Thursday, July 31, 2014

Update from Seoul

               My name is Adena Peckler and I am an undergraduate Korean Language Fellow enrolled in an intensive summer study at one of South Korea’s prominent “SKY” institutions, Seoul National University. Prior to arriving in South Korea, I was aware of the value this experience would hold regarding contemporary Korean culture, as well as my grasp of the Korean language. I was not prepared for the valuable insight I would also gain into the various opinions regarding South Korea’s future potential.
While in Seoul, I have come to realize that in order to understand the importance of South Korea’s influence in Asia, one can simply look at the composition of students enrolled in the language schools. The number of participants in Seoul National University’s summer language program is in fact quite small, with a typical class size of fourteen students. Despite the small size, there are key trends to note. The first is that many of the students in the program are either gap year students, or college graduates, who hope to work or study in South Korea. The overwhelming majority of these students are from China, Southeast Asia, and Australia. For some classmates, their motivation for Korean language study was a lack of academic and professional opportunity due to immense competition, while others are seeking a degree which they believe will be of a higher value given its origination from Korea (also consider that the program is held at one of the premier institutions in Asia). Thus, for the students from China and Southeast Asia, the vast majority began studying Korean at level 1 and plan to proceed to level 7 in order to take the government-sponsored TOPIK and KLPT proficiency exams.

Similarly, there is a large contingent of Australian students participating in the program as well. Many are here on language grants provided by the Australian Government, as well as a vast array of scholarships originating from city and district offices, versus national grants. Such opportunities also exist in the United States, but it does not seem comparable to the sheer scale of the Australian government’s promotion of language study (presumably to increase trade as well as influence within the region). For example, to study in Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia Vietnam, etc. many large grants are available.
Myself and classmates enjoying the best fried chicken the side-streets of Seoul has to offer!
On the surface, it seems that there is either a conscious or latent push from China and Australia, as well as a distinct pull from Korea, to invest in the Korean marketplace. In fact, during my summer at SNU, President Xi Jinping of China came to give a talk at the university. This singular visit was, and continues to be, coveted with much fanfare in Korea as signaling a key alliance between the two nations. As for the Australian students, many have observed that there is a need for their country to capitalize on both the skills and connections such programs can provide
What I have come to realize is that South Korea is viewed within the region as a land of opportunity. In the United States, interest in Korea is often limited to Korean pop-culture and the tacit peace with North Korea. This narrow focus is furthered by the lack of a developed Korean Studies program in many US universities offering a degree in Asian Studies. Yet in Asia, Korea’s value is seen as untapped, and interests in the country span much farther beyond the pop-culture of the Korean Wave.
I have had an interesting time in Korea thus far, and there are still plenty more experiences to be had during my time here! Keep a look out for another post which will expand on my life here. Until then, I hope you are having a good summer . . . wherever you are!
Nighttime shot outside of my apartment in Seoul.
Adena Peckler
B.A. Asian Studies, International Affairs 2015
Sigur Center 2014 Korean Language Fellow
Seoul National University, South Korea

For more posts from Korea:
Seoul Wanderings

Emily in Taipei

Hello everyone!

My name is Emily Eitzen, I'm currently studying at Chinese Culture University's Mandarin Learning Center in the Da'an District of Taipei City. I came here on a grant from the Sigur Center, specifically named the Sigur Center Grant for Chinese Language Study in Taiwan. I am very grateful for this opportunity and feel that it has made a significant impact on my Chinese, especially since I haven't taken a formal Chinese class in several years.

A short introduction about myself...

I'm currently working towards my M.A. in Asian Studies at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. I received my B.A. degree from the University of Florida in 2012. I studied abroad in the past, though the last time I took Chinese was in 2011 - so as you can imagine I was rusty! Therefore, this summer has been imperative as I have been catching up on where I have left off in my Chinese studies. My ultimate goal in improving my Chinese fluency this summer is to be able to pass the proficiency test for my M.A. degree, but it's also important for me to improve my Chinese as I am considering working abroad after I graduate. 

