China, Without Walls

Norwich students spend a semester at the Chengdu American Center for Study Abroad to learn more about the world and themselves.

Cadet Staff Sergeant Victoria Bishop, a criminal justice major at Norwich University, turned 20 on March 28, 2013, in the 2,300-year-old city of Chengdu, China. Of all her yin-and-yang experiences in Sichuan Province—home of the legendary spicy cuisine, as well as the endangered giant panda—Bishop says that her birthday festivities took the cake.

Two cakes, actually.

Victoria Bishop ’15 enjoys a ride on a yak during a cultural excursion in Lijiang, Yunnan Province.

Victoria Bishop ’15 enjoys a ride on a yak during a cultural excursion in Lijiang, Yunnan Province. (Courtesy of David Orrick.)

In the early evening, Bishop satiated her Western cravings by making macaroni and cheese for the Norwich contingent and a few other Americans. On hand for the festivities was David Orrick, Norwich criminal justice instructor and leader of the cadet pack. Orrick and another American professor surprised the sophomore from Tilton, N.H., with a big yellow cake.

That night, Bishop caught up with Sichuan University’s Chinese and American cohorts for a movie back at the Chengdu American Center for Study Abroad. Even though it was Chinese cinema, she remembers the film’s subject matter as being relevant to any nationality. “It was focused on a family,” she says. “The issues, surprises, and disappointments each member had to deal with.”

When the film ended, the Center’s director presented Bishop with a small birthday cake from one of the nearby pastry shops. “It had a little snowman on it and was the best surprise ever,” recalls Bishop. Before she went to sleep that night, Bishop’s memorable milestone ended with her parents singing “Happy Birthday” to her via Skype.

A month earlier, Bishop ’15 had made the 7,200-mile journey to China’s third-largest city with three other Norwich students—William Torres ’14, Matthew Koser ’14, and Emmanuel Aurigue ’14—to be among the first-ever Americans to attend the Chengdu American Center for Study Abroad at Sichuan University.

The Center is a partnership between China’s Global Maximum Educational Opportunities, Inc. and five North American institutes of higher education: American University, Concordia University, Fairleigh Dickinson University, Merrimack College, and Norwich University. A total of 11 American students, plus two professors, made the trek in January 2013 for the Center’s inaugural semester. (This past January, the second Norwich contingent traveled to Chengdu. They will return in May of this year.)

Chunxi Road is part of the Chengdu night life. (Photo by Thang Wai Yee.)

Chunxi Road is part of the Chengdu night life. (Photo by Thang Wai Yee.)

Located in the southwest corner of mainland China, Chengdu is home to upwards of 14 million residents and, at last count, several hundred Fortune 500 companies. The city’s urban, yet tree-lined, sprawl is a mix of ancient temples and modern skyscrapers. It’s a place where hot-cuisine shops are nestled between haute-couture storefronts. Chengdu’s busy streets are a cacophony of scooter horns and bicycle bells, and the air is clouded in mist and smog. Residents have the option of sipping ceremonial tea or Starbucks coffee, riding the subway to work, or working as rickshaw drivers. The city bills itself as a balmier and calmer version of Beijing and Shanghai, but with all the bells and whistles of a high-tech hub.

Chengdu is light-years from Norwich University’s valley-nestled campus, yet is the perfect location for a handful of Vermont-based college students who want to think globally. “For me, going from a one-traffic-light town to a giant city, I was completely speechless,” Bishop confesses. “I tried from the start to go into the whole experience without any expectations at all. I wanted to keep an open mind and not get sucked into a single train of thought.”

The Norwich contingent (l-r): Matthew Koser ’14, Emmanuel Aurigue ’14, David Orrick, Victoria Bishop ’15, and William Torres ’14.

The Norwich contingent (l-r): Matthew Koser ’14, Emmanuel Aurigue ’14, David Orrick, Victoria Bishop ’15, and William Torres ’14. (Courtesy of Marisa DiRocco.)

“Keep an open mind” were David Orrick’s exact marching orders. “Go anywhere with an open mind, and they will fill it up for you,” says the Norwich mentor. “Concede other cultural input. The magic is outside the class. This is an adventure, dammit.”

William Torres, who is majoring in Chinese, took Orrick’s advice to heart. His goal (in addition to meeting his major’s requirement of going to China) was “to take advantage of every opportunity.” In so doing, he discovered how “humbling” life as a foreigner can be, but also the extent of his own capabilities. “I would have studied abroad in China even if it weren’t a requirement,” he says. “I’m very passionate about Chinese language and culture. I chose Chengdu because it was a ‘small’ Chinese city…and the pandas, of course!”

One of Torres’ landmark experiences was traveling to eastern China by himself. “I think I have come to be more grateful for comforts that aren’t readily available abroad,” he says. “It was also nice to know I could survive without them.”

Under Orrick’s tutelage, the fab foursome of Bishop, Torres, Koser, and Aurigue immersed themselves in Chinese culture and language while pursuing their majors with other American students.

Between classes, the cadets could be found giving impromptu English lessons to eager Chinese students enrolled at Sichuan University. They frequented the same local noodle shop for lunch every day—partially because it was cheap, but mostly because it was delicious. At night, they studied in their well-appointed dormitories—foreign students were given the best rooms, which included bathrooms.

 

The Norwich cohort visited the Qingming Draining Water Festival in Dujiangyan.

The Norwich cohort visited the Qingming Draining Water Festival in Dujiangyan. (Courtesy of David Orrick.)

