May 20th, 2007 | Uncategorized

Day 5: A glimpse of “real life”?

If we were ever going to have a chance to see what “real life” might be like in Xi’an, it seemed that Sunday was our best shot.

During our time in Beijing, we were confined mainly to the highly developed, highly touristed downtown area, or else the bus as it drove from destination to destination on the city’s highways. In contrast, Friday started out with a drive through the streets of Xi’an from our hotel to Xi’an Jiaotong University.

From the bus window, we could observe ordinary people going to and from their homes, and even catch a glimpse of the insides of a few small shops, restaurants and hair salons.

Earlier in the trip, I had been startled by the similarity between downtown Beijing and other cosmpolitan, international metropolises. The ancient capital of Xi’an, on the other hand, feels significantly more foreign.

While we had seen a lot of bicycles in Beijing, especially on the college campuses, they seem to be the predominant mode of transportation in Xi’an. Despite the apparent perils of the heavy traffic — which several times made our bus nearly miss getting in an accident — everyone from teenagers to elderly women could be seen on bikes, and almost none of them wore helmets.

While most of the bikes seemed fairly standard-issue, a few stood out, such as an adolescent girl’s bright pink bike with an oddly low frame, or a young woman’s bike with a colorful umbrella tied to the handlebars to shade her face. There were also several colorful motor scooters to be seen, both on the streets and parked on the sidewalks. (Most scooter-riders did wear helmets.)

The pollution in Xi’an was also more like what we had been told to expect from Beijing, where we actually saw relatively clear days. A number of Yalies complained of sore throats, itchy eyes and difficulty breathing, and a haze lingered in the air all day.

When we reached the university, we went through what is now an established routine: welcome address by a Chinese university official, reply by a Yale official (in President Levin’s absence, Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander delivered today’s speech), exchange of gifts, and large group photo.

Bruce

Vice President for New haven and State Affairs Bruce Alexander, filling in for President Levin, shakes hands with and receives a gift at Xi’an Jiaotong University. (Michael Blank/YDN)

We then divided into small groups, and I headed off with those interested in medicine and the life sciences. While previous breakout sessions have involved presentations on branches of the various universities, today’s was particularly enjoyable because we were told to form pairs or trios of American and Chinese students and just have a conversation.

I ended up chatting for an hour with a Yale Ph.D. student in biomedical engineering and a Jiaotong medical student in the fourth year of his seven-year program.

Our conversation ranged from comparing the medical school programs at Jiaotong and Yale to the costs of college.

We tried to explain how it was that a college education in the U.S. costs $160,000, while it costs less than 36,000 RMB — or between four and five thousand dollars — in China. Student loans may be required in China, he told us, but they are interest-free, in stark contrast to American student loans.

But our conversation also illuminated certain similarities between the American and Chinese college systems. As a debater myself, I was especially interested to learn that he participates in a public speaking association that sends a few students every year to compete in American debating competitions, as well as to Model United Nations programs in China. Debate topics for an upcoming competition include global warming, clean water policy, intellectual property laws in China, arts education, and university enrollment policies, he said. Perhaps more than anything else, that shared extracurricular experience underscored the way in which college students are similar, no matter their original home.

Xi’an Jiaotong University SOM

A Yale Law student interacts with a Xi’an Jiaotong University School of Management student. (Michael Blank/YDN)

After the meetings, we broke for lunch, which was supposed to be followed by family visits. Unfortunately, I got sick (see previous entry), and was advised not to participate. The report so far is decidedly mixed: Some Yalies had fabulous experiences with their families, but a few were utter disasters. Hopefully I will have more on this in coming days.

Family Meeting

Many of the trip participants were shown photo albums during the family visits. (Michael Blank/YDN)

City Wall

During the family visits, the small groups often visited historical city sites, including the Xi’an city wall, shown above. (Michael Blank/YDN)

I plan to be being back on the bus tomorrow for the visit to the Terracotta Warriors, and then it’s on to Shanghai on Tuesday.