Learning Chinese in Taipei, Taiwan....
I've been taking my Chinese class very seriously and have also sought additional opportunities to improve my Chinese.  I have class each weekday for about three hours, and I also meet with a tutor to help me with additional material. I have been able to practice what I have learned with language partners and classmates. What I think is most interesting is that out of the 10 students in my class, I'm the only only fluent native English speaker, which means I am constantly challenged to utilize Chinese in order to communicate effectively with my classmates.  At first it was hard to communicate but I can say now that not only can I communicate but I have made friends too!
Here is a picture of me and my classmates from this month eating together at a Korean restaurant. (Three of my classmates in this picture are from South Korea.)

Daily Life....
My experience in Taiwan has been overall very positive. I found that in Taiwan most people will go out of their way to help you, and I have been able to develop several friendships here in Taipei. As far as daily interactions, I have been able to utilize Chinese for basic interactions and I try to go out of my way to use new vocabulary in situations that I haven't encountered before. The only problem I find with studying Chinese in Taipei is that people wish to speak English with you instead of Chinese in certain situations. Generally I always try to respond back in Chinese!

My next blog post I hope to talk more about traveling in Taipei, as I had the opportunity to travel to in and out of Taipei with locals who have taken me to some amazing places.
Here is a picture from Elephant Mountain (象山, Xiàngshān). I went here with my language partner who took me and several others all the way to the top of the mountain to see the view of Taipei before the sun went down. Isn't it great?

I also will upload a video soon about living gluten free in Taipei (I have celiac disease, which means I have to adhere to a gluten-free diet at all times), so it has been quite interesting explaining what this is to locals here in Taipei!
Thanks for reading!

Emily Eitzen

Monday, July 28, 2014

Chongqing Impressions: Two Years after Bo Xilai

When conducting interviews with local government officials in Chongqing last week, many of the times I felt like I were Jon Snow in Game of Thrones and my interviewee his wildling girl friend: “You know nothing” is what I constantly got. “You know,” I was told once, “generally we local governments do not accept interview requests from scholars, not to mention students. Because you don’t know anything.” On another occasion, when I tried to introduce myself as a Ph. D student of Political Science, my interviewee laughed: “What political science? Here we don’t have political science. All we have is politics.”
            Today is the eighth day since I landed in China to conduct field research for my dissertation. I wanted to gain some local perspective (versus that of the central government) on my topic, so I travelled to Chongqing, the city in China’s western hinterland that has been the country’s fourth municipality since 1997. It was also the epicenter of the political earthquake that shook China in 2012, when Bo Xilai, the then Party Chief of Chongqing and a “princeling” who had been expected by many to take a key leadership position in the 2012 leadership transition, was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party.
Securing interviews with local officials, however, turned out to be extremely difficult. Early this month, the state issued a new document that forbids Chinese journalists to provide information to foreign media or share news through personal social media accounts. Which, along with the intense anti-corruption and mass-line educational campaigns, reminded me again how the political climate had been tightened since President Xi Jinping took office. Fortunately, after digging really deep into my personal relations and promising anonymity, I finally was able to talk face-to-face with a couple of officials—not in their offices, but over the dinner table. And I had to drink “baijiu”—the Chinese “white liquor,”--every time I wanted to get some answers to my questions.
But except for the baijiu (I got really heavy-headed after one very small glass), I generally enjoyed the City of Chongqing. When I was not working, I would take a stroll around the neighborhood of my hotel or take a cab to the downtown area. China’s “mountain city” along the Yangtze River, Chongqing is built on hills and boasts splendid natural scenes along the riverbank. At Hongyadong, a recreation of old Chongqing that clings to the side of a mountain, you’ll find yourself coming out from the elevator to just another street. On the other hand, modern skyscrapers along the Yangtze would remind one of Hong Kong or New York.

