Category Archives: Chinese Culture

SJTU- Living and Learning at Jiao Tong University

By the time we returned from Hong Kong, I felt a sense of calm as our taxi drove through the gates to Jiao Tong University and up to Dormitory 28. As I climbed up the six flights of stairs to my room (there are only elevators in the academic buildings), I knew I was going back home. This is so different from when I first entered the campus and wondered how in the world I was going to live here for 8 weeks. In this entry, I want show you a college campus on the other side of the world. Though some parts were startlingly different, I soon realized that it had a lot in common with Ann Arbor.

First off, the campus itself is huge. Around 40,000 students are enrolled at our campus, and there is no off-campus housing like at Michigan. My program involves the Joint Institute (JI), a sort of honors college within the entire school. All of the JI students live in 10 dorms together on the east side of the campus. Behind the dorms on one side are 5 basketball courts, and on the other is a small strip mall offering food, electronics, sports equipment, and clothing. All of our classes are held in a group of buildings that hold all of the engineering courses. They are about a 15 minute walk away from the dorms, but about half of the kids bike to class. Near the classrooms are the JI Building, where our program manager and professors have offices, and the new library. One of major differences between SJTU and U-M are the libraries. Though both are quite full in the evenings, the library closes at SJTU at 10pm, leading to many kids just staying in their dorms and studying late into the night while their roommates sleep or do the same. Also on campus are 5 canteens, equivalent to our dining halls, and many other sports facilities, such as tennis courts and gyms housing weights, basketball courts, and ping pong tables.

In addition to the campus itself, the lifestyle of college students in China is worth discussing. At Michigan, students’ schedules are packed with everything from class and studying to football games and social events. However, most of the time at Jiao Tong is spent either doing schoolwork or playing sports. The entire approach to learning here is quite different. Rather than expecting lecture to provide most of the information on the class, students attend simply to ensure that they understand the material. Note taking is sparse, focusing on formulas and key steps to solve a problem. Studying is also quite different. For our engineering class, most of the students will come to the test having every problem in the book solved. This brute force method seems to prepare them for many different types of questions on an exam, but leads to many hours sitting in their room working. This may seem like the students only care about studying; in truth, though learning is the clear goal, students are also very involved with social activities. The basketball, tennis, and handball courts are full most of the daylight hours, especially after classes from 4 to 9. Many kids also get together and hang out, play games, or listen to music, just like in the dorms at Michigan.

All in all, the campus and its lifestyle can seem very different from U-M, but in then end the students still learn a great deal while enjoying their time.


Hong Kong & Macau

The other main trip I took while in China was to the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau. Unlike mainland China, these two zones have their own government, currency, and much more freedom in terms of working directly with foreign businesses and travelers. This opened the door for us to have different experiences and get a glimpse of what China may look like in the future.

Our first stop was in Macau. Luckily enough, one of the students on our trip, Chris, lives in Macau and was eager to show off his home town. With heavy Portuguese influence, a lot of the restaurants and the old town area are reminiscent of a small European city. We had a delicious dinner our first night highlighted with sangria and spiced rice dishes. Later we toured the Ruins of St. Paul, a wall remaining from the missionary days.

In addition to the historical parts, Macau is known for its casinos. It is the only place in all of China and its territories which allows gambling, so many casinos have opened hotels here. Our group dined in the Grand Lisboa before walking through the Wynn, Four Seasons, and then shopping inside the Venetian. And since the gambling age is lower than in America, we all dressed up in and spent one night playing blackjack at our personal table inside the Hard Rock Casino. To finish off our stay in Macau, 8 of us (I passed on this one) did the world’s tallest bungee jump from the Macau Tower, 233 meters in the sky!

Part of the casino district at night

Next we took a ferry to Hong Kong. To sum up this city in one sentence, it was what I imagine China will be someday. The downtown area is reminiscent of New York, with many distinct areas from a bar district to the Soho restaurant streets to the Avenue of the Stars with handprints of many famous Chinese actors, we all agreed we could spend much more time seeing all of the sites. In the few days we spent here, we did visit a Buddhist monastery, swim in the Pacific Ocean, watch the light show on the waterfront, and see the skyline from the Peak, a site in the mountains that overlook the main strip of Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong skyline at dusk

At the world's largest Buddha statue in Hong Kong

My main impression of Hong Kong, as opposed to Shanghai, stems from how much longer it has been influenced by western culture. As a former English territory, nearly everyone we met, including the hotel concierge, taxi drivers, and even convenience store workers, spoke fluent english. The culture was also much more business oriented, instead of the family and traditional values clearly apparent in Shanghai. With all of the efforts of the government and the youth in Shanghai to become a modern city similar to Hong Kong, I can see a rapid evolution into what we think of as a westernized city developing fully in Shanghai very soon. Until then, I will fondly remember Hong Kong as one of the most fun cities I have stayed in.

Beijing – Day 2

Friday, June 28, marked our first full day in Beijing, and we surely made the most of it! Our day began before dawn with getting into vans for our drive to the Great Wall of China. Our trip took two and a half hours to get to Simatai, a village with one of the best preserved sections of the wall. At 8am we began our trek through a light drizzle. As we climbed higher on the mountain into the low clouds the weather turned and we were hit by much more rain. One of the scariest yet most amazing memories is of us standing inside a tower to avoid the rain when thunder roared all around us for over 20 seconds! In the end, our group climbed all the way to the twelfth tower, the last one accessible on this section of the wall, and sang out The Victors from what seemed like the top of the world! Here are some of the great views from atop Chángchéng, or the Great Wall.

From the top of another hill on the wall.

