Greetings from the People’s Republic of China. Why am I here? To explore Chinese business culture and economy thanks to a University of Canterbury management study tour. How long will I stay in China? I have reached the end of our first week in Hangzhou, with a further three weeks remaining, including a sojourn in Shanghai. What have I been doing in Hangzhou? Through Zhejiang Gongshang University, I have attended classes on various topics involving Chinese culture and business, as well as interacting with local students to facilitate English conversation practice. Oh, I have also briefly explored Hangzhou city and spent free time with my assigned Chinese “buddies” and discovering local cuisine. So what has my experience of China been like? Well, let me go ahead and describe some of the challenges, surprises and experiences I have been faced with in the last seven days, particularly in terms of the environment, culture, local values and beliefs. It is worth noting that these reflections are only drawn from my time in Hangzhou and that Shanghai will be vastly different.
The environment of China is the first and greatest challenge I have had to face over the past week. Despite our orientation week back in New Zealand preparing us well for the shock of traveling to Hangzhou, the massive change in environment nevertheless took a toll on my senses. Christchurch is a small city surrounded by nature, with few buildings, housed suburbs and a small population. Hangzhou is like none of those. With near double the population of New Zealand, the city and its suburbs are enormous. Traveling from Xiasha to the scenic West Lake, the mind is overwhelmed by the constant skyline of skyscrapers, housing projects and factories, with little in the way of green spaces or smaller residential areas. Everywhere, mega complexes are under construction, shooting up like bamboo in a concrete jungle. Despite having previously travelled to many large cities such as Paris and Tokyo, I was particularly astounded by the density of this provincial capital and its massive population. Everywhere we went, crowds were omnipresent, whether in the canteens, university grounds, sports fields, shopping centres, city streets or even West Lake (despite the cold and drizzle). The biggest struggle I have faced has been finding time for privacy and solitude, a minor challenge compared with what our Chinese colleagues must experience, living four-to-a-dorm in smaller rooms. One lecturer addressed this reality, describing the country’s tough single-child policy intended to limit demographic growth and address some of the environmental challenges. Linked to this human and urban density is the vastly different natural environment of Hangzhou. Whereas New Zealand’s cities are seldom far removed from natural spaces and scenery, my time here has revealed how different China’s large cities are, with the dreary skyline monopolising the horizon. The most striking difference in natural environment has been the weather. An apparently exceptional haze has blanketed the suburbs, so thick that on several days we struggled to see buildings from the other side of the main university avenue. Thankfully, this was mostly fog, with low pollution levels recorded during our stay – though probably high pollution levels in many other countries. This last point was highlighted by our environmental lecturer, who described the biggest threats to the mainland’s environment: water pollution, haze, desertification, wildlife extinction and climate change. Our excursion to tea plantations and West Lake were a welcome ‘breath of fresh air’, revealing the other marvellous side to the Chinese continent which I had longed for and not yet experienced.
The colourful local culture and traditions are the other salient feature of our ongoing tour. As can be expected, Chinese society is vastly different to New Zealand and French society in which I have been brought up. As for the Big City environment, our orientation week prepared us well for the challenges of living in this different culture, including training sessions on “cultural competence”. Having widely travelled in the past, I did not struggle with local customs such as table manners. As underlined by our culture and history teacher here in Hangzhou, a vital condition to understand Chinese culture is to learn about its history, beliefs and values. The lecture, which presented an overview of Confucianism and its legacy, was hugely informative in underlining the importance of this philosophy to Chinese society. Our tour of a famous local Buddhist Monastery helped us to experience some of the religious backdrop of China. This tour was challenging on a personal level, as I searched to balance my faith and the need to respect and discover Buddhist culture. Our first cultural class at Zhejiang Gongshang University introduced us to traditional calligraphy, followed by activities organised by our Chinese peers giving us a preview of modern youth culture (such as the huge popularity of Karaoke). In fact, what strikes me the more I interacted with local students is how westernised their popular culture is. The young people with which I interacted enjoy western pop music, television shows and movies, they value technology and share many ideals as our fellow Kiwi students (such as women’s rights and self-determination).
As the first week draws to a close, the immediate challenges of culture shock and adjusting to life in Xiasha have begun to dissipate. Thanks to our morning lectures and museum tours I have more questions than ever about Chinese history and philosophy. I look forward to interacting further with our Chinese peers and discovering new local dishes. As I begin to adapt to this new environment, my appetite for adventure has been rekindled and my anticipation raised by next week’s schedule.