Along the Yangtze

Hongyadong, a tourist spot that clings to the side of a mountain

Whenever possible, I would ask residents how satisfied they were with the local government now that Bo had been gone. To my surprise, most of them complained. A grocery store owner said succinctly: “It’s now a mess.” A taxi driver told me that many infrastructure projects had been halted since Bo was replaced, “I wish they could do it faster, so that the city would be in a better shape.” A primary school teacher said she wished the mobile patrol platforms were still there--when Bo was in office, he ordered 500 mobile patrol platforms be created to make the city safer, but they were nowhere to be found now.
It seemed that all things bearing Bo’s signature had been removed from Chongqing. In 2008, Bo Xilai launched the “Sing Red” campaign that organized people to sing the so-called “red songs,” popular patriotic and political songs from the Maoist era, including the Cultural Revolution. The campaign also included the study of “red classics” -- books and films about the Party’s revolutionary past. At the height of the campaign, red banners and posters could be seen everywhere in the city. Bo also ordered local TV channels to cut the number of dramas and stop airing commercials so as to make way for public service ads, news programs, and “red programs” that promoted “red culture.” But now no trace of the “Sing Red” campaign could be found. In my hotel,  I could watch as many commercials as I wanted on the Chongqing satellite channels.
A tea commercial on Chongqing TV
I was curious about the fate of the “Xilai trees”—the 20 million ginkgo trees that Bo spent billions of yuan to transplant to Chongqing primarily because they were his personal favorite—after Bo’s downfall. I was told that many of them did not survive the local climate anyway; but those that survived were still there. “The ginkgos don’t provide shade. We need shade here. Chongqing is too hot in the summer.” A popsicle vender told me. I did see some Ginkgo trees along my way back to the hotel—they were beautiful trees but it was true that they could not provide the much-needed shade for Chongqing’s seething summer. Local people’s favorite tree was still the banyan, which had historically been the City’s most common shade trees.  
Ginkgo trees on the left of the road
The Jiefangbei (People’s Liberation Monument) shopping plaza was a really interesting place to be at: to me, it was an epitome of many contradicting urges of the Chinese society today: market economy and communist ideologies, western lifestyle and national pride, a revolutionary past and a globalized future, and the Party's mass-line principles and the existing huge income gaps.

The Jiefangbei (People's Liberation Monument) shopping plaza

Time Square-style shopping plaza; the People's Liberation Monument at the Center. 

The 27-meter tall People’s Liberation Monument was built in 1945 to commemorate China’s victory over the Japanese in WWII, and was refurbished in 1997 when Chongqing became a municipality.

The 24,000 square meters shopping plaza was built in the same year, apparently modeled after Time Square in New York. Standing in front of the Monument, I was surrounded by shiny high-rises, huge LED signs, luxury stores, financial companies, and shopping centers. One of the high-rise buildings was named “New York, New York” and looked like a smaller version of the Empire State Building of NYC.
High-rise buildings at the Jiefangbei Shopping Plaza. The one on the left is "New York, New York."
Facing the Monument were a Gucci store and a Starbucks. The Starbucks reminded me of the Starbucks in Forbidden City in Beijing that was forced to close down after Rui Chenggang, a CCTV anchorman, led an online campaign to evict it from the Fobidden City in 2007, citing cultural sensitivities and national dignity. Rui had since been hailed as a national hero by many. Earlier this month, Rui was taken away for anti-corruption investigation.
Several hundred meters away from the center of the plaza was a construction site. One of the posters on the fences read: “There would not have been the new China without the Communist Party. [meiyou gongchandang jiu meiyou xinzhongguo]” It was the same message Bo tried to convey several years ago. But he probably went too far, and too fast.
Left: Communist Party Members are on the Road to a Dream Fulfilled; center: Without the Communist Party, there would not have been the New China; right: Morality Matters in China

(Chunhua Chen is a third year Ph.D student of Political Science at GWU. This summer, she is doing field research on her dissertation in China supported by a Sigur Center Grant for Asian Field Research for summer 2014.)

Friday, July 25, 2014

Internship Opportunity with The Foreign Policy Initiative

The Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) Internship Program seeks rising college seniors and graduate students of the highest caliber with interest in the fields of, but not limited to, international studies, defense, national security, democracy and human rights, political science, and foreign affairs. FPI interns are given substantial work in current events research, policy communication, and think tank operations. Interns are encouraged to attend stimulating discussions around the local D.C. area and to interact closely with FPI's in-house experts. Though the FPI internship program is unpaid, participants gain valuable skills, a broader understanding of the policy world, invaluable experience, and networking opportunities.
The 2014 Fall Internship Program is accepting applications between now and July 30, 2014. Apply here.

