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I was fortunate enough to visit China during the duration of the CHINESE NEW YEAR. Throughout the New Year people set off fireworks at all hours of the day, celebrate time with family, and partake in many celebrations in the streets.
The difficult part in traveling during the New Year is that everyone has the same idea! The Chinese New Year is a time to be with family, which for many means flying or taking a train. For visitors like me this meant increased lines at the airport and a rise in the price of flights. Despite the setbacks of traveling during the New Year I was still able to visit Shanghai, Beijing, and Hong Kong.
In SHANGAI I did a lot of shopping and touring the city. A large informal section of labor exists in China, with many people “hustling” the streets without a fixed hourly income or wages. Many will find foreigners on the street and try to attract them to their shops filled with illegal replica watches, handbags, clothing, shoes, etc. Replicas account for a large market in China.
In Beijing I visited TIANANMEN SQUARE, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall of China. As a political science student I have read year after year of the massacre which occurred in 1989 at Tiananmen Square. I was very eager to visit this political arena of China. It was in this public space that students spoke not for revolution, but for government reform.
I was surprised when my tour guide told us that she only knew limited information of the massacre and that the total number of casualties went unreported. It was truly eye opening to have a local who was born and raised in Beijing ask American tourists about information on an incident which occurred in her hometown.
The Chinese government has gone to great lengths to delete this piece of history from the minds of the Chinese. Websites related to the massacre are blocked, Google agreed to sensor their mainland China site, a number of magazines, newspapers, and periodicals are banned; this has all been done in an effort to keep the citizens from reminiscing on the tragedy which occurred 21 years ago. It is critical for the Chinese government to maintain stability within their rule and this is made possible through censorship; as confounded as I may find myself on this issue, this is what works for China.
The FORBIDDEN CITY was the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty. For five centuries it served as the Emperor’s home; all Chinese political actions were centered around the Forbidden City. It stands as the world’s largest surviving palace and the center of Beijing. The attention to detail in the Chinese architecture is magnificent. No detail goes unnoticed and every architectural decision is based on religious and philosophical principles.
I slept one night on the GREAT WALL and hiked 6 miles on it the next morning. At the end of the hike we were also able to zip line off of it, an amazing experience! Sleeping under the stars on one of the “seven wonders of the world” is an unforgettable experience of which I am proud to have done. The hike I endured stands as my most accomplished strenuous exercise yet! The wall has a lot of stairs and parts of the wall are in much need of repairs as there are many unsupported stones which are shaky. The Great Wall is a series of walls built at different times by several emperors. The construction began in 214 BC. I hiked a section of the wall known as Jinshanling and ended up in a section known as Simatai.
HONG KONG is vastly different than mainland China. Hong Kong runs on economic and political systems which differ from mainland China and enjoys a great deal of autonomy in a wide range of matters. What this meant for Semester at Sea students was one thing: Facebook is blocked on mainland China but not in Hong Kong! The city was very developed and Americanized in the realm of people, culture, and food.
This trip has taught me much about differences in cultures and norms of behavior. For example, in Japan, the people are very quiet and courteous towards others. During train or subway rides or even walking the streets, everything is calm and tranquil. You do not hear cars playing loud music or people conversing with another; silence is a norm of behavior. This is certainly not a trait for Americans and it was evident when Semester at Sea students stepped on a train because they were heard far and wide.
Another culture shock came from Japan where it is considered very unclean to blow your nose in public. In America, we would rather blow our nose in public and leave a tissue or Kleenex in our pocket until it can be properly disposed of. This is unheard of in Japan. For the Japanese, it is much cleaner to litter your used Kleenex on the streets than to let the filth gather in one's pocket.
Another example, in China, it is very common for the Chinese to push and shove and to not respect lines. This is considered very rude to Americans and we would often take offense to this; however, it is important to keep in mind that this is a part of Chinese culture and is in no way an attempt to offend Americans. In addition, blowing smoke in another person’s face, or a taxi cab driver smoking a cigarette in closed quarters; these are two acts which are considered impolite and ill-mannered to Americans. A lot of this occurs in Japan and China and again is a normal custom.