Sunday, August 18, 2013

Xie Xie Ni, China, xie xie.

How does one begin to explain and express thoughts, opinions, feelings, pre-conceived notions about a culture, country, lifestyle. Allow me to attempt what for those of us who have been blessed with opportunities to travel, befriend, love and live immersed in a culture not our own, is at times difficult; for by sharing our experiences, in the hopes to educate and just that, to share with the world our lives, often are mistaken for boasting and gloating.
Oh, how untrue that is. For what we (this breed I have previously referenced in this blog), birds of a feather with the extra suitcase packed just in case, love to do is study, learn, appreciate, respect and share. Study cultures and languages, appreciate those inhabitants of countries not our own, respect customs and traditions and share with everyone else in order to educate. That's what we are all about. It's not about us an individuals, folks, it's about this wonderful, big, yet small world we live in. Sharing it one Facebook post or email, or text message at a time. Sharing one smile, one hug, one dinner and even business meeting, at a time. This is also a my favorite hobby: building relationships.

Exactly a week ago, at the same hour, at this very moment, I sat in Terminal C at Chicago O'Hare airport. Now, I can certainly write a separate entry on my experiences at O'Hare, including a most unfortunately memorable feeling of a fever coming on route, Chicago to Denver in 97. I arrived delayed and woke up the next morning covered in chicken pox. Thank you O'Hare, I am reminded every day when I look in the mirror.

Sorry- tangent! A week ago I was a tired and dehydrated, not dreading the chicken pox in Chicago, but having just landed after a 14.5 hours flight from Shanghai. Yes, I was returning home to Dayton from my Chinese work trip, my first Chinese adventure.

I was invited to join others from the university to celebrate the anniversary of our operations in Suzhou. A year ago the opening of an institute that many believe to be another campus, a degree -granting branch, or simply classrooms teaching students and some adults. The truth is it is not necessarily the above, but so much more. The institute, proudly showing off our university name and Catholic-inspired cross logo, is a place where new knowledge is created. But more of that in a minute...

I flew to Shanghai after much chagrin from those skeptics who unknowingly judged the reason why I would want to go "all the way to China. It's so different. It's so far." Because I have to and why not, were the two things that immediately came to mind. I have to because it is important for our university international relations, our alumni and our perceptions to educate the world about why we, a Catholic university, would want to set up shop in a communist country. DISCLAIMER: I am no expert in Chinese culture, especially politics and religion. All I know is that relationships are HUGE there. Education, economic, cultural and professional development is enhanced and nourished based on the relationships built between one person and another, between one organization and the next and even government officials and civilians. Yes, there are standards, there is protocol. There are rules and there is tradition. There is respect and their is a keen thirst for knowledge, new technologies and ways to improve the world. Sounds like most of the same values the university holds true.  Just for this, I was curious to see for myself.

As I arrived in Shanghai, after enjoying a lovely cocktail of eight movies on the plane... I read a little, but didn't sleep. So... eight movies of about 1.2 to 2 hrs each, you do the math. Long flight.

Mind you, I have been to several countries in Europe, Mexico, Canada, hundreds of treks in the air from my lovely home-home in Puerto Rico to my other home in the USA. This was the first time I had traveled so far by myself, not speaking the language, not really knowing what to expect. To that, I said "bring it!" Boy, did it get brought on! ;)

The people couldn't have been friendlier, helpful and hospitable. I was a guest in their home and they would take care of me--May I be as hospitable the next time I have guests visiting in Dayton, or in Puerto Rico. Any hint of fear of the unknown was gone. My hearing sharpened, as I recalled a month in Germany, where by the end of my stay I could carry a very brief, yet appreciated conversation with my host families and my mates from Deutschland! I tried to pick up the tones, ah, the tones. Ni hao means hello... But I quickly saw that the HAO is not like HAO, I am Tonto from the Lone Ranger, but more like Nee-hah, with a slight and very short hint of the "O" at the end. Ufffff, took me a couple of days to say it as natural as I believed. What do I know... I needed to let my new Chinese friends be the judge of that.

By day five I was able to read a short, but meaningful sentence to alumni over dinner and while I stumbled over the word for alumni association, I was told, they got the point. More than anything, they appreciated the fact I had taken the time and was interested in addressing them in their own language. All I could think of was "why not, isn't that what you are suppose to do when you visit a different country and want to learn about a different culture?" I was born speaking a different language and by choosing to study and live in a country not my own, I had to learn. There, simple.