  • Rising college senior or graduate student
  • Understanding of FPI's mission
  • Foreign policy interests
  • Strong written communication skills
  • Excellent academic and current events research skills
  • Proven work ethic and willingness to take initiative
  • Professional demeanor and positive attitude
  • Ability to take instructions and work with minimal supervision
  • Reliable and able to commit 20 to 40 hours a week
  • International experience is a plus
  • Capitol Hill experience is a plus
  • Second language is a plus
To apply:
  • Submit your resume with GPA
  • Submit a one-page cover letter explaining your passion for foreign policy and how you meet our requirements
For further questions, please e-mail
N.B. Only candidates selected for an interview will be contacted.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Stephen in Shanghai (Video Blog Part 1)

Hi everyone. Stephen here again for my first video blog post. It's a little awkward. I'll let the video speak for itself.

By the way, I've actually been keeping another blog since February about my time in Shanghai. I haven't posted in a while but the blog should offer some insight into the cultural quirks of living abroad as an expat in this city. Here's the link if you're interested:

See you next time!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

A.J. in Taiwan

When I first arrived in Taiwan, there were a number of things I had to get used to.  There was jet lag, the public transportation system, the weather, and a few other things.  I’ve now been in the country for about a month and a half, and feel like I’m really beginning to get the hang of it around here.  However, there is one blaring exception to this situation: traditional characters.

Nearly all of my previous language study had taken place in Mainland China, where simplified characters are used in most everything except calligraphy paintings and possibly baijiu commercials. When initially studying the language, I remember thinking to myself, “There’s absolutely no reason that I’ll need to know traditional characters!  Besides, they can’t be that different from simplified, I’m sure I can pick them up fairly quickly if I really try.”  Oh, how wrong was I…

The CCP’s main motivation for creating a standardized set of simplified characters was originally to increase the literacy rate throughout the country.  In 1950, China’s literacy rate was about 20%.  Thinking that the complexity and lack of uniformity in many Chinese characters was inhibiting learning, the government set out a project to simplify a significant number of these characters in order to better facilitate the literacy process amongst the people.  Currently, China’s literacy rate hovers just above 95%, so one could consider the program a success.

However, there are a number of detractors to the simplification of the language. Many people say that using simplified characters takes away much of the essence of the language, and that given the better educational infrastructure throughout China, the use of simplified characters has become obsolete.  Furthermore, now that everyone types instead of handwrites, the added convenience of less character strokes has been negated.

I’d heard all of these discussions before and didn’t really have much of an opinion on the matter.  I suppose that I appreciated the added aesthetic value of traditional characters, but honestly didn’t think much about it.  Since starting classes here, my position has changed drastically.

At the beginning of the summer term, I was excited about being given the opportunity to learn traditional characters and figured that it might be hard, but I could probably get used to it within a few weeks.  I mean, how hard could it be, right?  Well, it turns out that the answer to that question is, “It’s actually kind of hard.”

When the PRC government went about converting the written language into simplified characters, they set about a number of methods to do so.  One of the main ones was to take certain components that make up many characters and just make them easier to write.  For example, (jian-to see) becomes , ma-horsebecomes 马,and (men-door) becomes .  Since most Chinese characters are just a combination of many of these components, all I would need to do is study a few dozen of the components and I’d be fine! (Example: the word for news-新聞 just becomes 新闻 )  Easy peasy! I should be an expert in no time!  Not the case.

It turns out that there’s quite a few characters that have been changed drastically.  The character (sui) becomes 岁, (ji) becomes ,   (le) becomes ,   (huan) just turns into , and the list goes on. My personal favorite is the complex (liao) being magically transformed into .  For me, this last one has been particularly vexing.  While studying in Mainland China, it took me all of a minute to memorize the two strokes required to write out the character .  In traditional form, this same character requires a whopping 17 strokes!   

Which brings me to my next headache: time.  I’d heard people complain about how time consuming it is to write out traditional Chinese characters before, but I figured it didn’t matter because nowadays, everyone types everything anyways.