Even though we were exhausted and amazed at how awesome it was to conquer the Great Wall, it was only lunchtime when we headed back to Beijing. After taking in the scenery some of the parks near the Forbidden City, we decided to cover both ends of the spectrum of Chinese history in one day by seeing the site of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games. The entire central plaza is still intact and open to visitors, so we were able to experience some of the magic. From the opening ceremonies at the Bird’s Nest to Michael Phelps’ records at the Water Cube, we had the chance to experience the sights that we had only watched on NBC. The whole are is larger than life, with a gigantic tower topped with the rings watching over the grounds. The first buildings we saw were the National Indoor Stadium and Water Cube, followed by the Bird’s Nest just across a large square. Unfortunately, we did not arrive in time to tour the inside of these stadiums. However, we made the most of our time by playing frisbee, dancing, and forming a human pyramid. It was a great way to end such an outstanding day in Beijing.

The tower marking the site of the 2008 Summer Olympics

Water Cube - stadium in which Michael Phelps won 8 gold medals!

Some of our group making a pyramid in front of the Bird's Nest.

Beijing – Day 1

Our train left at 9:40 Wednesday night to arrive in Beijing at 8 in the morning. Even though every other car we passed had beds for the passengers, ours managed to be one of two with standard seats on the whole train. Nevertheless, we had a comfortable ride, played euchre, slept, and arrived at the station before we knew it.

After dropping of our luggage at the hotel, we headed straight for Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Approaching the gates is an odd experience. Nearly everyone that goes to Beijing has a picture in front of the gigantic portrait of Chairman Mao, but you still somehow stand in awe of the figure and plain red wall on which it is mounted. From here we entered the Forbidden City. Walking from one end to the other, you enter courtyard after courtyard with large temples and other buildings forming the perimeter.

The famous portrait of Chairman Mao as you enter the Forbidden City.

A Fu Lion guards a hall in the Forbidden City.

The most interesting part to me has to be the architecture. The buildings are built using a dougong technique in which repeating brackets are placed on top of each other. This allows for the outward-protruding profile and roof that characterize many traditional Chinese temples. In addition, each building has a rank in terms of importance in the imperial system. Though most of the buildings appear relatively the same, they each have a rank as indicated by the number of animal figures on their roof. The most powerful building in ancient China is the Hall of Supreme Harmony near the center of the Forbidden City – it has twelve animals adorning its roof.

The 5 animals on this building's roof make it a moderately important structure.


Our group’s unofficial mantra has become “well you’re only in China once”. Regardless of whether this is actually true, nineteen of us decided to act accordingly and go for a weekend trip to Beijing. Our main goals for the trip were to see the Forbidden City and Great Wall- the normal tourist stops. What we ended up experiencing was far beyond whatever any of us had guessed. In just four days, we toured nearly all of the major sites, climbed the Great Wall, and enjoyed the nights in a way only possible in Beijing. The city is a beautiful mixture of ancient palaces and modern world capital. In the end, all of us had unforgettable memories of the best old and new Beijing has to offer.

Shanghai World Expo 2010

On May 24, our group went to the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai. The World Expo is a type of World’s Fair that occurs anywhere from every 3 to 20 years. The Shanghai Expo, themed “Better City, Better Life”, is the largest and most expensive ever, which fits with the estimate of 70-100 million visitors over the 6 month span. For more information on the Expo itself, click here.

We arrived at the Expo at 8am and stayed until 11pm. During the day we were able to see 7 pavilions sponsored by countries, corporations, or selected themes. In addition, just walking through the fair grounds offers stunning sights of the pavilions and unique chances to interact with people from all over the globe.

The main impression I came away with is a promising and unified effort for progress as we move forward with technology. From the green, self driven vehicles presented by General Motors to the goal of a truly globalized population shown by Spain, it became apparent that across the world people are realizing the importance of the implications of new technology as well as simply what it does.

Here are some of my favorite scenes from the Expo. I know I will go back soon to see much more!

Presentation by SAIC-GM of their 2-person cars for 2030 Shanghai.

Netherlands - one of the more creatively designed pavilions

Saudi Arabia

Our 1st Day in Downtown Shanghai

On Sunday, May 9, we took our first trip to downtown Shanghai. To get from our campus to the center of the city we took the metro. Shanghai has the longest subway system in the world, with a total of 13 lines right now and even more under construction. The ride from SJTU takes about an hour including 2 transfers.

Once we got downtown, we toured historical, modern, and unique sites only found in Shanghai. Our day started at the location where the Communist Party of China was founded in May 1921.

The main display inside the site of the founding of the CPC

Next we headed to Xintiandi, a shopping and eating district with a modern mall along with many dinner/bar style restaurants. When we visited in the morning, there were not many people in this area. However, at night the place comes alive, with people packing patio dining areas and younger tourists and residents enjoying one of the two nightclubs on the top floor of the mall.

Our tour continued with a trip to the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre. Here we got to see the master plan for this incredible city. When the first person tells you that the population of Shanghai is 12 million, you gasp or just stare. But after seeing the scale model of Shanghai in 2020 in this museum, you start to believe them. Other displays focus on the transportation systems (bus, subway, maglev train, and airports) and the World Expo, a type of World’s Fair going on right now in the Pudong area of Shanghai.

3-D model of the plan for Shanghai by the year 2020, located in the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre

Our day ended with a walk along the Bund, a river walk area across from the main skyline of Shanghai. We walked along the entire pathway and then took a river cruise up and down to get an even more stunning view of the skyline. I am going to let these pictures do the talking.

The buildings on the Bund side of the waterfront

Water show on the river along the Bund