All right, I’ve made it half way through the trip. Let’s keep this up and make it home in one piece! Here’s an update on my impressions now that I have mostly adjusted to this environment. The past week has been even better than the first, with some excellent activities and at last a few days of clearer weather. I feel like I am getting to know Chinese culture better thanks to our cultural tours, free time roaming around Hangzhou and interaction with Chinese students and locals. Let’s get into the thick of it, shall we?
This second week has presented many opportunities to interact and network with local people and deepen relationships with our colleagues. Many of the New Zealand students have already formed close bonds with Chinese friends, especially our buddies. I have spent a large part of my spare time with a small group of Chinese students including my buddy, exploring Xiasha and the Qiatang waterfront. Despite some disagreement around our values and opinions, we have shared many things about our respective lives, our hopes and our aspirations. I have begun to truly appreciate the kindness, hospitality and humility of people here as well as their sincere interest in New Zealand culture. I was particularly entertained by lively debates around western television shows and movies of which they are very knowledgeable. On Sunday, by the shores of West Lake, I stumbled into an English conversation club which meets every Sunday to practice speaking English. The members were overjoyed to find a native speaker with which to interact. A very long, colorful and informative conversation ensued with a number of locals, including businessmen, professors and teachers. I was pleasantly surprised to discover how knowledgeable they were about agriculture and China’s relationship with New Zealand. One man, with background in Agribusiness, described some of the challenges of the food industry in China. He explained that most farms and producers are very small and numerous, meaning consumers cannot trace the origin of domestic products. He highlighted the pressure of Demand on crop growers and livestock owners, forcing them to increase yields through pesticides, fertilizers and high hormone food. He indicated these challenges as sources of consumer distrust and environmental pollution, describing the reputation of imported products such as New Zealand dairy goods (seen as safer, more nutritious and of superior quality). Other locals knowledgeably described some of the tensions between new Zealanders and Chinese investors, especially due to housing and farmland purchases. This “chance encounter” – as another person put it – was very valuable as a way to critically review the information given during our lectures on the economy and Chinese consumers.
I also experienced Chinese culture more richly during this second week in Hangzhou. An organized visit to the Song Dynasty theme park gave us an entertaining glimpse of Hangzhou’s history as an imperial capital. The visit was topped off by an extraordinary performance of the “Romance of the Song Dynasty”. This world famous show showcased beautiful traditional costumes, dances, impressive acrobatics, imposing props and spectacular special effects. The light displays and giant screens provided depth to the performances, as the stage metamorphosed from imperial palace to battlefield scenes. At one point, as the accompanying photo depicts, the entire stage was flooded and sheets of water cascaded from the canopy to simulate a rainy scene on the shores of West Lake. Speaking of which, our free time on the lakeside was graced with impeccable blue skies and a spectacular sunset over the most wonderful scenery thus far. I greatly enjoyed soaking in the sights and sounds of the lake. The immersion into the bustling crowds was very enjoyable; an excellent way to experience local lifestyle. One particular aspect of Chinese culture which I discovered over the course of the week was the shamelessness and genius of musical talent. While walking through the snowfall along the Qiatang River, our buddies took turns singing Chinese songs, asking us to then sing for them in return. On the waterfront, one man performed an impromptu (and excellent) opera solo in Chinese, while further along, a couple quietly rehearsed a Viennese waltz.
So far, the most memorable moments of this trip have occurred during this second week. Thanks to acclimatization and more opportunities to freely explore Hangzhou, I have begun truly appreciate the wealth and variety of Chinese culture and am growing more and more fond of our local friends. Our lecturers have given us solid contextual information to enlighten our cultural experiences, including some unflattering but candid descriptions of the challenges facing Chinese society. This week will remain in my memory for the rest of my life, as I hope will some of the friendships formed during our short stay. My next log will be video recorded live from Shanghai. Until then, Zàijiàn!