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China notebook

Aun Ngo

Wed Sep 30 2009

The "Bird's Nest". Inside Beijing National Stadium, Kelvin Tay (in green) with the other exchange students. Photo: Kelvin Tay

The “Bird’s Nest”. Inside Beijing National Stadium, Kelvin Tay (in green) with the other exchange students. Photo: Kelvin Tay

I HAVE always toyed with the idea of going on a foreign exchange. However, due to my lack of decisiveness, these thoughts and plans never materialised.

Approaching the last semester of my undergraduate degree, I felt compelled to do something different during the winter break. To me, this was also consolation for missing out on the opportunity to go on exchange.

In April, I fortuitously stumbled upon a poster promoting a three-week summer course in China on the faculty’s notice board. Within a matter of days, I was enrolled into a business and law course, conducted in Shanghai and Beijing.

I had high expectations for this trip. After all, I was on the verge of experiencing a prelude to the business and legal system of an emerging nation – one that has grown exponentially in trade and commerce over the past decade, marking a shift of power from Western capitalism to China’s unique socialist market economy.

The Pudong New Area, taken from the top of Hyatt on the Bund. Photo: Kelvin Tay

The Pudong New Area, taken from the top of Hyatt on the Bund. Photo: Kelvin Tay

My trip was a true eye-opener; the three weeks spent in the populous land of Shanghai and Beijing was an astounding experience. Throughout my travel experiences, I have never entered a country with such a thorough exposure to a culture and lifestyle different to my own.

The time spent in China was not without trepidation. Despite being of Chinese descent my grasp of Mandarin was severely limited. This, accompanied with a distinct lack of “Asian-ness” immediately rendered me a walking contradiction on the streets of Shanghai.

I was fortunate to have two friends who were fluent in Mandarin alongside me throughout this trip. Nonetheless, by the end of the three weeks, I was confident enough to converse in Mandarin in certain respects – primarily in taking a cab back to hostel and bargaining in the markets.

Living in China can be an exciting experience. Shanghai itself is a city of grandeur and stark contrasts. I finally understood – to a certain extent – why there have been many fascinations with this country, be it academically or commercially. Despite its strong ideological roots in communism and Confucianism it has managed to adopt and integrate a Western-style market into its domestic market.

Opportunities to visit and live in a different country will open up plenty of avenues to learn. While I was learning about China’s growing prosperity in lectures and company visits, my daily stroll on the streets alerted me to a different reality. We are often dazzled by the rapid growth of the nation and its potential to be the new world leader. But those who have lived in China for a while will notice that not everyone here has found a place in the country’s economic escalation.

In the process of urbanization, there has been a movement of population from rural provinces to the big cities, in hope of finding a better job and source of income. A visit to China would be incomplete without a trip to Shanghai, due to the scale of construction being carried out.

Throughout my stay, I observed how labourers toiled day and night at construction sites. As demand for new skyscrapers intensify, troops of construction workers continue to move into the city annually. And as skyscrapers continue to sprout out across China’s richest city, old run-down neighbourhoods remain, providing a rather odd sight of contrast.

Behind the large population of 1.3 billion are grandparents, parents and children trying to ride on the tide of their country’s economic growth. Ever so often, these faces and identities are lost in the crowd. I wonder what would happen to each of those construction workers upon the completion of a project or the people living in those old neighbourhoods as the nation continues to charge forward to becoming the next superpower.

Kelvin Tay is a final year Arts/Law student at Melbourne University.