Hangzhou

Today, I took a lovely trip to Hangzhou, another nearby city. I originally planned to go with an American friend I met at my hostel but a friend from ECNU kindly connected me with her friends who study in Hangzhou; they offered to be my guides for the day. After much confusion and walking back and forth at the train station at 7am, I was able to pick up the tickets I purchased online. Train stations are some of the most difficult places to figure out for someone who is unfamiliar with the language. The long train ride was as beautiful as I suspected, but probably quite ordinary for all accompanying passengers. I was greeted by four extremely sweet friends but only one speaking conversational English.

Hangzhou is much larger than I suspected and has an extensive metro system. I was first taken to see the West Lake which looked particularly eerie in the light rain; we went up the Leifeng Pagoda which turned out to be a replica of the ruins that were still housed inside. It also had the first system of escalators I have ever seen on a landmark… It certainly prevented my legs from crying. The views from different levels dramatically varied; I got great views of the lake, mountains, smog and dragon boats. Extremely impressive wooden carvings were exhibited inside the pagoda.

I have never rode in so many taxis in one day. Two boys and I made our way back to downtown Hanghzou and met the other two friends who already reserved a table and ordered us food at a restaurant. There were so many meals that were unknown/strange for me; I have never seen chicken feet on a table… I ALMOST tried them. But I did eat lotus root which is now one of my new favorite foods!

Two friends headed back to their campus while I was brought to the Linyin Monastery. It was fiercely pouring at this point, soaking my shoes and flipping my umbrella inside out. It was for the better though…The monastery was spacious with many forested areas and even a river. The rain made the experience so much more eerie and breathtaking, I was in absolute awe watching it hit the river and numerous Buddha statues carved in rocks. For once, I was extremely happy that the sun did not make an appearance. I did not think I would ever see anything greater than what I saw then and there.

Despite the things I saw and the lovely company I had, I felt extremely uncomfortable every time someone refused to let me pay for anything. I always appreciate the hospitality but I do not know how to act when this happens in the cultural context – am I supposed to continuously deny it and insist on paying, or peacefully let them? I settled somewhere in between those two.

Since it was a rainy day, I noticed an interesting norm in which men open and carry umbrellas for women; one of the boys kept opening one above me every time it started sprinkling. I kept telling him not to worry, especially since I had my own umbrella (and I dislike such assumptions of fragility). After the third time of him opening it, I got a feeling that it would be extremely rude of me to pull out my own umbrella from my backpack so I went along with it. It was probably one of the most uncomfortable short walks I have taken… I was also constantly asked whether I want my handbag carried. I have seen this on the street but I previously thought it was strictly a “dating” thing, but it just seems like courtesy.

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Being here, my heart feels more open than ever before.

Today: rainy, messy but informative + fun

Today was my last day visiting the Minhang Campus and it was off to an interesting start. I think most of my further day trips are off to interesting/unfortunate/scary starts…I like it though.

Not only could I not find a taxi from the metro station in the pouring rain, but I was also already twenty minutes late to my first meeting. I can never notify anyone that I am running late due to my lack of Chinese phone and WiFi/data. When I finally got in a taxi that made its way around the suburbs, I was convinced that the driver once again took me to the wrong campus. It turned out she only came in from another entrance which made it impossible to find the library. I decided to get out of the car near a random building and just ask students for directions. The first student failed to help and ended up bringing me to the student dorms on the complete opposite side of the campus. I am normally fine with walking long distances, but not in a never-ending pouring rain that causes me to slip uncontrollably every other step…..

I finally made it to the library one hour after my scheduled meeting time. Thankfully, my interviewee was very sweet and understanding and was still able to make the time to meet me later. In the meantime, I met with Kiera, a student I became friends with, for the last time. I also squeezed in an interview with a friend of another interviewee, who strongly believed in the established gender roles due to biological and historical differences. She had a unique perspective on gendered beauty norms – she did not think it is unfair that women have to put more emphasis on beauty because it gives way to a spectrum of clothing and beauty choices that men do not have. Because women are physically weaker, beauty can act as a sense of security for them. She believes that the amount of makeup she puts on directly influences her perceived respect towards whoever she is interacting with.

I noticed a lot of assumed fragility in this interview. Elaine kept insisting that jobs requiring higher IQ’s should be reserved strictly for men without a particular explanation. She finally responded that more time-consuming jobs would be too much for women as they need extra time for sleep, beauty routines and shopping each day.

