Beyond 16 days: A reflection on the Sustainable China trip

By Anh Ta

December of 2015 was an incredibly eventful and memorable winter break during my time here at Lawrence, as I had the opportunity to travel through China with a group of Lawrence students, faculty and staff members. Tightly compressed into just 16 days across five different cities—Shanghai, Wuxi, Guiyang, Shenzhen and Hong Kong—the experience was inspiring, overwhelming and stimulating all at once.

The trip was designed to be an alternative study abroad experience. Instead of a whole term or a year, our three-week trip was more of a “traveling classroom,” a term coined by Stephen Edward Scarff Professor of International Affairs and Associate Professor of Government Jason Brozek, who led the program this year. This, in itself, created a very different experience for us, as the trip is a continuation and not a disconnection from our class in Fall Term.

The program has a broad interdisciplinary focus on commerce, culture and conservation with students from many different departments—government, economics and Chinese to name a few. We all set out to explore different aspects of China’s culture, issues and society, depending on our personal and academic backgrounds.

Our majors were not our only difference. The trip was infinitely more interesting as we had some first-time and seasoned travelers, some Chinese culture and history connoisseurs who could fluently converse with locals, and newbies like me who had nothing more than broken Mandarin and body language to communicate our orders to street food vendors.

Although it was a relatively short trip, we all learned so much, not only about China, but also about our own cultures and identities. One thing that struck me was how the media, especially Western media, has been painting a jarringly one-sided narrative of China as the extremely polluted manufacturing site of the world with a communist dictatorship and heavy-handed censorship.

Our visit to only five cities could not speak for the vast country and its one billion people, but it is enough to see that China is so much more than that. Despite many persisting problems, China is truly a culturally diverse place with creative and compassionate individuals who are working hard and putting hearts into what they do.

For most of the participants on the trip, this has been their first time being somewhere so vastly different from what they know. Junior Glenn McMahon commented that, despite his traveling experience, being in China for him was “the first time being the minority.” Many of the trip participants shared a similar sentiment, as they experience a culture almost completely different.

Echoing this sentiment, sophomore Chelsea Gosney chimed in, “[The trip] has given me insight into how people of color might feel [in the U.S.], and I now have more respect for them.” She added, “It is difficult to get stared at and stand out all the time.”

For me personally, as a Vietnamese, being in China is strangely familiar and foreign at the same time. As China and Vietnam share many common points in our history, culture and current challenges, in many ways, I could easily blend in. At the same time, this superficial similarity immediately became alienating the moment I tried to speak, to find my way around, or most often, to explain with limited Mandarin my ethnicity and my reason for being in China to strangers with uncomprehending stares.

Despite our individual stories, feelings and challenges, we bonded quickly over the course of a very fast-paced trip, being around each other almost constantly. Lawrence New Media and Website Coordinator Rachel Crowl very aptly put it as “[taking] everything I love about Lawrence, condens[ing] it down to a ball of 21 people, throw[ing] it to the other side of the planet and let[ting] it loose for three weeks.”

Perhaps it is a common thing to fall in love a little with all of the people who study abroad with you. You have seen them at their best and their worst, both when things sail smoothly and when all plans fall through the cracks. Our special bond is one hard to forget, as reflected by Executive Director of Budget and Planning Jenna Stone ’00, who was with us during the trip.

“Going to such an extraordinarily overwhelmingly foreign place, having intellectual engagement all the way through and yet really enjoying each other as people [really makes it] one of the most Lawrentian experiences of my life,” said Stone.