On weekends, Orrick helped coordinate once-in-a-lifetime cultural outings, including the opera (in Mandarin) and the Qingming Draining Water Festival in Dujiangyan—a United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO) World Cultural Heritage Site. The ancient ritual celebrates the world’s oldest irrigation system, one that has kept Sichuan free of floods and in agricultural abundance since 978 CE. The ancient infrastructure was rebuilt after the region’s devastating earthquake in 2008. “You’d better pay attention to this,” Orrick recalls instructing the group. “This is the definition of extraordinary.”

By the time Bishop’s 20th birthday rolled around, she was uniquely positioned to celebrate the best of both worlds, in addition to the milestone occasion.

Matthew Koser ’14 on a visit to the Pengzhou Vegetable Center.

Matthew Koser ’14 on a visit to the Pengzhou Vegetable Center. (Courtesy of David Orrick.)

After morning classes at the Center, in a renovated building resplendent with ancient architecture, Bishop walked with her Chinese and American friends to the noodle shop for one of her favorite dishes. “Thick handmade noodles with small bits of diced-up beef,” she recalls. “Mixed with chopped-up scallions and other greens in a mouthwatering beef sauce that was so good it made you want to lick the plate.” Then came the double-cake, cross-cultural day of celebrations. Bishop still marvels about the small cake from the local pastry shop.

Matt Koser, also a criminal justice major, is living proof that the Norwich motto, “I Will Try,” provides a powerful example for keeping an open mind and learning new cultures. “I was told a lot about the People’s Republic of China prior to going there, and most of my earlier assumptions proved to be simply untrue, such as everyone being a Communist,” he says. “It is optional to join the [Communist] Party, and most young people do not.”

Koser’s own cake-taking moment took place in Sanmenxia, a smaller city of two million about 600 miles northeast of Chengdu, where he had the honor of meeting the mayor with fellow Norwich student Emmanuel “Manny” Aurigue and Chinese pal Yao Yao.

“The mayor invited us out to dinner one night and treated us to lunch the following day,” Koser says. “What he said to Manny and me during lunch will stay with me forever.” Koser paraphrases the words of his esteemed host:

Matthew Koser ’14 (left) and Emmanuel Aurigue ’14 pose as Terracotta Warrior pikemen outside the Terracotta Warriors Museum of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province.

Matthew Koser ’14 (left) and Emmanuel Aurigue ’14 pose as Terracotta Warrior pikemen outside the Terracotta Warriors Museum of Xi’an, Shaanxi Province. (Courtesy of Emmanuel Aurigue.)

Many years ago we invited the Soviets into our country, into our homes, to our dinner tables with open arms. Now, in this 21st century, we welcome Americans into our country, homes, and dinner tables as guests with open arms. We show you the same, if not better, respect and treatment than the Soviets. I hope one day a bridge is built between our two nations, allowing us to benefit and grow together. This starts with the young people of our two nations.

“This, for me,” relays Koser, “shows just how far relations have come with our two nations and how far they will go.”

Bishop, Torres, Koser, and Aurigue are pioneers in building that two-way street—more like a superhighway—between Chengdu and Northfield.

Koser feels he has become much more open-minded as a result of the experience. “I have a much greater appreciation for different cultures,” Koser says. “Importantly, I have learned that there is more than one way of doing things besides the Western way.”

Torres admits to having been utterly transformed by the experience. “On the trip home I spoke to a flight attendant solely in Mandarin. It was almost surreal in comparison to the trip over, when I was barely comfortable enough with the language to ask for a glass of water.”

Matthew Koser ’14 (second from left), Victoria Bishop ’15, and Emmanuel Aurigue ’14 (far right, respectively) with friends at their favorite noodle shop.

Matthew Koser ’14 (second from left), Victoria Bishop ’15, and Emmanuel Aurigue ’14 (far right, respectively) with friends at their favorite noodle shop. (Courtesy of Victoria Bishop.)

These stories are music to the ears of those invested in the Chengdu partnership. Just ask Tracey (Jones) Poirier ’96, Norwich Assistant Vice President of Student Affairs and Director of Leadership. “Norwich is committed to providing leaders for an ever-changing world,” Poirier said in 2011, when she was Director of the International Center. “These leaders must be globally and culturally aware citizens, and be ready to stand as examples of honor, integrity, compassion, and understanding.”

Orrick believes that public service and leadership are part of the Norwich student-body DNA. “Norwich is a diverse campus, with a keen appreciation for cultural diversity,” he says. “Our students are primed and ready for the Chengdu experience, even if they are not yet consciously aware of the predisposition.”

Back on campus, many students have asked Bishop whether she recommends a semester in China. She has three words for them: “Go for it!” Regardless of the destination, Bishop believes students should seize the opportunity to study abroad. “Norwich has so many connections around the world,” she says. “I tell them to just pick a place and try to go. If it had not been for the International Studies Department at Norwich, I would not have imagined I would ever get to go to China, let alone go while I was in college. It was an experience of a lifetime.”

The group traveled to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, 10 km north of Chengdu on Futou Mountain.

The group traveled to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, 10 km north of Chengdu on Futou Mountain. (Courtesy of Victoria Bishop ’15.)

While in Chengdu, one shared dream came true for all four of the Norwich pioneers. Orrick took the group to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding to learn more about panda conservation efforts and to observe the adorable creatures, including the smallest cubs, in their natural habitat. “I hoped that I would get to see a panda, and we saw lots and lots of them,” gushes Bishop. “I wasn’t able to hold one, but I was able to get some really great up-close shots of them.”

The experience was the icing on the cake.

Both cakes, actually. ✪

By Nancy Stearns Bercaw

 

Nancy Stearns Bercaw is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in publications from the Korea Herald to the New York Times. She has traveled to nearly every country in Asia, but has yet to see a panda.

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