My second interview was with Kelsi and it took nearly two hours, being one of my longest interviews. She had some background knowledge about feminism, sharing that it is often heavily and aggressively criticized by men, particularly online. She notices a lot of dismissive attitudes from men towards women speaking out about workplace discrimination – the accusations that women and other marginalized groups exaggerate are very much present in the Western world as well. Despite her recognition of discrimination, Kelsi does not identify as a feminist because she does not believe that men and women can be truly equal due to biological differences.

She believes that women certainly should not be aggressive and brought up an example of a friend; because her boyfriend accepts her aggressive behavior, he is considered strange and weak by his friends. She explained this in terms of socioeconomic status; the boyfriend is less educated and has a lower position than his partner, therefore he may think he is less of a person than she is. I am told that this is a rare occurrence in China as men usually dislike having a partner that is more educated or has a higher income than them,  which sounds like traditional male role model in the Western world.

Kelsi was open to talking about casual/premarital sex and their surrounding double standards. She believes that approximately half of the men in China would require their future wife to be a virgin while they feel entitled to have multiple casual encounters. She thinks such attitudes are unfair and unjustified but have the power to dictate most women’s behavior, including hers. Personally, she would feel uncomfortable being friends with someone who is promiscuous simply because they do not share her values. However, society would only feel uncomfortable with a promiscuous woman but would show plenty of understanding for men who act the same exact way.

After two long interviews, I met some girls for a goodbye dinner which was absolutely lovely. These people are willing to help me with anything, even when I do not need any help! I mentioned planning a trip to Hanghzou and one immediately called her friend who lives there and asked him to be my guide. I felt quite a bit sad leaving these girls but I do not doubt that I will see them again :)

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Kiera and I:

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This is ECNU’s *tiny* library…..

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The ancient town and gardens of Suzhou

Despite Shanghai being an absolutely mesmerizing city, staying there for a while can leave one feeling a bit locked in. After some emotional turmoil on a Friday night, I decided I needed to do something completely different when I wake up. Buying a plane ticket to Beijing for the next morning sounded exciting but too complicated and draining. So I decided to go to one of the surrounding water towns, Suzhou.

I have been wanting to visit the water towns since my arrival but my lack of Mandarin terrified me. I have already had enough experiences of being hopelessly lost without any English language nor people around me. Thankfully, I decided to stop thinking rationally and just let whatever happen to me.

I was still feeling a bit nervous, but a boy from Mexico miraculously moved into my hostel dorm and decided to join me five minutes after we met. It is better to be hopelessly lost with someone else, especially someone as irrational and fearless as Rafael. We watched little bats fly over us inside the canals, rode a tuk-tuk, almost crashed, and ran into the last train back exactly 50 seconds before the doors closed. The nighttime was so pretty that I secretly wished I missed the last train.

On a more interesting note, Suzhou was the home to the very first sex shop I have seen so far in China. None in Shanghai. What does that tell us?

Here are some photos:

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Take me back!

Sexist norms: We know they exist, but we can’t change them ourselves! Who will then?

I cannot believe I have been in Shanghai for over two weeks. It feels like I have left USA merely a few days ago. I think that I have finally adjusted to this city and love it just as much as the last one – and surprisingly, I no longer feel eager to come back to Hong Kong in a week. There is just too much to explore in this city and I have fallen in love with my research; something I never thought would be easy. Every conversation teaches me something new and valuable, even the two hour lecture about Chinese economics I received from one of my male subjects…

Even though most of my interviews take place on campus, I try to see a new place every day. Some of my recent discoveries include the Longhua Temple, Shanghai Museum (had to visit it three times because I came too late every day), and marvelous Luzjiazui Park at nighttime. A few days ago, I decided to make a trip to the Chenshan Botanical Garden outside of Shanghai which required an hour and a half commute. I took the metro followed by a taxi ride, and took in the splendid views of the garden. Unfortunately, my chronic lateness allowed me only two hours to explore the territories until they closed. I ended up being one of the only people left in the garden as the sun went down, and a question of “will I even make it back tonight?” came up. Thankfully, I found a bus and gloriously ate crepes when I got back to the city.