This is indeed true, unless you have a strict Chinese language teacher that insists you handwrite every essay you write.  At first I didn’t think that this was too big of a deal, until I found myself bleary eyed, with a sore wrist, frantically trying to finish writing my essays before midnight so I could get some sleep.  It turns out, all those extra strokes tend to add up, leading to many a late night hunched over my desk, consulting two or three dictionaries, and scribbling out those cursed little traditional characters as fast as I possibly can so that I can get some sleep.

Needless to say, learning traditional characters has proven itself to be a touch more difficult of a task than I initially expected.  And though I might get grouchy every once in a while (okay, more than just once in a while), about having to re-learn an entire set of characters, I still find the process of learning them intriguing.  Furthermore, even though I’ve realized I’m not going to master traditional characters any time soon, the classes here in Taiwan have been an excellent opportunity for me to better understand the Chinese language in its many varied complexities and gain a deeper appreciation for it at the same time.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Maggie in Taiwan: Part Two

Hello again Asia on E Street Blog Readers,

I have just completed my third week of school here in Taipei and I am just over halfway done with my stay, so I thought it would be a good idea to write all of you about the various sights I have had the chance to see in and around Taipei as well as how classes have been going at ICLP.

First I’d like to tell you about two day trips I have had the chance to take over the last two weekends to smaller cities in the region around Taipei. The first trip I took was to Wulai and the second was to Yingge and Sanxia.

After an exhausting week and school, it can often be tempting to lounge around on the weekend taking it easy and staying cool inside. However, after our first weekend my roommate (who is conveniently attending Georgetown to get her Masters) and I were determined to go out and explore our beautiful surroundings. We decided to make the trek to Wulai. Deciding to go to Wulai was easy as it is famous for its riverside hot springs and clear, meandering river, as well as Taiwan aboriginal culture. We travelled to Wulai by first taking the metro to the end of the line and catching a bus from the metro station that took us directly to the little town, all in all it cost us just over 1$USD. After grabbing some street food on the touristy street, we hiked up to the Wulai waterfall. While the journey to the waterfall was incredibly hot and humid, it was completely worth it as the waterfall was gorgeous, plus, I am always taken aback by the luscious greenery of Taiwan.

Beautiful Wulai with a full river from all the rain!

Wulai waterfall
After seeing the waterfall we took a rickety train back down to the town and made our way to the hot springs and river! Its hard to convey the pure bliss the soak in the cool river brought us – after constantly being hot and doused in ones own sweat there is really nothing that can match the shock of cool water. After two weeks of tiresome school work, floating in the river surrounded by the amazing scenery was the most relaxed I have been since arriving in Taiwan. After cooling down in the river for a while, we decided to test out the hot springs, which turned out to be quite scorching. The best part about the hot springs, however, was probably the company of the older Taiwanese bathers and their determination to instruct us on how one should go about the hot spring experience. As I was slowly easing my way in I was informed that I could NOT sit on the side with just my legs in as that would not benefit my entire body – one must fully submerge their body in order to fully benefit from the spring, as they would say “its so good for the skin!” They also warned us (after swimming in the river) not to wiggle around too much in the river because fish would more likely bite you! After chatting a while with the other bathers about where we were from and where in Taipei we were studying, we decided to get out and head back to the town center to grab some food and begin our journey back to Taipei. Overall I would give this day trip a 10 out of 10 – it has hands down been my favorite excursion as it was not only interesting to see natural beauty and aboriginal culture, but it was incredibly relaxing.
The disneyland ride-eqsue train we took down the mountain from the waterfall -
it may or may not have been a death trap (though only moving about 10 miles an hour)
The friendly and informative Taiwanese bathers at the hot spring we soaked in
Today, we ventured to the towns of Yingge and Sanxia for our second day trip. We took the train from Taipei Main Station to Yingge, and again the fare did not even amount to 1US$! Yingge is famous for its ceramics production. Though ceramics have been produced in this city since the early 1800s, it was only until the Japanese occupation of Taiwan and WWII that the city became a large hub for all types of ceramic production. Now supposedly Yingge is the third largest ceramic production center in the world! Our first stop in Yingge was to the most AMAZING baozi shop. For those who don’t know, baozi are steamed buns stuff with meat, vegetables, or both. While I have had my fair share of baozi in Taiwan and the Mainland, I might be willing to say that those were the best pork baozi I have ever had (potentially good enough to warrant a second trip back). They were juicy and well flavored, simply delicious. We then went to the Yingge Ceramics Museum. This museum was free and was very well put together. Having spent more time on the Mainland, I am used to going to smaller towns with museums that are put together poorly with inadequately conserved artifacts. However, this museum was a) free, and b) well put together with really interesting new and old ceramic pieces. After the museum we headed to the “old street,” but because it was around 104°F and we were struggling to find a place to eat lunch we taxied over to the neighboring town of Sanxia.
The best baozi
One of the ceramic museum gems.
What this photo doesn't capture, though, is the classical music coming out of the center toilet. 
In Sanxia we visited the famous ‘Qingshui’ temple – a beautiful temple with intricately crafted designs both inside and out. One part about this temple I really appreciated was that you could go up stairs and get a close look at all the decorations and figures on the roof, which often you must strain to see from the ground. After the temple we found an air-conditioned place to eat some lunch on the “old street” and then strolled about with cool limeade. Over all Yingge and Sanxia were both enjoyable, however the heat really wore on me throughout the day and made it hard to appreciate all that we were seeing. Perhaps if it cools down as we near August (ha!) I will have to try to go back!

