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China CHANCE (Connecting Humans and Nature through Conservation Experiences) - Alex Devaux

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Posted: November 3, 2011

China is without a doubt one of the most fascinating places I have been.

Where else could you go to see a public computer lab full of people, fifty or more, playing Warcraft, street sweepers using bamboo branches for brooms, a building that looks like a pair of pant so technologically advanced in design that it could not have been built ten years ago due to the lack of adequate software, and temples thousands of years old.  With people so friendly that you’re sure they are up to something (despite the fact that they are not) and food so cheap and delicious, it is hard to believe anyone would ever come home.  But thus is the nature of traveling.  It opens the eyes and the mind.  The myriad new things which we get to experience when pushed outside of our normal life is mind-boggling, from the very bizarre to the strangely familiar.  So I will share some stories of my times in China to illustrate some of the above.
 
To begin with our trip landed us in Shanghai, the bustling metropolis which, is an economic hub for the country and one of the first places opened up to the rest of the world.  Shanghai is a very peculiar place, as there is architecture there from all over the world, mostly as a result of occupation from various people as China was first opening up to the world.  The city was fantastic, and we took some very interesting tours of a steel plant and a Ion Exchange resign manufacturing plant.  The most worthwhile part for me was getting to know my American classmates.  I am firm in my belief that people and the connections we make are the most important part of travel.  Since we had minimal exposure to the local people, and we would be spending the better part of two weeks together, it was key for us to get to know each other and become a good cohesive group.  We shared many laughs and stories of ourselves, and this was an integral part of the success of our trip.  This is not to say that the interaction with locals were of any less significance.
 
DevauxChina2.pngOne great example of a memorable experience with the ‘locals’ was when we took a boat tour of the city and became instant rock stars.  We started off our journey by being fascinated by the beauty of the Bund and the surrounding area.  The lights along the buildings were magical.  As a result, we began taking pictures.  In addition, because our bonds of friendships were strengthening we started taking group pictures.  This led some bold Chinese people to jump in with us for their friends to take a picture of them with the foreigners.  As we kept on laughing and snapping away, more and more people became emboldened, to the point where not taking a picture with us would have been crazy.  So we posed and we posed and smiled and laughed, to the point where my smiling muscles actually ached.  This was a completely new experience for me.  I had heard of such things happening, but the most that had ever happened to me was people sitting next to me and wishing to practice English with me, just because I was foreign.  This was our first great encounter with the ‘locals’.  I do put it in quotes, because there is a very good chance that they were in fact all tourists as well, who happened to find us to be the main attraction.

I must admit that this is my second time in China.  My first time was two years ago when I went there for the whole summer.  During that time, I lived on a university campus.  This is important to my story, because after the first few days in Shanghai with my American classmates, we departed for Jiangnan University.  And let me tell you, hen we arrived, it felt like coming home.  It was all so familiar to me, and brought back so many good memories.  As they say, it is the ordinary things which we remember with the most fondness.  The students who were there to greet us had the same mannerisms and charisma as my last hosts, and of course we bonded in very much the same way.  The apartments or dormitories which we were given, were far superior to anything the Chinese students had.  They included our own showers with hot water, toilet, air conditioner, and a flat screen TV.  DevauxChina1.pngThough I must admit that I was rather disappointed by how nice the place was, as I would really like to live like the Chinese students, 4-6 to a room, I am grateful that they showed us this much generosity.  The mess hall was just like I remembered it.  We had a card which was pre-loaded with money and was passed in front of a sensor to pay for our food.  The food itself was a choice of 8-12 dishes minimum, served on some very cool metal trays.  Unless you got soup or got lucky the food tended to come out luke warm, instead of piping hot.  But the price could not be beat.  Often we would eat for $0.50 per meal, sometimes going up to $1.50 when we were being big spenders with an unusually large appetite.  Other things struck me as being the same.  For example, the Chinese students all had to fetch their own hot water in big canteens if they wanted hot showers, the basketball courts were constantly buzzing with pick up games, and bikes were everywhere, often with someone balancing on the carrying compartment.  University life, as common as it was, was by far my favorite part of the whole experience.
 
Overall, I must admit that it is impossible to put all of what I saw into words, much less keep it to two pages of text.  So if there were a take away message from my story, it would have to be this.  Enjoy all the little things, each interaction, and each bite to eat, as it tends to be much more enjoyable than the big stuff that everyone will expect to hear about.  Journaling about the simple things makes them especially nice when you reread your work.