Stories from Study Abroad. Neil Gerstein’s Expedition in China

CATEGORIES: March 2014
Neil Gerstein on the Great Wall


 My Expedition in China

by Neil Gerstein

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Last semester I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in China. Being my first, and probably only study abroad experience I’d have while pursuing my undergraduate degree, I took every opportunity I could to see and experience everything China had to offer.

My journey started in early August 2013, when I boarded a flight at LAX bound for Hangzhou, China to collaborate with some students at Zhejiang University on an economic research project. Adapting to life in China was a bit difficult at first, but with the help of local friends, I was able to adjust in just two weeks time. The city helped bring me out of western bubble as well; with so many temples and landmarks to see, exploring Hangzhou with friends became a regular activity.

After a month’s time in Hangzhou, I traveled north by train to meet a group of American exchange students in the Chinese capital of Beijing and start school at Tsinghua University. Having nearly three millennia of history, Beijing is riddled with opulent palaces, gardens, temples, and museums that exemplify China’s immense history. But for every temple or garden, Beijing also has an extravagant skyscraper or financial center, giving the city not only an exotic mixture of new and old, but also a blend of eastern and western culture.

My school, Tsinghua University, is commonly referred to as the Harvard of China. This reputation, I found, was an accurate description of the school; the atmosphere was one of the most competitive I’ve seen for native students. For expats however, the environment is welcoming and incredibly friendly. Many Chinese students at Tsinghua had never traveled to the United States or outside China, so they were all very interested in the life I had back home and, were incredibly friendly and hospitable to me as an exchange student.

During my time at Tsinghua, I was able to take a wide range of classes, join several organizations, and make some great local and international friends. My classes were all taught in English, and they were all courses that would be transferable back to my degree at Iowa State. The best part of campus life was the wide range of organizations open to students, regardless of your background. The best decision I made at Tsinghua was joining the Rural International Student Exchange (RISE), a student organization that focused on water pollution problems in rural China. I made some of my best friends at Tsinghua by collaborating with RISE and working on development projects in rural China.

While campus life at a foreign university is incredibly exciting, the best part about studying abroad is travel opportunity. Luckily, Tsinghua’s calendar had several weeklong breaks built into it, which I took advantage of. During National Holiday in earlier October, I traveled to Shanghai to spend a week with a friend and see the city. In November, all of my American friends and I took a mid-semester trip to the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia. Lastly, I was able to travel with RISE to rural parts of Shanxi province to conduct research. Despite seeing some of China’s most famous landmarks, there is still so much more to see, and I can’t wait to go back and explore all of them.

China is a gigantic country with an immense history and rich culture. The influence the nation has had on the Eastern world is incredibly significant, and as the world continues globalization, I believe every American should visit China at least once to see not only its beautiful cities and fascinating landscapes, but also how the people of the world’s most populous country live.