Me reppin' my GW hat at the Qingshui Temple in Sanxia
The scenery from the train - Taiwan is so lush!

So now that I have told you all the extracurricular activities I have had the opportunity to participate in, back to the main reason I am in Taiwan: learning Chinese! Despite perpetual issues with textbooks, classes have been going well and my Chinese is slowly improving (or so my teachers say). One of the parts of class that I have enjoyed the most in the past two weeks is that the lessons in the textbooks pertain to subjects I have had the chance to study in classes at GWU. For example, recently in my class “Talks on Chinese Culture” (TOCC for short – a staple of the ICLP program), lessons have discussed the impact of the West on Chinese culture and society in the late 1800s and early 1900s, which I studied in Dr. Shambaugh’s class “Politics and Foreign Policy of China;” while other lessons have pertained to Chinese Linguistics and the incredibly diversity of languages that can be considered “Chinese,” which I had the chance to explore last semester in Prof. Dong’s class “Chinese Linguistics.” I have really enjoyed reviewing topics that I have already studied in GW classrooms because it makes me feel as though I am making strides in my Chinese – I can, bit by bit, talk about significant, academic topics pertaining to China in Chinese! That being said – today my classmates and I accidentally ordered chicken’s feet at a restaurant despite thinking we were reading “cucumber.” So while I maybe making progress in my ability to discuss topics of societal and historical significance, I still experience some trouble completing everyday tasks in Chinese.

And with that, I sign off this post! Next weekend some of my friends/fellow ICLP students and I will be making a trip to the Peng Hu Islands (also knows as the Pescadores Islands) in the Taiwan Strait, so stay tune for updates on this upcoming adventure!

Maggie Wedeman

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Living in Shanghai

I’m writing this from my first class cabin on the T110, Shanghai to Beijing overnight train, 15 hours of the low rumbling bliss typical of trains here. I’ve taken dozens of trains in China in the past; I’ve never taken first class before. A special treat as a result of poor, last minute planning. I’m here with my girlfriend, we’ve got a couple cups of noodles and some playing cards. The cabin is cozy: four beds, two bunks on either side of a small dining table under the window and a door for privacy. Our cabin mates are a young Chinese woman from Shanghai, a Fudan scholar as it turns out, on her way to Beijing to collect materials from the National Library in preparation for her visiting scholar trip to Oxford University next month, fluent in English, and her mother accompanying her. I’m going to heat up my bowl of extra spicy instant noodles soon, and mix some instant coffee into kaishui (开水), water from the samovar.

My name is Stephen Dutton. I am a graduate student in the Asian Studies program at the Elliott School. I have been in Shanghai since February, studying as an exchange student in the Chinese Politics and Diplomacy program at Fudan University. I’m staying in Shanghai for the summer however to enroll in the university’s intensive language program. I’ll be refocusing my efforts here from English language masters classes and an English language internship, to full time Chinese. I intend to study, live, breathe Chinese until I get back to DC in the fall (these blog posts are an exception).