Again, I am certainly not an expert and certainly not a well-read Chinese cultural scholar, but this is what I saw. In a period of two hours and while driving from Shanghai to Suzhou, I saw more apartment and condo complexes that I thought could ever be built. There are so many people living there, it is overwhelming. At first I thought Shanghai was like New York city. Cool, OK. Then it kept going and going, going and going. There are roughly 23 million people living there, and I believe it is growing. The skyscrapers are among the tallest in the worlds, the economic boom is envied and the contrast from city of the future, draped in western-style neon signs, and old country Pagodas overlooking market squares where entry ways are bravely protected by stone dragons, I was in awe.
--I even learned, thanks to one of my esteemed colleagues who served as the best tour guide, that there are usually two dragons protecting each entry way to a store, a house, a temple. One dragon is a mama dragon, with its paw placed on the head of a baby dragon, protecting it as much as the entry assigned to her. On the other side of the entry way, papa dragon also holds vigil, attentive to his post. Both loyal and committed to their protective duties, the pair of dragons look on and stare back at the thousands and thousands of locals and tourists who walk by.

The markets kept going and going. Rows and rows of kiosks overflowing with jade Buddhas, pearl necklaces, Chinese painting sets and if you are lucky your own knock-off Michael Kors tote, latest edition. Bargaining and negotiating is an art I am proud to say I almost mastered. Once I got used to calculating the change from US dollar to Chinese RMB I engaged in pretty animated conversations with the sellers in order to get a good deal for my souvenirs. At the end, I smiled. I could do this again.

Where you would find your hot dog or hot pretzel cart, you'd find dumplings. Home-made, steamed, pork and crab meat-filled dumplings. One word: yum! You'd also find other items on the menu that I will not dwell too much on. Truth be told, I stepped out of my own comfort zone as a self-proclaimed bad islander. I don't east fish. I don't like fish. I ate some fish and actually liked it. I confess. :)

Back to the Institute, for I am now their publicly proclaimed number one fan. Our offices provide a venue where product design and development, innovative technologies and problem solving, in a team setting takes place. New and renewable energy initiatives are developed and discussed. Problems in manufacturing industries are solved. All of this in the spirit of how to make our world a better place to live in. All this available and accessible to our students and corporate partners, who then hire our students because of the quality of their work. This is exciting. This is what we do in China and this is amazing to be a part of. And for those familiar to where the China Institute, the city is called Suzhou Industrial Park, and by industrial park I don't mean your 30 building, semis parked in the back, industrial park. SIP is a city with a population of 2 million people and government officials that support our initiatives. For that, we are grateful.

Our university was for many years the best kept secret in the Mid-West, in the world Catholic higher education. We are an international organization and the research, development and scholarly work that is done, builds bridges of learning, of cultural understanding and in faith, provides opportunities for our students to serve communities, near and far with the skills and knowledge they have developed. Other institutions of higher learning may say they do the same thing. Maybe they do. That's OK. We are intentional about the relationships we build, the scholar work taking place inside and out of our classrooms and the opportunities to serve and think of others, of our communities before ourselves. That is the mark our students leave in this world. What we want them to experience in Ohio, in China.

I could go on for another two or three entries. I have certainly not done justice to capture all the scents, conversations, eye-contacts, beauties at a museum and gardens, that I lived over a period of six days in China. It is impossible to tell the story of the twenty five alumni who joined us for dinner and asked how "Professor So and So" is; alumni who said they get together at least once a week because at UD they became best friends. I am not doing this fascinating country and culture justice. All my heart and my head, and in this case my hands (quickly typing away!), compel me to do is tell the story as best as I can and more than anything, invite others to give it the benefit of the doubt. I, we, must invite others to give different cultures and countries the benefit of the doubt before casting judgement. You'd be surprised. I sure was. So, for now if I know you and we are friends, hit me up and I will be the first one to say, GO to China. You will love it.

May Buddha bless and be with everyone with peace, and abundant joy. Xie xie ni means thank you. Xie xie means just thanks... Xie xie ni, China. Xie Xie. I hope to go back some day.

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