When I told Chrissie, the first administrator I met, that I am interested in coming back to China to teach English, she connected me with a colleague who needs to practice his English skills. In return for me chatting with him a few times a day, he offered to set up four back-to-back interviews at his company in Pudong New Area. This was an exciting opportunity as it gave me a chance to work with a different sample, professionals in their 30s. Two of them identified as males and two as females. One of them was their boss, her English name was Michelle. I gained some valuable information from her as she is a woman who had to fight through varying degrees of discrimination throughout her career. Before she was promoted to her current position, she was blatantly told by her male director that she will be unable to get it because of her gender. However, she does not believe that she actively “fought” the forces acting against her – instead, she kept quiet and patiently waited until she was promoted months later. She never had any intention to advocate for change on her behalf. There was a lot of emphasis on how much harder women have to work than men in order to achieve the same thing, and how much more ambition is required. She believes that most women would not actively speak up when faced with workplace discrimination because they do not care about success as much – many women, like her, want balance between work and family.

There was mention of sexist double-standards in China such as women over 30 having a harder time finding a partner, women not being able to express their sexuality as much as men, and feeling pressured to show less skin. I continue to see a pattern of people recognizing the issues but feeling completely helpless in terms of changing them, showing a significant lack of activist force/knowledge in China compared to other nations. I also see interesting patterns in terms of abortion, many women having negative attitudes towards the procedure but treating it as if it was inevitable. I have women openly tell me they have given up babies and treat it as a norm, and at the same time other women are unaware of the large percentage of abortions performed both prior to and after marriage.

 

Some pictures of Chenshan Botanical Garden:

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Let’s talk about sex ed!

As I spend more time in Shanghai, my field notes are exploding – they grew from from 5 to 20 pages in the past week! The best part is that I am getting this much valuable information in interviews as short as half an hour.

Today was quite a hectic day in the Minhang campus. Also, adventurous – taxi driver took me to the wrong university, I got lost on campus and could not find WiFi for two hours. Very frustrated at 11am, I found a cute kitten family and miraculously connected to the nearby building’s Internet. I then met up with my first subject whom I was introduced to about a week ago.

I networked on the spot all throughout the day and managed to interview more than ten girls! I continued to receive very homogenous responses when it came to gender roles, improvements in equality, and gender discrimination in the workplace. Interestingly enough, the topic of sex education kept coming up and I decided to incorporate it into all of my interviews. Being a sex educator myself, I was curious about the Chinese students’ experience with it. They generally spoke of having none or inadequate sex education in high school, seeking out information on their own. Even though most of them claimed they are not sexually active, they would feel prepared to protect themselves against pregnancy and STD/STIs.

I was completely mindblown by my last interview in which I asked two girls about their knowledge of birth control. They showed vague knowledge but mentioned pills – they knew this method existed but knew nothing about it and had no access to it. I decided to show them my own pill pack followed by responses of awe. These girls were seeing something so commonly used by the Western population for the first time and even took pictures with it… At that moment I was reminded how important sex ed really is and how many populations are completely sheltered from it, something I always knew but never truly experienced.

I now ponder about the direct relationships between inadequate sex ed, one child policy, the prevalence of abortions, and negative attitudes towards it amongst the Shanghai residents. One would think that education would be enforced with such a strict policy, not only to avoid abortion costs but to simply make pregnancy prevention easier for the general population. This does not seem to be the case due to continued stigma associated with premarital sexual behaviors in China.

Beauty

One week in, and I cannot fathom how spectacular of a city Shanghai is. Being inside Pudong New Area at dusk is a truly magical experience even for the well-traveled (which I am not). At one point, I even encountered a thought that Pudong may be more beautiful than Hong Kong! Shanghai is a true definition of ancient-meets-ridiculously-modern and I have never seen a city like that. Once a dream of mine, New York cannot even be compared to these mesmerizing Asian cities.

Despite sightseeing a lot, I still feel like I could be exploring much more and using my time more efficiently. Today I finally visited the crowded Yuyuan Garden after a failed attempt a few days ago (I mistook a city park for the garden and my lack of Mandarin did not help). It was beautiful, full of both Chinese culture and… selfie sticks. After walking through the garden and buying heavenly dumplings, I ran back to my hostel, grabbed my laptop, and took off for ECNU’s Minhang Campus which was supposed to take two hours to get to. Thanks to Shanghai’s nearly-perfect public transit, it only took over an hour. Public transit in Hong Kong and Shanghai is like a dream compared to New York – there are even traffic arrows! And it’s clean and fast! I never thought I would fall in love with this part of China.

