|Dickinsonians gather at Old Shanghai Street and Yuyuan Garden in Shanghai. From left: Prof. Neil Diamant, Emily Grobmyer ’05, King Chan ’05, Sarah Loudon ’08, Caitlin Steirman ’08, Katherine Paul ’08, Suzy Eshelman ’05, Amy Eardley ’08, Alexander Becket ’08 and Abhishek Kedia ’07.
The first thing Katherine Paul ’08 grappled with when she stepped off the airplane in Shanghai last summer was her feeling of disconnection.
Part of a nine-member group of Dickinson students led on a three-week cultural expedition of China by Neil Diamant, associate professor of Asian law and culture, Paul recalls, “We got off the plane, and everything was different. It was really overwhelming at first. Everything was different in every way—the sights, the smells, even the sounds.”
That was exactly the experience Diamant anticipated.
“The transition was abrupt,” he says. “They had to adapt quickly to something so very different from their own culture.”
Making their way through the congestion and frenetic pace of downtown Shanghai on the first nine days of the trip, the students had to work through the initial stages of jet lag and culture shock—some by seeking out a comfort from home.
“On occasion, McDonald’s was a haven, because it was something they knew,” Diamant says. “But the students took to the culture and, as time passed, their willingness to become really involved, even trying out basic phrases in Mandarin, became much more natural.”
Diamant understands implicitly the openness and flexibility required to move among cultures. A native of Westchester, N.Y., he immigrated with his family to Israel just as he entered his teen years. Diamant lived and worked on a collective farm, leaving at 18 to join the Israeli Army for three years of mandatory service. Those years provided the roots for his distinguished scholarly work on patriotism, a quest that would lead him to a doctoral dissertation at the University of California, Berkeley, and a Fulbright scholarship to research veterans and “martyr” families in China.
This past summer’s trip gave Dickinson students the opportunity to share in their professor’s academic expertise and personal connections with Chinese students, officials and scholars. They were led to uncover, and often disprove, their preconceived notions of Asian culture and patriotism. The trip was fully funded by two grants acquired by Diamant, a $25,000 Fulbright Alumni Initiative Award and a $38,000 grant from the ASIANetwork’s Freeman Student-Faculty Research Program. The students had to write a research proposal and submit letters of recommendation as part of their selection process.
On their second day in the country, the students’ work began. That morning they stepped into the seat of power of the Shanghai Municipal Government. Guided by Professor Shen Guoming, Diamant’s dissertation adviser in the early 1990s, the team was privy to a view rarely seen by tourists—the impressive meeting hall of the Shanghai People’s Congress.
From there, the students spent more than a week visiting sites throughout the city, escorted by professors or graduate students from the Shanghai Academy of Social Science. In a series of interactions with middle-school, high-school, undergraduate and graduate students, the team members saw up close the power of patriotic education not only as it affects their Chinese counterparts but themselves.
“In roundtable discussions with Chinese students, I was forced to defend motives and rationales behind my own patriotism as an American,” says international business & management major Sarah Loudon ’08. “It was interesting to see both sides passionately defending their own views while trying to understand the other perspective. It became clear how easy it is to judge another’s values through a ‘cultural lens.’ ”
And while their views may have been disparate, students began to understand the origins of the Chinese people’s deep sense of loyalty and pride. On visits to the cities of Hangzhou and Nanjing, led by former Dickinson Asian Law and Culture Scholar-in-Residence Chengkang Fei, the students viewed a memorial to national hero Yue Fei and toured a museum dedicated to the thousands of victims who suffered atrocities at the hands of the Japanese Army during the 1937 Nanjing Massacre.
“Most Americans are not aware of the history of China, and while these sites of patriotic education do carry a strong political message, they are not all that different from the museums we have to commemorate our war heroes,” Diamant explains.
For most of the students, the connection to Chinese culture became most striking when they communicated through a simple exchange of words, dance or song. Several times the Dickinson group seized the opportunity to share its culture through simple pleasures.
First-time international traveler Alexander Becket ’08, a Spanish and English double major from Stewartstown, Pa., says, “We were on a 40-minute cab ride to Beijing and, during the entire ride, we were having a cultural exchange with the driver—saying words in Chinese, which he’d correct. Then we’d say them again. After about 25 minutes of this exchange, he finally shared his English words with us, and we were so excited by that connection.”
Sophomore Caitlin Steirman’s love of dance brought her closer to the culture, as she gave an outdoor, impromptu performance of a Scottish Highland dance for a group of retired women, who reciprocated by trying to teach her a Chinese folk dance. Steirman also shared her talents during a gala dinner at the Shanghai Academy and as part of the International Children’s Day festival celebrated at a school for migrant children in Pudong, the eastern part of Shanghai.
For Loudon, who studied patriotic music and art on the trip, the connection came when elementary-school children at a migrant school followed her lead and joined in the singing of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” in Chinese.
“Here was a childhood tradition that transcended our cultures,” says the Albany, N.Y., native, who plans to study Chinese and spend her junior year at Beijing University. “It was very powerful.”
The trip to the migrant school with its bare-bones conditions and minimal resources offered a wealth of lessons to the Dickinson students—the heartfelt enthusiasm of the migrant students in the face of impoverished conditions, the overwhelming desire of the children to learn about Western culture and, above all, the patriotism and love of country that the Asian and Western cultures share with their children at a tender age.
“This trip was so different from anything I have ever experienced, yet there was something universal in our cultures,” adds Steirman, who also now plans a year abroad in Beijing. “I discovered that in the hearts and minds of all Chinese people, there was something with which we could truly connect.”
For Diamant, who will expand his research with an East Asia Institute Fellowship that will take him on a lecture and seminar tour in Korea, Japan and Taiwan in May, that key understanding stood at the core of the trip.
“The real lesson here is that our cultures share a lot. Our governments teach certain values, and we all learn the good things about our systems. The Chinese people are not the government. They are not the Communist Party. Our purpose was to change perceptions through experience and put a more human face on the state.” •
A student-produced video about the trip is available here (requires the realplayer plugin)