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“To Know The Road Ahead, Ask Those Returning” Sharing Stories Of China With Hannah Sturtevant
photo providedVUHS Senior Hannah Sturtevant and Jessica from Qufu, China shows that being teens is a universal experience. The pair met as part of Hannah's participation in the UVM Asian Studies Program that traveled to China in July.
photo providedThe Great Wall of China at Mutianyu.
photo providedAn example of the amazing architecture of a Summer Palace building.
photo providedView of the city of Chongqing from hotel window.
Monday September 6, 2010
By Cookie Steponaitis
“To know the road ahead, ask those returning” is an ancient Chinese proverb recorded by Confucius more than three thousand years ago. During his time the east and west were two separate worlds with very few travelers traversing the boundaries of oceans, religion and politics. With the advent of modern technology it would seem that the whole world would be an open place. While that is truer than ever before, most Americans have never seen China and most Chinese have never seen America. The two superpowers are linked in trade, commerce, and sports and on the world stage, but still steeped in misconceptions and stereotypes about each other based on decades old events. Slowly, this is changing.
One definite proof of the new pass ability of the roads between China and America is the Governor’s Institute on Asian Cultures (GIAC). Local students completed a two year program of study with a trip that took them to Bejing, Chongqing, and Qufu during July 3- July 17. For VUHS senior Hannah Sturtevant the trip was the completion of a goal she set for herself in ninth grade and an opportunity to see and embrace the culture of a nation long shrouded in wrappings that defined the Chinese people by their form of government. “I guess the biggest thing that I have noticed when I talk with other Americans about China is our inability to separate the government from the people. Maybe this is because we live in a democracy ‘for the people, by the people’ but for whatever reasons, it seems that Americans often assume things about Chinese society or Chinese people because of their government's history and actions. People in China were much more outspoken and honest with their criticisms of their government than I expected. On the other hand, some things do not seem to matter as much to them as they do to us and vice-versa, which I think, can make it difficult to understand the relationship in China between its people, its past, and its government. I certainly do not understand this relationship even after visiting and I can see how it is easy to have misconceptions about it.”
At each turn of the trip, Hannah found out that all her preparation, study and Mandarin lessons were a help, but that the people of China were more open, welcoming and plain curious than she has expected. Sharing openly that she had half expected it to be very
“Foreign and frantic” she was struck by the uniqueness and flow of life in each different Chinese city. “Beijing felt to me like Washington, D.C., with its focus on appearances and tourist accommodations,” remarked Hannah. “Than Chongqing was like NewYork City with its sky rises and nightlife, and Qufu was comparable to Burlington with its smaller size and more rural location. I certainly was not predicting that these differences would be extreme or so evident. Other pleasant surprises were how nice the domestic flights were and how it was not 105 degrees Fahrenheit every day, as we were foretold.” While Hannah was awed by the historic sites like the Great Wall of China, the Forbidden Palace, the Summer Palace, the birthplace of Confucius, the Cave of a Thousand Buddha’s, and other memorial historic sites, what captivated her was her interactions with the people and learning and seeing the culture of Chinese life in action. “I think I will always remember the moment our guide in Chongqing proudly announced that he was creating a Facebook account to become friends with all of us even though Facebook is blocked by the Chinese government,” shared Hannah. “I am now proudly Facebook friends with him, and I continue to exchange emails with a girl I met and got to speak with for a few hours in Qufu. One of my favorite moments was an impromptu conversation with a Chinese tourist who translated for her mother, who could not speak any English but wanted to talk to me. Or when our Beijing guide, who knew how much we loved dumplings, brought us to a restaurant for our last lunch and, after we ate the only dumpling dishes they served, brought us more dumplings from a different, nearby restaurant”
During the trip Hannah made herself a promise to try all of the cuisine offered to her and to spend as much time as possible seeking out the China behind the tourist veil, seeing the people in real locations and spending time with them. At times this was quite difficult because some of the foods included chicken claws and neck or bitter fruit. Hannah even experienced duck brain. “It was served, still in the skull, on the same dish as some duck meat, so the first time it was offered I just ate the meat,” remembered Hannah. “Technically, I told myself, I had tried the dish. But I felt like I cheated so I tried it the second time it was served. Some other interesting things I ate were bamboo and bamboo tea, a great amount of unidentifiable animal parts, and cicadas. The cicadas were very good, as were the popsicles sold at every tourist site. They came in flavors like green pea, oatmeal, bean, and corn.” While there were some challenges to the trip, Hannah not only is thrilled to have been, but she plans on spending a semester abroad to study in Beijing. “I want to go back. Badly! I am going to try to study in Beijing for a semester in college; it was the easiest city to be a foreigner in and the one with the most facilities. Later, if I went back again, I would want to go to a more rural part of China, a less tourist-visited area. Maybe western China or Inner Mongolia. I also want to visit Shanghai.”
While she has only been back a month, the impact of the trip is beginning to shape her views, outlooks and understanding of the complex history of China and its periods of isolation, domination and now its emergence internationally as a world power. In both thought and deed, the relationship between China and America is changing and Hannah reflected at length about how that change still has to overcome rhetoric and misconceptions on both sides. “We talked a lot with students, so their questions were relevant to their understanding of us. They asked what school was like, what we did with our time, were we Twilight fans, did it snow a lot, etc.”, explained Hannah. “Other things I remember being asked, along with whether I liked China. I and another student spent a whole lunch describing our eating habits to one of our guides and trying to explain the concept of tacos. I am not sure. I think that, as far as our governments go, anything could happen. We could become more friendly or less, or stay in the same awkward stage we are at now. This will depend on Chinese foreign and even, interestingly, domestic policy. But I hope that, governments aside, Americans and Chinese will be able to have more educated and understanding relations in the future.”
With her eyes set on the future, her senior year and a return to China in the foreseeable future, Hannah has made a journey that most of us think of, but believe impossible or improbable at best. It is one of discovery, reflection and one that increasingly more Americans and Chinese are able to take, building a common experience and opening eyes to what is real and what is misconception about each nation. As American president John F. Kennedy remarked, according to the ancient Chinese proverb, "A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.” Hannah Sturtevant and her fellow travelers took that step and who knows where their roads, journeys and paths will now take them.
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