I planned to visit the faraway campus because of a few students I was able to contact that were willing to work with me. Claire, an ECNU administration employee, was kind enough to add me to a group of student volunteers on WeChat. A few students immediately said they would like to be interviewed by me, but many of them resided at Minhang. Only one of them was able to meet with me today but it worked out perfectly since our meeting took a few hours. It took us a while to find each other as I have not purchased a SIM card nor a phone but she finally saw me as I struggled to use someone else’s telephone to call her. She was an extremely sweet person who was shy at first but our conversation evolved more than any of the conversations I have had with my other Chinese subjects. She went from answering my questions about women’s roles, unacceptable behaviors for women but not for men, etc. to sharing her hopelessness about social change in China and the limitations of the Chinese government. She believes that Chinese people need to change for the better in a variety of ways; however, she would not have thought this if she did not visit Taiwan. Being abroad inspired her and opened her eyes to different flaws within her own country. She wants to change them, but does not know how. Even though I have an extensive knowledge and experience in terms of social justice, I practice it in a very liberal setting which is New York City. Consequently, I wanted to share my knowledge but I felt limited as I have no idea how one can organize in China. Despite this (or maybe because of this?), I completely loved the conversation and loved the place I was in. It felt so refreshing to be surrounded by grass and trees after continuously living in concrete jungles.

I will be visiting the Minhang Campus again sometime next week and I have even more interviews lined up locally. I am learning more and more from every conversation I have, and I inevitably fall in love with every new thing I encounter.

Beginnings of Research…

I have been in Shanghai for only a few days but I already see vast differences everywhere. Part of me miserably longs for Hong Kong, and part of me is fascinated by Shanghai’s culture and looking forward to conducting my research. One thing that struck me on my first day here is the prevalence of poverty which I have not seen at all during my short stay in Hong Kong. Upon that realization, I felt that my journey was no longer romanticized and I was entering the “real” world. I am seeing much more of China and I think I am handling it quite well for my first time here. I am extremely grateful that I decided to enter through HK which largely prevented a, otherwise inevitable, culture shock. My hostel here is much different from the last one as it is large and caters to a different population – there are many older Chinese natives living here and English is not spoken as much. This makes it a bit harder to meet other people but also gives more room and opportunity for research.

I met with a professor named Chrissie at East China Normal University whom I have been in contact with prior to my arrival. I also met with Mary, president of the Chinese Students’ Union. My initial goal was to incorporate myself into an established group of Chinese students and get to know them over time, making my research more obscure and discrete. However, I found that this is much harder than it seems seeing as final exams are approaching and student groups are no longer meeting. My meeting with Mary was very casual and she was extremely curious about my research topic. Once I told her I wanted to study gender dynamics, she immediately began talking about it, showing me that the subject might not be taboo after all. I also mentioned to Chrissie that it would be ideal to conduct formal interviews for my research and, to my surprise, she let me interview her on the spot. She also introduced me to her coworker, Claire, and her student, Kira, whom I interviewed as well. Kira resides at ECNU’s Minhang campus which is outside of Shanghai and invited me to visit and interview some of her friends sometime during my stay.

Everyone has been so extremely humble and helpful to me which is something I did not expect. I was prepared to have a difficult time not only gaining subjects but also talking about my topic, but none of it was the case. I feel lucky, blessed, and incredibly grateful for the lovely people I have met at the university so far.

Based on the few interviews I had, Chinese women living in Shanghai seem to be quite aware that gender inequality still exists in China despite drastic improvements over the past two decades. Twenty, or even ten years, made enormous differences in terms of treatment of women and gender-related social practices such as following gender roles in households, excluding women from the workplace, etc. Interviewees immediately brought up the vast social and economic differences between rural and urban China, the former still being “stuck in the past,” upholding traditional gender roles and treating women as second-class citizens. Shanghai, however, is different and more egalitarian due to its Westernization and influence of other cultures.

Something that really struck me was one-child policy’s significant influence on the way women are treated in Shanghai – not only does it encourage women to come out of the household and into the workplace, but it also makes society value them more as child-bearers in a world where children are gaining more significance due to the policy. For some reason, I never thought that it could have such a direct effect on gender dynamics. Another interesting finding was that even though some women are aware that they are being discriminated against, they may not speak up due to the importance of “saving face,” avoiding embarrassment, and peaceful nature. A few people have mentioned this which makes me wonder about the presence and role of feminist/women’s rights activism in China.

