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Perceptions of China revisited

The jet engines growl with a deep gurgle as I attempt to drown them out with music blaring in my ears. We have been in the air long enough for me to watch two movies and eat a not-so-great meal. We are on the flight heading to Chicago from Beijing. What a wonderful week we had at the Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition and participating in cultural tours of the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall.

In my first blog entry, I laid out my top five, preconceived images of China. They included over-crowding, smoggy climate, exotic food (not to my liking), inevitable communication challenges, and Chinese students lacking creativity. Remember, I have never stepped foot in China nor have I had much contact with Chinese business and education prior to this trip.

Our first five days were spent just north of Beijing at the University of China Academy of Science where the Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition was held. A portion of the event was open to the public, and this was my first experience with a large crowd in the country; however, the first five days we did not experience the mass of people as I had envisioned. Once we relocated into the heart of Beijing, things changed. The Forbidden City and the Summer Palace were both a jumble of people filled to the point where you had better be comfortable with your personal space being violated. As we drove to different locations, our rate of travel was slowed due to the streets being crowded with pedestrians, bicycles, scooters, buses, and cars. So, as advertised, the major population centers were bubbling over with people, while the rural parts of China appeared less crowded and even serene.

Our first two days in China were cloudy, cold, and wet. It appeared that the gray environment I imagined was a correct perception. However, on day three the skies cleared and the sun appeared. Our first day in the center of Beijing reminded me of early-spring days in Western North Carolina with familiar flower blooms appearing on the tree limbs in the foreground of a canvas of mountain vistas and blue skies. By the second day in Beijing, smog began to settle back into the city. On our last day as we headed to the airport to return to the States, the smog was so bad that buildings just a few blocks in the distance began to look like silhouettes behind a sheer curtain of mist. Though we were treated with a few days of blue skies during our trip, my original perception of the climate held up as true. One other observation we made was that the Chinese obviously understand something must be done about air quality. Everywhere we traveled, teams of workers were seen planting trees on plots of land along roadways, embankments, and open land. This observation stood out as I compared it to scenes in my hometown of Cary, where large swaths of forests are being cleared out for housing and roads.

My culinary experience in China should never be used as a guide or as an indictment against the food. I admit, I am a picky eater and prefer foods high in carbohydrates or infused with heat to the point your face sweats. With that said, I found the food interesting, aromatic, chewy at times, some good, and some not to my liking. If you are a duck, fear not, you will be safe in my presence. India, you are still the Cuisine King of my travels.

Communication was indeed challenging during our trip, and we found that two of our students were invaluable as guides and translators. Raymond Gao and Dory Li assisted us with our driver, waitresses, ticket booth operators, and business signs. I strategically claimed Dory as my travel buddy, and if she was close by, no problem. Even when she was away from the group visiting her relatives, we somehow managed to survive a restaurant adventure unscathed. The people were friendly and seemed to enjoy taking pictures of the strange North Carolinians. I was very impressed with the respect and kindness our hosts showed us during our stay. Jeremy and Celia, our two Chinese guides at the Beijing Youth Science Creation Competition, were outstanding ambassadors for their country. Celia melded in well with the students and happily joined us as we scaled a strenuous stretch of the Great Wall. Language was indeed a challenge at times, but overall it did not impact our experience in China in any negative manner.

The last preconceived image I had concerned the Chinese youth and the myth that education institutions in China, through intensive rigor and regime, are producing highly proficient students who excel in sciences but lack creativity. Consider this myth debunked! The competition revealed that the Chinese students not only excel in science at very young ages, but that innovation and creativity is strongly emphasized in their education. The Chinese youth waited in anticipation to explain their projects, in English, to individuals such as myself. I was witness to problems being solved by creative students as young as 13. China should be proud of the young scientists emerging from their schools.

China is a unique and beautiful country, struggling with the challenges that stem from having such a large population and the demands for luxuries that Western countries have enjoyed for decades. The streets of Beijing were congested with people and vehicles, and even though we experienced a few beautiful days in the city, the air pollution that envelopes the large urban areas in China reappeared like a Crouching Tiger on our last days in the country. However, based on what I experienced during my short visit, and with the emphasis on innovation and creative thought in the Chinese education system, I have no doubt that the country will get a handle on its pollution and population-derived challenges.

Henderson County Partnership for Economic Development produced a video last year where they interviewed local public school children and asked them where things are made.

The children overwhelming replied ‘China.’ Though it is not entirely true that everything is produced in China, the point of asking the question was to demonstrate how that myth has permeated into our culture even though there are many products produced right here in North Carolina. However, the Asian superpower is another Crouching Tiger poised to pounced upon the scientific and innovation world. Unless the leaders of our state and the country can put aside political differences and start strategically working with public schools, community colleges, and universities to strengthen education and inspire passionate educators, the reality of having all innovation and scientific breakthroughs emerging from scientists at Chinese technical colleges and universities will materialize.

Our students are the brightest of the bright worldwide, but they need a state and country where their scientific endeavors are valued and supported.


Matthew Meyer

Dr. Matthew Meyer is the associate vice president of educational innovations for the N.C. Community College System.