Alternative title: What the Heck am I Doing in China?
As part of my graduate studies in Recreation, Park, and Tourism (RPTA) at Western Illinois University, I was invited to apply for a new program in Jinhua, China. The municipal government of Jinhua reached out to Western students due to a potential sister city relationship with Macomb. I thought this project sounded great: three weeks in a rural village in China with room, board, and activities provided; as well as a small stipend. All I would have to do is pay for airfare and my visa. I applied and was accepted to the program in April for the first session, June 22-July 12. The main sponsor of this program is the Foreign and Overseas-Chinese Affairs Office of Jinhua Municipal People’s Government.
The Jinhua Homestay program (long name: Homestay in Jinhua’s Historical Villages) is designed to give participants an intimate look at life in a typical rural village in China. When most people think of China, undoubtedly the first thing that comes to mind is huge cities (Beijing, Shanghai) with modern skyscrapers and millions of people. However, just under half (46.95% in 2013, according to the World Bank) of the population of China lives in a rural area. The urban population surpassed rural population in 2012. So rural areas and small villages (1000-2000 people) play an important role in China.
One of the goals of this project is to help preserve the original cultural atmosphere of these historical villages. Another goal is to assist with developing them as destinations for both domestic and international tourists. The program also has a strong focus on cultural exchange and promoting an understanding of Chinese culture, architecture, art, and folklore. By learning about Jinhua and Chinese culture, we will be able to share these stories with the world.
There are 42 participants from all over the world, including the USA, Italy, Switzerland, South Africa, Bulgaria, and Laos. Some are serious students of the Chinese language and culture, some have lived in China previously, and some are like me: no previous experience with China or the Chinese language (besides the occasional trip to Panda Express).
For this session, we are based in Suoyuan village, about 17 kilometers from Jinhua city. Many of these villages date back hundreds of years. In some cases, historical buildings were torn down to make way for more modern structures. In other cases, they have been updated with electricity and modern facilities and are still used as town centers and meeting places. Many people still live in historical houses as well. We are all staying in a homestay, with a local family. In my house, we have three participants plus a volunteer leader. These volunteers are mostly students from Zhejiang Normal University who serve as translators, teachers, and liaisons for the foreign participants between the program managers and our hosts.
In addition to learning more about Chinese culture, we are also expected to offer ideas and suggestions for improving tourism and the development of tourism in the areas we visited. We divided into groups and have begun working on creating a brochure with information on the area, and we have also been photographed extensively and interviewed by local media about our experiences. We will also be expected to promote our experiences upon return to our home countries (and through activities like this blog).
I figured since I would be traveling to Asia for this program, I should take this opportunity to explore more of the region. Also, since this program is in the middle of the summer, it would limit my options for finding a job or internship. And personally, I feel like traveling is one of the best ways to learn new things anyway. So for the reasons, I visited Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam before heading to China to start this program.
One week into the program and I have learned more about China than I ever thought possible. I have met some amazing people, both local people from the community and other participants from all over the world. I am looking forward to the next two weeks and completing our project.
For more information about the Jinhua Homestay Project, visit their website (in English) at http://www.jinhua-homestay.com/.