My classes start soon, just after this mini vacation to Beijing, so I wanted to offer an overview of my time so far in this incredible city and to introduce the program a bit. Shanghai is unlike any other city I have seen thus far in China. I lived and studied in Beijing in 2007 as an undergraduate student. That city is dominated by politics, the government, CCTV, Tiananmen. Old Beijing and the hutong offer insight to local Mandarin culture. The English speaking expats there are mostly students and diplomats. And I was also studying and living in Chengdu, in China’s western Sichuan province, in 2012. That city resembles the older, slower pace of Chinese culture, ancient even, tea houses along the river banks, pandas, and mahjong. Foreigners are few and far between.

Shanghai is a completely different city entirely. It is an ultra modern, financially driven, economic powerhouse of a city, socially forward leaning, and there are English speaking foreigners everywhere (as well as loads of other languages, particularly French which dominates certain neighborhoods). A walk through parts of the French Concession makes you feel like you’ve almost left China completely, and the foreigner and local communities have blended so thoroughly that it’s truly unique for a city here on the mainland, something more similar to Hong Kong or Taipei perhaps. The city is a sort of east meets west microcosm, it’s livable and pleasant. The smog is mostly a non-issue, nothing at all as serious as it is in Beijing.

Since I’ve been here starting in February, I have had the pleasure of traveling around the city and around the neighboring cities and I think I have a reasonable impression of the city so far. One thing I have noticed though is that it would take a much longer time for me to really understand the subtlety of the local Shanghainese culture. The local dialect is a challenge to understand—actually I think it’s nearly an entirely different language. Locals switch between Mandarin and Shanghainese, depending on who they are talking to. And they are used to accommodating foreigners with at least Mandarin if not some English.

Fudan University is a bit outside the city center in the northern Yangpu district, fairly local, meaning there aren’t many foreigners apart from the foreign exchange students at Fudan and Tongji, another large university nearby. Apart from Fudan, Yangpu is well known in the city for the Hongkou soccer stadium, hosting one of the city’s Chinese Super League soccer teams, and Wujiaochang, a large shopping center with some interesting architectural points of interest. The recent Spike Jonze film, Her, was filmed in around Wujiaochang’s Wanda Plaza (as well as Shanghai’s Lujiazui financial zone in Pudong, and Taipei and LA). The university is ringed by streets of local shops and residential buildings and are bustling with activity: street food stalls, pedestrians intermingling with a chaotic blend of electric scooters and bicycles that ignore traffic rules, and buses and taxis that play chicken with pedestrians and that honk incessantly, delicious and cheap noodle shops, a few foreign student-accommodating cafes, and some cheap bars.

I’ve finally finished my long spring semester of Chinese politics classes and will begin my Chinese language program this week. I’ll be taking full time Mandarin language classes for the summer. Classes are 8-12am each day and cultural classes are offered in the afternoons. They’ll be teaching mahjong and how to cook Chinese dishes (if someone could teach me how to make proper yuxiang qiezi, (鱼香茄子) fish-flavored egg plant, I’d be very grateful, I’m truly obsessed), tai chi and calligraphy, etc. And I think we are taking a weekend trip to the beautiful neighboring city of Hangzhou.

I’m really excited to get started and to improve my Chinese. Knowing some Chinese really helps unlock some of the more subtle cultural points of interest that often go unnoticed to those that have to rely on English. A little Chinese goes a long way and the more I learn the more I want to continue.

I’ll be posting periodically through the program (including some video blog posts which will be new for me) and I will be letting you know about my progress as well as any trips I take. In the meantime, here are a few pictures of my time in Shanghai so far. Enjoy and see you next time…


An old building on the Fudan University campus
Local printing shops on campus
An ever-watchful Mao stands guard by Fudan's main entrance gate

Fudan students relaxing in front of Fudan's famous Guanghua Tower (an early spring-time photo)

A smoggy view of downtown Shanghai from my balcony on the 20th floor of the foreign student dormitory

Chinese gondolas along the main canal in Zhujiajiao, a canal village near Shanghai

A meal of eggplant, cucumber, and chicken dishes in a local restaurant

Locals worshiping in a temple

Typical Chinese lanterns hanging from the eaves of a temple

A view of the canal in Zhujiajiao

Regional delicacies

Another meal

A panoramic view of the Bund (more Bund photos to come...)

