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Postcard from China: Exploring local politics & histories

Gabrielle Watson’21 is enjoying having her views on politics and history challenged while studying abroad in Shandong, China. She also joined four clubs in order to meet local students.

  • Name: Gabrielle Watson’21
  • Hometown: Madison, WI
  • Major: International Relations, Chinese Language and Culture, Minor in Anthropology
  • Study Abroad Location: China, Shandong University

Q. How is study abroad benefiting your Beloit College education?

A. When I first came to Beloit as a Freshman I had just returned from a year abroad in Taiwan through Rotary International. Saying as much, I tested into third-year Chinese during a time that the Chinese department didn’t have very high numbers of students in upper-level Chinese. Classes I wanted to take were canceled due to lack of student enrollment, and consequently I had to maintain my Chinese learning through special projects with Professor Youd. Although I loved those projects, being able to fully immerse myself in the language once more has helped me to realize how much I still have to learn and forced me to practice the language on a daily basis. Moreover, being in China I’m able to experience the different knowledge and opinions SDU faculty have of historical events and cultures that vary greatly from those of Beloit faculty. This includes experiencing censorship firsthand and having my own viewpoint on global issues and politics in particular be challenged.

Q. How were you engaging with people and place when you’re not in the classroom?

A. Since coming to SDU I’ve joined four clubs (movie watching, English, “Love/Caring”, and yoga), which have helped me to meet local students from whom I am otherwise completely separated due to my major and the college structure. I also frequently travel with friends and am currently in the process of writing a food review project for Professor Youd for restaurants in Jinan that hopefully future exchange students can utilize! As a result I’m fully committing myself to experiencing local dishes and understanding the life of typical Chinese college students. China holds an entirely new culture with different social norms and expectations, and only through talking with people and spending time outside of the campus have I been able to experience the depth of Chinese culture and develop my own socially acceptable mannerisms.

A cultural field trip held by the language department to visit a pottery shop famous for its ?bla... A cultural field trip held by the language department to visit a pottery shop famous for its “black earth” pottery.

Q. What are the three most important things you packed in your suitcase? Why?

A. A roll of toilet paper. In China oftentimes public toilets (unless you’re in a mall or a huge commercial space) lack toilet paper, so until you locate a place to buy some (like the campus stores), then you won’t have a very convenient time using the bathrooms. It’s especially important considering some of the dorms have private bathrooms in the rooms, so you need to supply your own toilet paper no matter what. The second item is probably my blanket. The sheets that the university provides are somewhat scratchy, and during the winter it takes a while for them to turn the heat on, so at night when it’s cold and the blankets don’t feel like they’re enough, I just use my extra blanket that I brought with me. Lastly, I’d definitely say my laptop. Unlike the libraries at Beloit, it’s very difficult to find a public computer on campus unless you go to an internet cafe off of campus. Moreover, even if you were to do so, you won’t be able to access the typical websites unless you have a VPN, which you should only use on a private computer.

Q. What is your favorite place in your host city/country?

A. This is kind of an unfair question, especially since China is so big. If I have to pick one place, I would say the campus cafe called “Gate Coffee.” It’s not only the perfect place to study place, but when I first arrived and was beginning to make friends that’s the place where we would go in groups and sit and talk for hours and hours until the cafe was closed. It’s warm inside, the music is generally a throwback to older American classics (like Frank Sinatra), and it’s one of those places you can just lose track of time.

View from Tai shan (Mount Tai) in Tai'an City. View from Tai shan (Mount Tai) in Tai’an City.

Q. What was the most unexpected thing you encountered during your off-campus study experience?

A. The lack of physical cash, for sure. Almost everything is paid through cards (like the student card, or a credit card), or through QR codes in apps like Wechat and Alipay. If you don’t set up a bank card during your first week here, it’s incredibly challenging to live in China. A lot of places I’ve gone to actually lack change, so sometimes they can’t accept cash because they have nothing to give back to you. So like I said before, you have to set up a bank account in order to do anything, because it is this bank account that you link to your WeChat and Alipay.

Q. How were you able to stay in shape or stay prepared for your sport while you were off-campus?

A. There is a huge track that’s open almost all day for students that I typically run on or walk with friends, and then there are various clubs like Yoga Club and the newly formed Parkour Club that can help keep you in shape. Moreover, there is a private gym as well as a swimming pool on campus, but you have to pay to use those. My biggest suggestion is just to walk frequently or go on lots of hikes.

Q. Describe some daily rituals/routines that you’ve observed while abroad!

A. Well, because the cafeteria and hot water are both on tight schedules, I have to manage my time so I can successfully take a shower that’s not freezing cold and have time to eat before classes. Other than that, at night I’ll walk with friends around the track and watch the mini-soccer games that go on in the middle, or watch the dance groups and karate lessons that are taught off to the side.

Q. What is a common food there? What is the best meal you’ve had abroad?

A. Outside of campus, one of the more common foods I’ve seen is fried chicken. A lot of street vendors sell it, and then there are always restaurants with “chicken hamburgers” or “fried chicken and rice,” etc etc. However, the best meal that I think I’ve had was at a restaurant right around the corner of campus. They serve Jinan style duck, an egg and tomato mixture, along with fried sweet potato balls filled with taro. Everything was absolutely delicious.

An overlook of the stream/river running between the mall and a public square in Jinan's city cent...

A view of the stream running between the mall and a public square in Jinan’s city center.

November 15, 2019
  • Gabrielle and her friend standing at a lookout in Qingdao on the coast of China.

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