Two weeks after finals in May, I was given the opportunity of a lifetime (or at least of my undergraduate experience). I was selected to take part in a field study that was fully funded by a Swarthmore research grant. Having taken a class in Governance and Environmental Issues in China last spring, I created my own independent research topic with regards to the class and traveled to Beijing with two professors and four other students to conduct first-hand interviews and research. This was the first field study of its kind that Swarthmore had ever funded and an opportunity rarely granted to undergraduates. Throughout the semester, I read about the growing number of environmental protests erupting throughout China and how they were completely organized by students on social media outlets like Weibo and RenRen. Social media has always fascinated me. All over the world, it has changed the way public policy is made and how government officials conduct themselves. Therefore, I chose to research the connection between Internet activism and the growing environmental movement in China. I wanted to measure the impact of Chinese social media on actual environmental policy change. Is the Chinese collective voice strong enough and united in such a way that it could actually challenge Beijing, forcing the communist regime to evolve. Through interviews with students, professors, environmental activists, and renowned journalists, I started to answer that question. However, I feel as if I have just scratched the surface. The question is still evolving as new protests erupt everyday and new activists maneuver around censorship to have their voices heard in China.
My time in China was absolutely exhilarating. I conducted most of my student interviews in Chinese, in little coffee shops in the Chaoyang District. I would sit across from these students, one moment discussing the impossibilities of a democratic China, the next talking about how shows like Vampire Diaries and Gossip Girl translated into Mandarin. It was surreal. The trip also came with difficulties. We had little to no Internet access in our dorm rooms. My Ethernet cable never worked. I had to sit in coffee houses, buying their ridiculously expensive lattes so that I could use their sketchy WiFi. I was also faced with the impossibility of censorship. China is known for its great Internet Firewall, but I never realized just how annoying it would become. My research was mainly concerned with uprisings and protests— not information that was sanctioned or easily accessed in China. On June 4, the anniversary of Tiananmen, my Internet was shut down completely and I wasn’t able to do any online research. Needless to say, I won’t be complaining about Internet at Swarthmore anytime soon.
In addition to all of our work, we were extremely touristy. This was mainly for my benefit. Although I am a Chinese and Political Science major, this was my first trip to China. My professors therefore made sure I took ridiculously cheesy photos absolutely everywhere. Strangely enough, Chinese tourists kept asking to take pictures with me. There are probably about twenty to thirty Chinese cameras floating around out there with pictures of me giving a peace sign in front of the Forbidden Palace. Nihao Zhongguo!
Our hosts also delighted in introducing me, an American on her first trip to Beijing, to authentic Chinese cuisine. I am an extremely picky eater and prior to my trip had never even eaten Chinese food in the States. Much to my dismay, I quickly realized that forks and knives were not available. I came out of our first dinner with a growling stomach: I didn’t know how to use chopsticks and was unable to pick up any of the food on my plate. For sanitary reasons, water was also not available. Rather, I had to choke down blueberry juice or lime juice. Our government hosts also enjoyed introducing me to bai jiu, a distinct Chinese liquor that reminded me of lighter fluid.
The rest of my summer was spent cultivating the Political Science end of my education. I worked as an intern in my Congressman’s District Office in Scranton. Although it wasn’t quite as exciting as attending government banquets in China and being force-fed Beijing culinary delicacies like fish eyes and sea cucumbers, I managed to get some really great work experience. Coffee runs and faxing seemed simple compared to navigating the Beijing subway at rush hour.
Can’t wait to see everyone next week!