Foreign Students Dorm #2, Shandong University

Believe it or not, my time in Jinan is running down. I’ve decided to use my next few posts to write about three places that have been integral to my encounter with the city. I’ll focus on the people who inhabit and traverse them and the intersection between these slices of urban space, Jinan as a whole, global issues, and my ostensibly obscure (sike) dissertation research. My first two posts were about Baihua Park and “Jinan West.”

Heading into my last week in Jinan (for now), I can’t help but reflect on my first trip here in 2014. After a twenty-plus hour trip from Chicago and a taxi ride from the airport, I arrived at the Central Campus of Shandong University (Shanda). The Foreign Affairs Office had arranged for me to stay in a dormitory on campus, so that was my destination. I found the dorm and after a bit of the expected confusion about who I was and what I was doing there, they assigned me a room on the sixth floor. In a moment of weakness I dared to ask if there was an elevator. “No…duanlian shenti [exercise]!” was the answer. Welcome to Jinan.

shanda dorm
My dorm room at Shandong University, 2014

I actually didn’t interact much with other foreign students during those first couple months at Shanda. This year has been different, even though my wife and I are living off-campus. This post is about this group of people I have gotten to know a little bit and, even though I’m not living there now, I’ve decided to make the dormitory where I lived that first summer the figurehead for his post.

This has been, I think, an odd year to be abroad. When I think back to 2014 and what I “missed” that summer, the first thing that comes to mind is the “ice bucket challenge,” which I watched play out over social media from a (safe) distance. Needless to say, somewhat more eventful things have happened in 2016-17. When you’re in a foreign country, processing current events is a bit different since you’re not necessarily surrounded by people who share a common frame of reference. A community of fellow im/migrants (or expatriates) can be a helpful place to turn. Our personal circles in Jinan, though, have included very few Americans.

Although I’ve missed the company of compatriots at various times, I’m glad that my time in Jinan has brought me into contact with foreigners who have come to China from different places and for different reasons. It has helped me realize how limited my sphere of relationships with other foreigners in China has been.

Most of the foreigners I’ve interacted with in Jinan have been from Africa, and the majority of these are here to study in one of Jinan’s universities, although some teach English or other subjects. Of course, it’s been interesting talking to them about our respective home countries. I appreciate their general optimism about the U.S., but also the aspects of it they find baffling – as many Americans do as well. I’ve been even more interested, though, in their interactions with China, which are somewhat different from my own.

I have come to realize that most of the foreigners I have interacted with in China have come here to study some aspect of the country itself. This was true when I came as an undergraduate for a semester of study abroad, and when I did a year of language study, and certainly now that I belong to a cohort of Fulbrighters doing specialized research on China.

In many ways, though, we are the outliers. After all, most of the foreign students I know in the U.S. don’t come for “American studies.” This is true of students from Africa in China as well. I haven’t met a single one who is here to specialize in Chinese history. There are, however, quite a few who have come to study medicine, business, economics, etc. (Of course, I imagine their experiences in China will prove valuable in one way or another in the future, as China continues to “invest” more and more in Africa.)

Some of the students have become quite good at Chinese, but a surprising number speak very little of the language, especially before arriving. It has also been interesting to observe that quite a few of our friends aren’t very fond of Chinese food. I’ve always found it a little odd when a Chinese taxi driver asks if I’m used to the food here, and I usually explain that Americans, in general, like Chinese cuisine, even if what we’re exposed to in the U.S. isn’t what you get most places in China. But maybe the taxi drivers have a point; after all, there are plenty of things about foreign countries – yes, even China – that Americans shy away from, and there are certainly some dishes I’ve furtively avoided at dinners.

Interacting with these students has challenged me to examine some of my ideas about cross-cultural interactions. Through various trips abroad, I’ve been conditioned as much as possible to be a “good” foreigner, to keep an open mind about things that seem questionable or even repulsive, to try to listen rather than loudly exclaim, to speak Chinese as much as possible, etc. I’m hardly perfect, and there are plenty of things about China that drive me nuts. I enjoy living here not because I’ve wholesale embraced everything about the place, but because I’ve managed to carve out a hybrid lifestyle for myself that is sustainable.

But my experience with China is still very much shaped by my place as someone who studies it for a living. I think of myself as responsible for digging through strata of culture and history to achieve a beyond-superficial understanding of the place. I have, however, come to respect foreigners who aren’t in China for that “authentic” experience. They’re here to work, make new friends, and even start families. I’m not going to be the one to say they’re “doing China” “wrong.”

The funny thing is that if I had lived in Beijing this whole year, then I might have been sheltered from these interactions and reflections because I could have spent more time around people who have come to China for reasons similar to my own. Ironically, then, being in Jinan, which is, by pretty much any objective measure, less “global” than Beijing, exposed me to a broader range of relationships. For me, this itself has been a valuable realization.

It is a lesson about the value of living in and studying a place like Jinan that resonates with my own research. On the surface, it’s hard to pitch a history of Jinan as an especially global story. But, as you read through my dissertation book (which will make a great stocking-stuffer for Christmas 202?), you’ll see that Jinan was very much a part of global interactions. When we look at this city, though, we don’t just see these developments play out on a smaller scale, but rather from different perspectives, through different kinds of actors, and with different results.

My experiences in Jinan also demonstrate the problem of positing global and local as opposite spheres of analysis. Any experience of the global in Jinan is necessarily localized. Similarly, especially as a foreigner here, my interactions with this place are inevitably shaped by a broader global context. Some will say that this web of interconnections threatens some intrinsic aspect of “place.” I would argue, though, that it is precisely in this bringing together of people and objects that we discover places. That, at least, is how I have found Jinan.

 

 

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