the work because it makes it more relevant and more applied and hands-on to the Chinese,” Wrigley says. “They always enjoy interacting with a mayor or a council member.”
Cobb County Manager David Hankerson traveled to Nanchang in June to lead a seminar on support services. Though the audience understood a lot of English, Hankerson used an interpreter to explain how information services, purchasing and property management are handled in Cobb County.
The Chinese were impressed with Hankerson’s experience.
“The group admires that in your 16 years as county manager you never reduced the budget for education,” Qiu Qimin, an associate research fellow in the general office of Jiangxi provincial government, told him.
It is Hankerson’s first trip to China, and though he’s still adjusting to cultural changes—he doesn’t speak Chinese and prefers to use a fork rather than chopsticks at meals—he’s impressed with the students.
“They’re quick. They’re sharp. The IQ level is really high,” he says. “If I don’t explain well enough or they don’t understand, they’ll keep on it.”
During a class break, Liu Zhiqiang, a deputy chief in the Jiangxi provincial public safety department, says he’s grateful to be able to continue his education.
“I graduated 16 years ago and haven’t had a chance to train,” he says. “It’s very important to us.”
Stretching across 3,728 miles with 9,010 miles of coastline, China is a massive and diverse country. The most populous in the world, it accounts for 21 percent of the human population. It is divided into five regions and 23 provinces. Most of the places the students visit are urban and the people speak Mandarin, China’s official language.
The XTBG, in south China, is in an area heavily populated with Dai, one of 55 ethnic minorities recognized by the Chinese government. Most of the 1.5 million Dai in China live in the Yunnan Province. They have their own written and spoken language.
At XTBG, Mauricio’s students engage in field work using the garden as their laboratory. Their program, focused on the genetics of invasive species, is funded by a National Science Foundation PIRE (Partnership for International Research and Education) grant and includes three components—research, graduate training and undergraduate study abroad. For five years, Mauricio and his students will explore four plants that are native to the southeastern U.S. and invasive in China (Carolina geranium, tall morning glory, pokeweed and smooth cordgrass); four plants that are native to China and invasive in the southeastern U.S. (mimosa, Chinese privet, Nepalese browntop and kudzu); and two bacterial species (watermelon bacterial blight and citrus greening disease).
“I’m from New Mexico. I’d never seen kudzu till I got here,” says Ted Wenner, a senior at New Mexico State University, who was part of the UGA study abroad program.
Wenner holds a kudzu leaf to help him identify the plant; he and UGA sophomore Morgan Ackley are mapping stands of kudzu at XTBG. When they find one, they pace off the perimeter to get a size estimate and then record how high it grows (ground, shrubs or trees) and whether there are signs that animals have been eating it.
The teams are spread throughout the garden, and Mauricio moves between them to check progress.
“There are two patches on either side of the road. Is this one patch or two?” he asks. “If it’s directly across the street, is it the same patch?”
The answer is less important to Mauricio than the process of finding an answer. Fieldwork at XTBG is designed to teach the students basic ecological field techniques and get them thinking about evolutionary questions and how they might conduct research to answer them.
“We’re not teaching students what the facts are and having them memorize them,” Mauricio says. “The essence of a research university is that we don’t know the answer.”
The students are also contributing to the larger research project, collecting kudzu samples that get shipped back to Mauricio’s lab at UGA.
This “research abroad” program offers an unusual combination: genetics and language. Students began an intensive study of Mandarin Chinese in January, cramming two courses into one semester and exploring Chinese movies and books four months before arriving in China.
“I really liked the idea that I could be in grad school for science but still learn a language,” says Becky Shirk, UGA graduate student in plant biology. “Most of the time you don’t get to do that.”
It’s a brisk morning in Yan’an, and Bob Grafstein has just finished a lecture on Mao Zedong’s Long March—the 6,000-mile trek the communist leader and his 100,000 followers made in 1934 to escape the Nationalists in Jiangxi.
This afternoon the students will visit Yang Hill and explore the homes Mao and his followers built in the caves there. They’re still overwhelmed by culture shock, but over the next week will begin to feel more comfortable in their surroundings and venture out on their own.
That, says Art Dunning, vice president for public service and outreach, may be the biggest benefit of the program—getting students out of their comfort zones.
“One of the challenges for students is they get stretched culturally when they spend time in a non-Western country,” Dunning says. “They see clearly and up close that things we take for granted are not universal.”
“There are more dramatic differences in Asia. Non-Western countries push their thinking more.”
For some, the experience can be life-changing.
By her third week in China with the poli sci program Yeager knew she wanted to come back. While in Xi’an, she went to the Happy Paradise Internet café next door to her hotel and applied to return to China to teach English after graduating in August. By the end of the trip she learned that she was accepted to the program; she plans to be back in Beijing by the end of the year.
“China just blindsided me in the best possible way,” Yeager says. “There was no one thing—it was a million little things.”
For more photos from China, go to http://www.uga.edu/gm.