The SYA High School Study Abroad Blog

Experiencing Chinese Culture Outside of Beijing - A blog by Yumna

Mar 31, 2016

Educational travel is an integral part of our high school study abroad curriculum and an important way to help our students understand a China that is both impossibly large and amazingly diverse. SYA's trips are designed to give our students an in-depth look at parts of the culture that are unknown to all but the most seasoned traveler. 

Thirty-Six Hour "Slumber Party" 

When I was told the train ride to Yunnan would take thirty-six hours, I pictured agony: no daily shower, cramped space, and constantly shaking walls. Needless to say, I hesitantly woke up the morning of the trip and stumbled to school with my cumbersome duffle bag. I was still joking with friends about how we still had time to turn back while standing at the train platform, unsure if I really wanted to undertake the long journey.

Despite my worries, the train ride was more like an extended pajama party. As soon as I got settled into my bunk-bed along with my other five cabin mates, the pajamas and snacks came out. It wasn’t just SYA students that we hung out with either; fellow Chinese passengers would wander into our cabins, chat with us, watch movies with us, or even watch our intense games of mah jiang (mah-jong). So the train ride passed by pretty quickly as we wandered the halls, stopping to observe a chess game, or heatedly debate the presidential election with our new Chinese friends.   

Welcome to the City of Kunming

Once we waved goodbye and exchanged wee-chat IDs, it was time to disembark and start our adventure in the city of Kunming (昆明). I think we were all surprised to see people strolling on the sidewalk, or leisurely biking down the street. Used to the impatient horns of speeding motorbikes and brisk walking in Beijing,Yumna_Photo_two-064542-edited.jpg the peaceful atmosphere in Kunming was one we never expected to see. Besides it’s calming aura, Kunming had many other unique features and sights; the bird market was definitely a favorite, where one could find any animal. It was hard to leave the market especially as many of us were busy petting the puppies, kittens, hamsters, or birds we desperately wanted to take home. After being herded onto the bus, we headed to Cui Lake (翠湖). We wandered around the lake, looking for park wanderers to answer questions for our Chinese interview homework. Dedicated towards finding the perfect interviewee, we visited tea houses drinking honeyed rose tea and observing multiple mah-jiang games, joined Tai-chi sessions, and attempted to join fan dances. Unfortunately, the fan dance attempt failed as the teacher looked appalled when we sheepishly mentioned our lack of experience regarding the dance. At last, we found someone to interview, conversing in Chinese of course, until we had to leave the park and visit an Autistic Center for children. This was the first I had actually interacted with an Autistic child, and it was kind of amazing to watch specially trained teachers coax children into listening to directions, hone their mechanical skills, and tame their tempers. During music class, I had a “small friend” (小朋友) who I played the tambourine with, and attempted to stop from running towards the food stash (bribery). I was pretty exhausted from all the seemingly random fits of crying, so I hold a lot of respect towards the teachers.

Exploring the Quaint Town of Jian Shui

Unfortunately our stay in Kunming only lasted three days, and we soon arrived a quaint town, Jian Shui (建水) that had a Williamsburg sort feel to it. As part of a scavenger hunt that aimed to force lazy teenagers from their hotel rooms, we were tasked in finding different historic and scenic spots around town. But we were still too lazy to walk and rented a three-person bike to ride around town. It was definitely an exhilarating experience. Yumna_-_Bike_Photo.jpgWe managed to visit all the places on our list including a tofu workshop, where we learned how tofu is made, a cultural square where we bought unglazed ceramic figures to paint, and a purple pottery store.

This would be our last sight of an urban environment for a while; the rest of our trip was filled with hikes and visiting villages. I couldn’t help but appreciate the beautiful nature before me, from rice paddies to mountains in the distance. Many of our hikes ended at a village, where we stayed for the night, partaking in performances around bright fires; we watched traditional dances and songs, reciprocating with the national anthem and popular songs. I’m sure we seemed like an uncoordinated bunch of teenagers singing slightly off-key but we were awarded with enthusiastic applause and flowers (some classmates even received betrothal gifts!) After the night, we retired to our host family homes, drinking bitter black tea paired with an even more bitter fruit designed to sweeten saliva. The night was as eventful, especially as the roosters decided dawn began at 12 am. Despite this, we all woke bright and early, using the squat toilets and dry shampoo, mentally preparing ourselves for the hike to our next village. Although showers were very much anticipated, staying in the villages was a surreal experience; our host families were caring and generous and fed us the most delicious food I’ve had in China so far, though I was honestly very scared to eat whole fish, eyes and everything.

The trip came to an end far too soon, and when the plane came to a halt in Beijing, the shorts and t-shirts that had been donned before were exchanged with thick winter jackets!

Are you interested in SYA China? Learn more about our high school study abroad programs today! 

Topics: why study abroad, high school study abroad, SYA China