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First Impressions of China

Posted Wed., May 30, 2012

My first trip to Asia began last Wednesday with flights from Pittsburgh to San Francisco to Tokyo to Taipei City, Taiwan. Total time in the air was approximately 20 hours but with stops and time changes we took off from Pittsburgh at 7am on Wednesday and landed half a world away (and 12hrs of time zone change) at Taipei International Airport on Thursday at 10pm. br_norman_students_chinaOn this trip we will visit four cities to discuss cooperative agreements with six different universities. While the trip is only at its halfway point as I am typing in the Holiday Inn along the banks of the Yangtze River in Wuhan on what is Memorial Day back in the USA, it has already been very successful. We have met old friends and made many new ones. The picture to the right shows three of the five students from Fu Jen Catholic University who came to Saint Vincent in 1999 for a semester reuniting with Br. Norman in Taipei City. The picture below shows Dean Quinlivan and me with Professor Xiao Ying (Angela) of Wuhan University who taught Chinese at Saint Vincent in 2009 to 2011 as part of our partnership with the Confucius Institute. The purpose of today’s blog is to share some of my general observations as a novice traveler in Asia.

Dr Smetanka Prof Xiao Ying Dean QuinlivanTo begin, I must admit that I have the great benefit of traveling with others who have much more experience. Br. Norman, President of Saint Vincent College, had been to Taiwan twice in the past and traveled to China on a similar visit last year at this time. Dr. Gary Quinlivan, Dean of the Alex G. McKenna School, is on his 30th trip to China and was central to making the connections with most of the universities we are visiting. Br. Nicholas Koss, O.S.B., a monk of Saint Vincent Archabbey has spent his professional life in Taiwan and China and is fluent in Mandarin. He served as a Professor and Dean at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei and is currently teaching at Peking University in Beijing.

The first of three points that I would like to make in this entry is to note how almost effortless it is to travel 12,000 miles and half way around our planet. When I think that it took travelers on the Silk Road or sailors using the wind months on a difficult, often life-threatening journey to arrive at my destination, I feel somewhat ashamed that my day of travel included enjoying three served meals, a few drinks at airport lounges, a couple of books, and a movie with only intermittent instances of light turbulence to mildly shake things up. One of the newer features on board is a travel tracker that allows you to monitor your plane’s position on a map. A word of warning, watching it for any length of time on an eleven hour leg over the Pacific is the equivalent of watching paint dry or grass grow but imagine being part of a caravan crossing snow-covered mountain passes and scorching, dry deserts to reach Cathay!

A second point is that despite cultural, religious, and ethnic differences, the similarities we have with the people we met in Taiwan and China vastly outnumber and quickly overwhelm any of the often superficial differences. The incredible hospitality we have received has made us feel welcome. Everywhere we travel, talk always turns to family and education – the great hope we have for our children and our students. This is the purpose of our travels since we are here to have students from China come to the United States, in particular Saint Vincent, to be a part of our learning community for the enrichment of all. In addition, we wish to have Saint Vincent students study abroad in China to both gain the wider perspective required in today’s interconnected world and to promote mutual understanding and respect. Fortunately, the importance of this is recognized by everyone we meet here – there is no need to convince anyone of this, we only need to work out the details.

The third and final point is one that has been featured for a decade now in the media – China is a country that is rapidly changing and growing; it is a power in all respects and our futures are linked.

  China during Day    China at Night  

You cannot travel to a city in China without noticing the construction in every direction. Shanghai is the busiest container port and largest and densest city in the world with a population greater than the entire continent of Australia. The skyline of Shanghai, particularly in Pudong along the east bank of the Huangpu River shown above, adds new spires yearly. Yu GardenThe BundConstruction on what will be the world’s tallest building is just visible on the far right-hand side of the daytime picture. At night, the buildings and tour boats erupt in a brilliant and ever-changing light show. Simultaneously, China is rich in tradition with an incredible history and culture that has much to teach us. The pictures to the right show the Bund – an older section of Shanghai that includes a “Big Ben”-type clock that rings out each quarter of an hour on the left and the Yu Garden one of the oldest markets in Shanghai on the right.

The problems and opportunities in the world today require cooperation, understanding and respect. The increased interaction between Chinese and American students will enable the opportunity to learn from and with each other. This interaction will help both cultures to face challenges as partners rather than adversaries and aid in overcoming difficult obstacles. I look forward to welcoming more students from China to Saint Vincent and hearing about more Saint Vincent student’s experiences studying in China. But in the short term, tomorrow, it is off to Beijing.


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