Overall, my experience in both Hong Kong and Shanghai has been purely blissful and everything has gone smoothly so far. I am constantly networking and setting up times for new interviews which is really exciting. I think that the structure of the interviews is ideal as I have set open-ended questions that tend to lead into completely unexpected topic areas. I am looking forward to learning and discovering much, much more!

China in a month!

I cannot believe my departure is this close, time really does fly! I am feeling really overwhelmed with planning at this point, but I am trying to turn this feeling into excitement.

I narrowed down potential hostels and will be finishing booking accommodations in just a few days – I decided to ditch private rooms and go with the cheaper, spacier dorms after researching people’s solo travel experiences. Staying at a dorm will allow me to both meet fellow travelers and save a lot of money that could be spent on transportation and food. I am also at the point of probably changing my means of transportation from Hong Kong to Shanghai to a plane rather than train (seeing that the train takes twenty hours while the plane takes just two, costing only about thirty dollars more!). I decided that my Tibet plans are most likely not happening due to a very tight budget, so I decided that I will visit areas closer to Shanghai/HK such as Zhangjiajie National Forest Park or Yellow Mountain. I am so excited that I will be able to see such amazing places!

Regarding my fieldwork, I have been researching gender perceptions amongst youth in China in order to give myself even more background knowledge and preparation prior to talking about such subjects with people there. I decided that it will be much more effective to spend time with youth groups and get to know them over longer periods of time rather than conduct formal interviews which could be difficult and awkward considering the topic.

I am making time to teach myself Mandarin and I am pleasantly surprised at how quickly I am able to memorize terms and phrases – this was not the case when I was first exposed to the language. Being bilingual definitely helps and I am really grateful for it! I really hope that by the time I get to China I will be able to at least somewhat understand what people are saying and that they will understand me. But even if that does not happen, I will still manage and make the best of it!

Further China Preparations!

My trip is getting closer and closer, I will be leaving for China in nearly two months! I purchased my plane ticket and I am currently working on getting my Chinese visa along with setting up housing accommodations. Even though I will be in Shanghai for the majority of my stay, I decided to fly in and out of Hong Kong which will make traveling to Tibet at the end of my trip more accessible. This will also enable me to see some of what HK has to offer which will broaden my knowledge about the Chinese culture and allow me to see some beautiful places. I am trying to learn Mandarin in the little spare time that I have, which is slightly harder than I anticipated. However, even picking up as little as the basics will help me a lot during my five weeks in China. Learning a new language all over again can be extremely exciting especially when you know you’ll be using it on an everyday basis!

Since I will be working with the student population at East China Normal University, I am trying to get in touch with specific student groups and organizations that would be interested in meeting me. I have contacted a few offices at ECNU and I am patiently waiting to hear back from them.

Since I do not know anyone that lives or will be in Shanghai at the same time as me, I am networking and trying to get in touch with as many people from there as possible prior to my trip. This will not only help me assimilate to the new culture but also allow me to socialize and spend time with people as I know that traveling alone can get lonely.

All of this is really exciting and new – doing as little as planning this trip has already been a great experience!

First Post – The Beginning of My Preparations!

My excursion to Shanghai is becoming so much more real and exciting as I search for plane tickets and housing accommodations. I finalized my research topic last week after several consultations with different people given that the topic of gender can be a sensitive one in China. My plan is to meet and spend time with as many Chinese young women as possible in order to discover their perceptions of gender, sexism, and motives to change the way women are perceived/treated. I would like to incorporate as many aspects of life as possible into my project, ranging from gender roles in family settings, romantic relationships, or how technology is used to empower women. I plan to explore these areas by establishing relationships with Chinese university students through reaching out to student groups at East China Normal University prior to my departure.

The university population seems like a much more accessible subject pool and it will be interesting to see whether the younger generation of women shares their mothers’ or grandmothers’ values, and how they feel about “traditional” roles for women in China.

There is a possibility that I will stay in Shenzhen for a week or two and explore gender perceptions amongst residents/migrants in urban villages. It would serve as a useful comparative tool and would expose me to Chinese cultures outside of contemporary, technology-infused Shanghai. I would also love to visit Tibet after four weeks of my stay in China, but I still have yet to figure out this excursion.

I have never been in Asia before and this will be my very first time traveling alone, and I could not be more excited. Emerging into the Chinese culture will be both an educational and self-fulfilling experience that will shape me in a variety of ways – it might also help me in my future work as a researcher and sex therapist.

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