Imagine a Jones Hall with eves strung with round red lanterns and bricks densely overgrown with ivy. Around the corner is an old building with “Trimble” engraved above the entrance. Walking through the old campus of Fujian Hwa Nan Women’s College (our sister school in Fuzhou, China) feels like walking through a slightly alternative reality of Puget Sound — a vivid parallel to my interactions with students here.
Fuzhou is our first stop in China, and my first experience in a communist country. On the bus ride from the airport to campus alone, I counted 10 large roadside banners inscribed with propaganda to cherish the “家國” (jia guo), or the “home country.” The next morning, we paired up with Hwa Nan students who signed up to show us around the city and practice English. The program is academic, but the friendships that developed are meaningful, and often insightful.
Between the familiarity of campus and the comfort of a newfound tight-knit Hwa Nan clique, I feel at home. At the same time, it’s impossible to avoid seeing some stark differences.
Conversations with my Hwa Nan buddy, Sandy, ranged from the ethics of Mao Zedong (she aligns with the CCP-approved opinion of 70% good and 30% bad) to the ubiquity of WeChat, a Chinese app which essentially replaces censored social media (she was shocked to hear that I had never heard of it). In the same conversation that she tried to teach me who was on the yuan bill (it’s Mao), she teased me for not knowing how to connect by QR code on the party-monitored Facebook knock-off.
Many of my experiences on PacRim have forced me to acknowledge some unrecognized aspects of my identity as an American liberal arts student. My coursework pushes me to exercise curiosity and challenge ideas, especially ideas which have been institutionalized. This sort of anti-establishment inquisitiveness is not much of an option in Fuzhou, or anywhere else in China.
As I realize just how much I have taken this freedom of thought for granted, I also realize just how precious it is, universally.