From Vermont to China
Evan Popp Photo
Chinese high school students engage in organized exercise during a break from classes — just one of many culutural differences.
Standing in the clouds at approximately 9,000 feet, listening to a vendor trying to sell me “real silk,” I realized I could not be farther from home.
I recently spent two weeks in China, with 16 other students and three teachers, as part of a cultural exchange called the Asian Studies Outreach Program. The trip was part of the Governor’s Institute of Vermont, and it was largely funded by the Freeman Foundation, a private organization that sponsors cultural exchange programs with countries in eastern Asia, such as China.
The trip took our group to three separate areas of China. We started in the capital, Beijing. The difference in culture between the United States and China was apparent on the very first day when our group visited the Great Wall of China. As we walked to the Wall, we were harangued by street vendors trying to sell us T-shirts and other cheap products. The only way to avoid them was to ignore them. When we did want to buy something, we engaged in bartering sessions with the vendors.
Except for supermarkets and high-end stores, nothing had a set price. You could always negotiate. The bartering session began once you had shown interest in the product. The vendor would hand you a calculator with a price on it. It was clear that the vendors gave our group much higher starting prices than the locals because we were foreign. After the vendor had named his price, you would counter with yours.
Sometimes though, it wasn’t necessary to barter, as when I showed interest in buying a sculpted green elephant. The price started at 480 yuan (there are about 6 yuan to the dollar). Before I could say anything, the vendor dropped the price to 200 yuan. Again, without waiting for a response the vendor dropped the price to 100 yuan, saying it was a “student discount.” Our bartering session began at 100 yuan rather than 480. I eventually bought the elephant for 40 yuan. The vendor clearly wanted to sell it, and I used this to my advantage as we bartered.
After Beijing we took a four-hour flight to the city of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province.
In Kunming, our group had its first encounter with Chinese students. About 15-20 students from a high school in Kunming met up with our group. These students spoke limited English, and when paired with our very limited Chinese language skills, this made communicating with the students an adventure.
Once we succeeded in making ourselves understood (through a series of gestures and some broken English), we discovered something interesting. The Chinese students were much more in tune with American culture than we were with Chinese culture. They knew about all the new movies coming out in the United States, as well as popular musical groups. None of the students had ever been to the United States, and most had never even been outside China, yet their knowledge of American culture was almost as extensive as our own.
One thing they did not know about was maple candy. We had been told to bring small gifts to give the Chinese students, and coming from Vermont, many of us brought maple candy. The Chinese students were intrigued with it — at least until they put it in their mouth. Chinese food doesn’t contain a lot of sugar, and they rarely eat dessert. The Chinese students found the maple candy as strange as we had found the green pea flavored Popsicle we had bought at a supermarket in Beijing.
Later, we had dinner with the Chinese students and their families. The Americans had been split into groups of three, with each group following one student to his or her home. My group was a little different. Our host was 19 years old and not technically enrolled in the school, while the other hosts were 16 or 17, still in school, and still living with their parents.
But our host, Steven (his American name) had his own apartment. Steven invited several friends to dinner, including one who was fluent in English. Through this friend, we were able to communicate with Steven and the others.
Dinner was what the Chinese call “a hot pot” — basically, an assortment of meat and vegetables mixed together in a pot, with broth and rice. My fellow Americans and I ate the food slowly, mostly due to the fact that the rice and meat were hard to eat with chopsticks. Eventually, Steven took pity on us and handed out forks. After dinner, we were treated to a live guitar show, as one of Steven’s friends serenaded us with songs from Green Day and Adele.
After a few more days visiting the sights of Kunming, we took an hour flight to Lijiang, another city in Yunnan province. Situated at over 7,000 feet, Lijiang is in the foothills of the Himalayas. Mountains rising thousands of feet above the already significant elevation surrounded the city.
In Lijiang, our group visited the famous Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, one of the more picturesque and breathtaking places I’ve ever been. We took a gondola up part of the mountain, and when we got out our heads were in the clouds.
When we returned from the mountain, we visited Lijiang’s world famous Old Town. The area is set up like a traditional Naxi town. The Naxi are the native people of the area around Lijiang. We also met more Chinese students in Lijiang. This time we visited the students’ school and sat in on a Chinese class.
The class was translated, but still very difficult to understand. The difference in the way classes in China are taught soon became apparent. The teacher stands at the head of the class and chants bits of information for the students to repeat and commit to memory. I found the Chinese high school to be far more structured than American high schools.
After Lijiang, we briefly returned to Beijing, before embarking on a 13-hour flight home.
Overall, this trip was an amazing experience. I think this program helps define the phrase “culture shock.” Anyone visiting China will experience some sort of culture shock, but I challenge anyone to say they have really experienced China until they have spent a significant amount of time with Chinese people. While at times uncomfortable, spending time with the Chinese students and bartering with the street vendors is really what made this trip such an unforgettable experience.
Lastly, I want to extend a personal thank-you to the Freeman Foundation as well as the Governor’s Institute of Vermont. This program couldn’t have happened without their support. They allowed a small group of young Vermonters to develop a lifelong interest in and connection with a country that to most Americans is still shrouded in mystery.
Evan Popp of Marshfield is a student at Twinfield Union High School.