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China: Myth. Busted.

When I received my acceptance email from GLP staff for the Symposium to China last year, I was beyond excited because I had never been to China before. Little did I know that my understanding of the country was about to be changed forever.

Before departing for the trip, I had three main expectations of Chinese society, all of which were challenged throughout the Symposium.

1. I thought, due to censorship of some websites and apps, that China would be shut off from the world’s information.

In place of the apps that we use, people in China have more advanced replacements, such as WeChat, which allow them to continue to connect with the rest of the world.

2. Many of us in the delegation expected people in China to see Australia as a major global power, for example as a key tourist destination.

This isn’t necessarily true for all Chinese. During a visit to Tsinghua University in Beijing, the students suggested that while Australia is a nice tourist destination, Chinese people would rather go to places that are closer, such as Korea.

3. I thought China would lack cultural diversity. I was under the impression that most Asian countries each had only one dominant culture, with perhaps a few that had two or three cultural minorities.

Immediately proven wrong! Even before arriving in China we learned that China has over fifty ethnic minorities, and thousands of migrants and international workers living within its borders.

During our travels, the place that stood out the most to me was Shanghai – a city with a population equal to the entire population of Australia. This city hosts the second tallest building in the world and has a new skyscraper being completed every three days, yet it wasn’t the buildings that fascinated me, but the people who filled the buildings and made the city so dynamic. Our Symposium gave us several opportunities to meet with officials from organisations such as the Australian Chamber of Commerce, the New Development Bank by BRICS, and the Australia-China Youth Association, all of which had people from all walks of life coming together to achieve a common goal of improving their own countries’ relationships with China. On one of our free days, I even had the chance to meet up with my host-father from Japan whom I met four years ago, as he is currently living and working in Shanghai.

Besides international workers, Shanghai’s cultural diversity also consists of war refugees throughout history. The most memorable experience for me occurred right from the beginning on day one of the symposium, when we were led on a tour of the formerly Jewish Ghettos of Shanghai. I had no idea that there were Jewish people in Shanghai at all but to my surprise, the city took in over 25,000 refugees during World War II – that’s more than the number received in Australia, Canada, and New Zealand combined. While I was fascinated by the connection that the Jewish people built with those in Shanghai, the more we continued with our tour, the more disturbed I became. Our tour guide for the day, Dvir Bar-Gal, explained to us that hundreds of tombstones from Jewish cemeteries were removed and went missing during China’s Cultural Revolution in the late 1960’s. While Dvir and his team had recovered the majority of them, the tombstones are still to this day sitting in storage waiting to be restored. What looked at first to be a tour of the city then unfolded as a live retelling of Dvir’s life’s work of trying to gain the government’s permission to restore the tombstones.

China’s cultural melting pot continued to reveal itself to us throughout the rest of the Symposium as we travelled to the Yunnan Province and to Beijing. A story worth mentioning occurred while we were in Lijiang in the Yunnan Province. Brandon, our tour guide in the Yunnan Province, described the matriarchal structure of the Naxi people of Yunnan. He told us how the Naxi women are so symbolically and physically strong that in order to gain the blessing of the village elder to marry a man, the women are expected to carry the men in baskets on their backs and walk until the elders are satisfied that they are “strong enough to provide for the family”. More recently and with the rest of Chinese society influencing the minority groups, Brandon said there was no way a young Naxi girl would ever agree to carry him today. This showed us the distinction between Chinese cultures while also demonstrating how the lines are becoming blurred with the spread of modernisation.

After participating in this Symposium, I have learned so much more about China and its diversity, and I now know that when I visit different countries, I can only expect the unexpected. While travelling from city to city, I even came to realise that the diversity of China was also reflected within our small delegation of students. We too had people from all walks of life coming together and working together to achieve a common goal of learning more about China, and as a result, learning more about ourselves in the process and the roles we have in the relationship with the country. For that experience, I am extremely grateful.

To everyone in GLP, I highly recommend you take advantage of the many opportunities the program has to offer, and don’t be afraid of applying for something amazing because you never know where it might take you. (Watch this short video recap to see more of our trip).

The GLP Symposium to China is a two-week study and cultural tour to Shanghai, the Yunnan Province (Lijiang and Shaxi) and Beijing to explore economics, trade, diplomacy, cultural heritage and traditions in China.

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