After the chaos and stress that compose exam week, I was fortunate enough to spend five days at home before flying to Pittsburgh and my summer REU. I saw all of my best buds from high school and barbecued with family; we even went in the boat once… I was home just long enough to remember that I’d miss it all summer. I was off to Pittsburgh before it had really registered that I was leaving again and in my mind I was heading straight to China, cutting out the week at University of Pittsburgh.
I’ve never done a Research Experience for Undergrads before, so I don’t have anything to compare to, but the program has been a challenge in a number of ways. First of all, the twelve of us met and got together to immediately begin research for our respective topics. Not everyone’s work habits coincide and we are essentially strangers to one another, so writing the paper caused some tension. The day after our presentation we woke up at 4 am to fly to Beijing. Start with a group of tired, grouchy college students, throw in an uncomfortable 14 hour flight, overnight in an uncomfortable hotel, mediocre Chinese food, another (shorter) flight, and an opening night banquet, and you’ve got some serious stress and tension within the group. Throwing a trip to China into the middle of the program really puts a spin on the experience.
I’ve already had a number of years’ worth of studying China, and some time in both cities and countryside, so I feel like I’ve been a bit helpful for others on the program who have never left the developed world. The program leaders didn’t prepare us for much in the way of cultural differences apart from “it will be uncomfortable at times.” Well, what does that mean? Oh, just that the beds will be hard, the roads will be bumpy, the bathrooms may just be a hole in the ground surrounded on three sides by a crumbling wall, and that the food may or may not make you sick.
The roads in rural China don’t have guard rails, and the yellow line is always a dotted yellow. Passing on corners is the norm, and our bus driver uses a form of automobile echolocation to ensure that other drivers know we are coming around the corner. If there’s oncoming traffic, the car we’re passing is who slows down. This would be less terrifying if we were driving through fields, but the day-long drives are constant switchbacks through mountains with eroding loess on one side and sheer drops to fields and terracing below.
All of that said, the experience shaped up after about a week, and we were able to interview farmers in at least two villages a day. We also met with government officials, and I got to put to practice all the banquet etiquette I’d learned in my Chinese food culture class. We got a lot of great anecdotal information to supplement our research papers and also had a chance to see a number of obscure tourist attractions (and a few more famous ones). The trip also sparked my interest in China once again, and helped me decide that I want to return after graduation.