The China Connection

As students head out for ports-of-call far and near during spring break, it's a good time to look back at a group of globetrotting Yale graduate and professional students, who spent ten days in China earlier this year immersing themselves in the nation's language and culture.

As students head out for ports-of-call far and near during spring break, it’s a good time to look back at a group of globetrotting Yale graduate and professional students, who spent ten days in China earlier this year immersing themselves in the nation’s language and culture.

Like the “Yale 100” delegation before them, who had been invited to visit China by President Hu Jintao in 2007, this latest group — dubbed the “Yale 50” — were invited by a top Chinese official: in this case, Madam Liu Yandong, the State Councilor who visited Yale in April 2009. While the University provided some travel expenses, the trip was funded by the Chinese government.

All told, 14 students from the Graduate School and 34 students from the professional schools took part in the venture. They were accompanied by Fawn Wang, assistant secretary for international affairs, and Sheila Pastor, associate director of international affairs.

The first four days of their visit, which took place over the winter recess, were spent in Beijing; the rest of the time they spent in Shanghai. Their itinerary included visits to three top Chinese universities — Beijing Foreign Studies University (where they celebrated the New Year), Fudan University and Eastern China Normal University — as well as trips to the Tianamen Square, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Shanghai Museum and Pearl TV Tower.

Learning Chinese language and culture was a prime component of the trip. At ENCU, the students had Mandarin language classes every day, as well as special sessions on Shanghai history and development, calligraphy and dumpling making. To gain a one-on-one understanding of the nation’s culture, the Yale students met with Chinese students at each of the universities they visited, and they spent an evening having dinner with local families.

“It was an awesome experience, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to have traveled to China,” says Amada Foust, who is studying neurobiology. “There we saw, touched, tasted, and listened to the one of the oldest existing cultures on the planet. The Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Pearl Tower — these are places I never expected to go in my life, and they were splendid to behold. But by far, the most valuable experiences were connections made with students and their families — two communities from opposite sides of the planet seeking common ground.”

The following are some impressions of the visit to China by the trip’s participants.

On Beijing Olympic Stadium (a.k.a. the ‘Bird’s Nest’)

“This lavish building was designed to symbolically exhibit the Chinese principle of family unity. It is popular with both tourists and locals on a daily basis as they ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ about the building that has given the capital yet another interesting piece of artwork to show China’s growth and quest for modern development. I honestly thought it was the most compelling structure in Beijing …”

On the Great Wall of China

“The Chinese have a saying which goes,”You’re not a real man if you haven’t climbed the Great Wall.” Along with the Yale 50 group, I accepted that challenge and we ventured on.”

“It was a marvelous day filled with the old and the new and how the two bring hope for a brighter future. There is a sign way up in the mountains against the Great Wall that states ‘One City One Dream 2008 Beijing Olympics.’ I rest my case!!!”

On a tour of Shanghai

Our first stop was the Shanghai Museum. This state of the art museum possesses a collection of 120,000 precious works of art. It’s a museum of ancient Chinese art. … The Bund [a walkway along the Huangpu River] was our next stop. … On the river, various vessels/ferries/boats could be seen navigating the river. Although it was cold, we spent several minutes enjoying the view of the Bund with its European architectural style. …

The tour was concluded by a visit of the Oriental Pearl TV Tower … The tower is 468 meters (1,536 feet) high, and has three large steel spheres and eight small spheres. … The view of the Bund and the entire city was fantastic from the tower. … Walking on the glass floor several feet above the ground was intimidating and weird. Everyone loved it. After the tour of the Shanghai city, everyone was left promising to be back in Shanghai.”

On being a tourist

“[There is a] curious sense of being settled in and almost at home in China. By the end of the week many of us honestly couldn’t believe we hadn’t lived in Shanghai for several months rather than merely being there as short-term ‘American tourists.’”

On Eastern vs. Western art

“It was wonderful to see how the students work, how the exercises inspired by Western art get broken again and again by the expression of something different. One of the studios had traditional Chinese painting and oil painting side by side, and the two traditions seemed to me to literally dissolve into each other when I saw the distinctly Chinese-looking plants and birds painted in watercolor — the painting material of my own childhood.”

On learning calligraphy

“Although written Chinese is not pictographic, the characters have visual ties to their meaning … For example, the character for ‘wife’ developed from a pictogram of hands grabbing a lady’s hair because in ancient times, men kidnapped wives from their families’ homes at dusk, gripping them by the hair!”

“Our teacher told us to ‘dance the brush across the page’ — which was easier for some of us than others!”

On Fudan University

“In the afternoon we visited Fudan University, arguably China’s top university. … By the way, many of their facilities rival the finest buildings at top U.S. universities. Throughout the trip, but particularly at Fudan University, it was evident how strongly Chinese people want to replicate the U.S. prosperity (current crisis apart) at home. Combining good education with a culture of very hard work, I would bet these guys at Fudan University will get there soon.”

On meeting a role model

“I had anticipated today the entire trip. There is a professor at the National Academy of Sciences who studied with my thesis adviser for six years, Yousheng Shu. During that time, he made a discovery that drastically changed the way we understand communication between neurons in the cerebral cortex. His technical innovation has also gained him the reputation of one of the best electrophysiologists in the world. In many ways, my thesis work is pursuing questions he opened at Yale in 2006. Both technically and scientifically, Yousheng has been my role model, and I greatly looked forward to meeting him.

An ENCU student in bioscience, “Ada” (Chen, Wei) came with me to meet Dr. Shu and to help me find the campus … Dr. Shu welcomed us warmly. He gave us a tour of the lab and introduced me to his nine graduate students and three technicians. We talked the entire afternoon about projects, papers, plans and life in general … I felt a special connection with these students, striving to persevere as students, as scientists, and as electrophysiologists. I was deeply honored that this successful, extremely busy professor took an entire afternoon to discuss science and the common experience of performing science with me.”

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