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Jackie in Japan

Hello again to all the readers of Asia on E Street!

This is Jackie Lareau, recipient of the Estelle Sigur Grant for Japanese Language Study in Japan. It's been a while since my last update and I've done quite a bit of adventuring now that we've settled into the summer, so I'll give you a peek at all the highlights.

One of the most exciting events of the last few months was the weekend trip to Kyoto and Nara organized by CIEE, the exchange program handling my semester abroad, for all of the exchange students. We spent two days in Kyoto, which was the former imperial capital for over one thousand years before the capital was moved to Tokyo. As a result, the city is extremely rich with historic, traditional, and cultural treasures, especially with its 2,000+ Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines.

With a couple friends of mine, we were able to have an action-packed day full of sightseeing around the city to see as much as possible. First we visited the Arashiyama bamboo forest, where we took plenty of pictures perfect for computer desktops.

Then after getting lost for a couple of hours in one of the rural rice paddy towns surrounding the city, we eventually found our way back to the action and visited Kinkaku-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple that is gilded with gold leaf and is one of the most popular attractions in all of Kyoto.

Following that, we visited the equally famous location of Fushimi Inari, a rather lengthy complex of Shinto shrines leading up a mountain. The shrine worships the Shinto god Inari, the god of business and commerce, and thus all of the iconic orange torii gates are each donated by various Japanese businesses and labeled as such. Aside from this, most of the shrines along the way are decorated with fox imagery and statues, which are seen to be the messengers of the gods. 

Pictured below are small wooden plaques called ema, on which worshippers write down their wishes and prayers with hopes that the shinto gods will answer them. As you can see, the ones at this particular shrine are fox-shaped and many people decorate them accordingly.

Finally, after exploring Kyoto, we traveled to the city of Nara which is about an hour away by bus, and also a former imperial capital during the 8th century's appropriately named Nara Period. There we were able to visit Todai-ji, a World Heritage Site and the home of Japan's biggest Daibutsu (bronze Buddha statue), even bigger than the one I previously visited in Kamakura. Not only were the grounds beautiful, but the sheer size of the temple and the masterpieces inside of it made all of us feel absolutely dwarfed and astounded considering they were constructed over one thousand years ago. 

However, the coolest thing about Todai-ji is probably the countless deer that roam the grounds and call it their home, thanks to their sacred status and generous tourists who feed them special "deer crackers" that you can buy from any vendor in the area. You're perfectly free to approach and pet the deer, although with caution because there's a good chance they'll go nosing into your bag and try to take the crackers by themselves. They're friendly enough to pose for photos, though.

The trip wouldn't be complete without a deer selfie.

After returning to Tokyo, my daily life has mostly consisted of going to classes and keeping up with classwork, attending circle and club events, hanging out with both Japanese and international friends, and spending time with my homestay parents. Altogether these activities keep me very busy, I have also had the time to partake in some traditional cultural activities as well. For example, I was able to attend my first sumo wrestling match and it was much more thrilling than I expected! The final match of the tournament featured a mid-ranking wrestler with a record of 5 wins and 5 losses versus a top-ranking wrester with not a single loss. It seemed like the results would be obvious but the underdog actually won, leading all of the audience members sitting in the front to throw their cushions into the ring, a gesture of respect shown when a wrestler beats a rival of a higher rank. I unfortunately wasn't able to catch this on camera, but I did take a picture of the precession of wrestlers lining up at the beginning of the tournament.

I was also able to try my hand at making traditional Japanese sweets, wagashi, which are made of sweet bean paste and molded into various shapes like flowers. The one I made can be seen below, and is supposed to replicate the appearance of a chrysanthemum, the Japanese imperial flower. It's definitely more challenging than it looks, so it's understandable why the craft and its stores are passed down within families for generations.

This ties up most of the cultural events I've been taking part in here in Tokyo, and with only about a month left before I return to the States, I'll be trying to fit in plenty more!

Wish me luck, and until next time, またね!