The purpose of this article is to give a firsthand prospective of a group of American students cultural experience at Chongming Island. I’ll attempt to peer into the mind of the international student as to give a better understanding of what they were feeling and thinking as they experienced a traditional culture that is quite literally a world away from what we are used to. I’ll begin by telling a little about myself. I am a 3rd year mechanical engineering student from Purdue University. My reason for coming to China was to gain a better understanding of the people, the customs, and the reasoning behind why things are done so to gain not only a respect for them but also to build a bridge between our two cultures.
The moment we crossed the massive bridge to the island, we knew we were in for an amazing experience. As our bus pulled into the resort we were immediately surrounded by rows of pine trees stretching far into the sky. Our first big event was a traditional Chinese dinner. Every detail of this dinner was something distinctly different from a traditional dinner in America. It all begins with the spinning glass in the center of the table. We are used to each person having their own dish. But the sharing that is involved here goes to show the fellowship that is associated with a meal. Instead of individuals owning their own dish, every dish is a part of the groups. This is distinctly different but I can speak for our group in saying that we very much so prefer the Chinese way not only because we got to try a variety of delicious meals but because it initiated conversation between everyone at the table and with our hosts.
We later got to view a Chinese incense and martial arts performance. Many of us had never seen anything like this before. The detail that was taken to create a masterpiece design of incense was breathtaking and the aroma that was created from the smoke filled our senses. As the incense was burning, we were thrilled by the martial arts performance. The master danced from one corner of the room to the other waving his ancient sword as he did. It was absolutely beautiful. My emotions were moved as I thought of the long tradition that is associated with his performance and the incense. This is something that is simply not present in America. We do not have the long standing tradition of China. Don’t get me wrong. We have some wonderful traditions like baseball and apple pie but they only date back a couple hundred years. It is hard to think about traditions that date back thousands of years like they do here in China.
This thought was later confirmed when we were taught to do traditional calligraphy from an artist. We all gained a big appreciation and understood why it truly is an art. Watching him make the strokes with his ink filled brush seemed simple enough. He made it look very easy. But when my untrained hands attempted to match his strokes, I was left with what probably looked like a small child’s hand writing. I was a little embarrassed but this was my first attempt so I did not feel too bad about my poor performance.
Our night on the island was spent partaking in some Chinese entertainment including mahjong, karaoke, and ping-pong. We all had a blast! I tried to learn mahjong for the first time and I’ll be honest, it was difficult. I was used to playing card games like poker and euchre and compared to them, mahjong seemed very complicated. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to master it. But one thing that we easily mastered was karaoke! Even though the subtitles were mostly in Chinese, we all were able to sing out all of our favorite songs and dance far into the night. Finally, a few students from our group decided to test their skills on the ping-pong tables. We were well aware that many Chinese are very talented when it comes to ping-pong but that did not scare them off. There were some heated games that went back and forth for quite some time but it was all in good fun. We all had such a wonderful time playing the popular games of China.
On the morning of our final day there we were taken out into a beautiful landscape to learn Chinese square dancing. Only a few of us had ever heard of or seen what a traditional Chinese dance looked like. Unfortunately, I was not one of them. But this did not keep me from moving my feet and hips when the music started up. Our teacher was clearly a talented performer and was doing all she could to teach us the fundamentals of dance. We tried our best to match the combination of steps back and forward with the swinging of the red hand cloths. Our hosts all said that we were doing great as we moved around but I couldn’t help but feel like I looked ridiculous. However, even though I may have looked like a fool, I had a wonderful amount of fun. There was something about being out in nature and dancing that made me feel free. I can’t wait to teach my family and friends the dance when I get back home!
I speak for all of our Purdue students when I express how thankful we were to have this opportunity. Not many students from America get to have such an experience when they are abroad and we consider ourselves quite lucky. We want to thank EastDay.com for organizing the event as well as our faculty members at Shanghai Jiao Tong University for helping put this together and of course all of the wonderful people at Shanghai Binjiang Resort Center. We learned so much and have grown to more deeply understand and appreciate many of the traditional parts of Chinese culture and we look forward to taking this knowledge with us as we spend the next four months in China. Zhù nǐ Xīnnián kuàilè!
By: Kevin Girardi, Purdue University