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Studying China

Local college student is spending an academic year in the Far East

Monday, November 12, 2007 - 10:41 am

Logan McNiece, a 2005 graduate of Leo Junior-Senior High School and currently a student at DePauw University in Greencastle, is spending his junior year studying at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China.

McNiece, the son of Natalie and Floyd McNiece of Fort Wayne, is majoring in East Asian studies.

We contacted him via e-mail. Here's what he had to say about his stay so far:

“It is very exciting in Beijing at the moment as everyone (and by everyone I mean everyone) is preparing for the Olympics (in August 2008),” McNiece said.

“Subways are being built everywhere,” he said. “I heard the other day that Beijing is soon to pass London as the city with the most meters of railway.

“Also, the smoking culture is large here,” he said. “Probably 80 percent of men smoke, (but) not many women. Smoking is permitted anywhere there isn't a fire hazard. People light up in hotel lobbies, restaurants, the street.

“Also, cigarettes here are much more potent. I think the American law prohibits cigarettes with over 5 or 6 mg of nicotine/tar. Here, they have some as powerful as 13 mg and higher.

1. Why did you want to spend the school year studying in China?

A.: Since high school, I have envisioned myself studying outside the country and experiencing a different culture firsthand. There is simply so much that cannot be taught in a classroom; you must see it for yourself. While at DePauw, I talked with several students who had studied abroad for a semester and the one commonality among them all was regret at having not decided to stay longer. This is why I chose to stay the entire academic year.

2. What subjects are you studying?

A.: Several foreign students here are taking “real classes,” such as computer science, economics, etc. I, however, am not enrolled in Tsinghua University proper. Instead, I am part of their Chinese Language School. All students of this school attend classes for four hours each day. Throughout the week, we partake in three separate classes (all Chinese language): speaking, listening, reading/writing. In addition to language, there are several available electives ranging from Er Hu (a traditional Chinese stringed instrument) to Business Chinese (understanding Chinese business terms and manners). I am taking Tai Chi and Chinese painting.

3. What type of career are you planning after college?

A.: Currently, my post-graduation plans are quite open. The nice thing about my East Asian studies major and respective Chinese ability is that it allows me the opportunity to choose from a plethora of different careers. Despite being a political science minor, I will most likely look for a job with an American company that is seeking an English/Chinese-fluent employee who can travel often between China and America. The one certain thing is that my future is going to rest largely in the Eastern Hemisphere.

4. What has been the biggest surprise to you about China?

A.: For me the most interesting thing I have learned is the truth in the saying, “As different as we are, we are all the same.” Despite living in completely different cultures with different governments (and) on different sides of the world, the Chinese people do not truly differ from their American counterparts. When I go out to a bar and sit down to have a conversation with a local Chinese man, the conversation (albeit in Chinese) could just as easily take place in America as in China. The people here are discussing many of the same things we talk about at home. They are concerned about finding jobs, about having adequate health care and about sending their children to the best universities.

5. How have you been received by the local people?

A.: Within this question, when I refer to “foreigners,” I am speaking of Westerners. The local Beijing people are extremely kind to foreigners, more so than each other. Within Chinese culture, people care extremely for friends and members of their own family, but often can seem rude or unfriendly to strangers. This rule breaks down for foreigners, as often the local populace will go out of their way to help me. One night, I was lost in downtown Beijing, unsure of where the nearest (subway) substation was. Everyone I asked was kind and pointed me in the right direction. At one point, a man even offered and proceeded to walk me all the way to the station, even though he was going the opposite way. Now I don't want to paint the Chinese populace as this extremely happy and helpful entity; there are, of course, exceptions.

6. What has been the most interesting sight or event so far in your travels there?

A.: Every day, there is a flag-raising at dawn in Tiananmen Square. Some friends and I went to the flag-raising on Oct. 1, their National Day. It was massive. There were easily over 100,000 people there despite it being freezing and raining. Security was tight, but no more so then anything I have seen in the States. Which brings up an interesting point: The police here don't do much from what I've seen. I mean, yes, if there are protesters at Tiananmen, such as a couple days ago (protesting pork prices), then the police will herd them up and take them away. But just walking down the street, you don't feel a police presence at all. Mind you, I am only talking about Beijing. I haven't traveled elsewhere.

7. What is it like out on the streets, with the weather, crowds, etc.?

A.: Weather is much like home. It is a bit colder than Fort Wayne, and occasionally it gets very windy as storms come in from Mongolia and elsewhere. Crowds are massive. In order to picture downtown Beijing, first picture downtown New York. Now multiply the people by roughly five. Everyone is riding on bicycles around you, massive crowds of pedestrians plow down sidewalks, and the street is bumper to bumper.

At night, the streets are deserted, save the cab and police traffic. Which reminds me of another interesting thing I discovered: people here work 24 hours a day. Even on campus, they are out clearing land and planting flowers, erecting billboards and whatnot at 3 in the morning.

Labor is so cheap that companies and the government can mobilize construction nonstop, which explains how Beijing can turn from a two-story town into a skyscraper metropolis in only a few short years.

8. How are the approaching Beijing Olympics affecting Chinese life?

A.: Advertising is everywhere. You can't walk a kilometer without running into at least five signs promoting the Olympics. Prices are starting to slowly rise in Beijing. This is mostly being felt in hotels and foreigner areas but, as the Olympics approach, I'm sure the price hikes will be across the board. I was talking to a cab driver, and he showed me an English textbook that the government gave him. According to him, all registered Beijing cab drivers have to take a rudimentary English test sometime next year. He was learning phrases such as, “Welcome to Beijing,” “Where do you want to go?,” “I hope you had a nice flight” and so on. English is on probably 75 percent of the “important signs” around town (road signs, subway signs, restaurants), so it is not too hard to get around. I am curious if there is much of a movement within China to keep all the signs in Chinese, just as in the States there is a force that wants to keep Spanish off of signs.

9. What, if anything, do people there think about the recalls of toys sold in the U.S.?

A.: Surprisingly I haven't heard it mentioned once. I don't watch CCTV (China's television network) that often, but I have yet to see them mention it. Lately, most of the stories have been about Turkey and the Kurds, the Olympics, government initiatives to clean up the air, and various government meetings. CCTV obviously has censorship, as I have yet to see anything negative on it, but the most censorship is certainly the Great China Firewall.

I'm somewhat of an Internet junkie and have tested the waters to some extent as to where I can and cannot go. Wikipedia is the most annoying lock-out; beyond that they block all blogging sites and any news sites that have treated them poorly in the past. YouTube was blocked shortly before I arrived, but it is permissible now.

They also have some sort of agreement with Google where they can monitor search queries. A couple of students living off-campus in an apartment get a knock on the door once a month by a public safety officer. Nothing serious happens, just a brief conversation, but it all started because one of the students Google searched “Tiananmen Massacre.”

10. What have you enjoyed most so far about being there?

A.: I just love the experience of being away from what I am used to. It is quite refreshing to be amongst all the other foreign-exchange students because all of us have many commonalities. It is nice to step outside the U.S. and gain a larger perspective of the world.