Thomas Jefferson China Program By Dan Schmeichel, pictures by Lindsay Volk and Julie Houth
July 3, 2012
As I look back at my stay in China after returning to the United States, I view my experience fondly. We were blessed to stay in Hangzhou. Although I cannot say that it was as large and exciting as Shanghai, but Hangzhou was by far the most beautiful city in China that I have visited. Every morning, as we drove to the Campus of Zhejiang University, we passed by the lake that was in the heart of the city. The lake was surrounded by parks, restaurants, and immaculate landscaping. It was not uncommon to catch a glimpse of elderly women doing tai chi as our bus drove by.
Our first week was full of anticipation and eagerness to explore our new surroundings. Within a few days of class, several Thomas Jefferson classmates and a Zhejiang University student and I went for a bike ride around Hangzhou. This was challenging as bikes shared the road with cars. Many of the drivers viewed traffic laws as mild suggestions. They occasionally drove through red lights as well as on the side of the road. The week concluded with a trip to Shanghai. Shanghai was the complete opposite of the relative peacefulness and tranquility of Hangzhou.
Shanghai is a large and modern metropolis, full of bright lights and tall buildings. Our days during our weekend trips were always long. We tried to take advantage of the short time we had. I have to say that the most memorable thing about Shanghai was not the Chinese law firm, the markets, or the second largest building in the world. It was having lunch in the home of a Chinese family. We were welcomed into a stranger’s home for a freshly prepared meal. It was a humbling experience to see how an average Chinese family lived. The apartment was small and simple, but comfortable. The one thing that I remember most was the picture of Mao Zedong overlooking the living room as we ate our meal.
During the second week of the program, we became more comfortable with our new surroundings, including the feral cats that often meandered into the classroom during lecture. Class was normally fast paced, but this week was even more condensed because class ended on Thursday, as the next morning we were visiting the Supreme People’s Court, which is located in Beijing.
When we arrived at the courthouse, our bus parked outside a large white building with a large gate that surrounded it. After everyone went through security, many of us gathered in front of the large steps. We were eventually led into the lobby where we were greeted. We took a tour of a courtroom and were ultimately brought to a large conference room. We received a lecture from a panel that included Justice Jiang Huiling. It was remarkable that it can take traveling halfway across the world to realize how truly different our culture and perceptions of the world are. As we quickly learned, the American perception of law was just that, American. This is exemplified as justices in the Supreme People’s Court are appointed for short terms, and justices often see their position as a stepping stone for higher political ambitions rather than to an ends to the means in and of itself.
As with the previous weekend trip to Shanghai, our trip was fast paced as we squeezed in as many attractions as possible. Our trip to China would not have been complete without seeing the Great Wall of China. The Wall stretched as far as you could see. As I headed back down from the wall, I was eventually greeted by a group of Thomas Jefferson students, who stated that they had just met the Vice President of Kenya and one of his Ambassadors. As we stood waiting for the rest of our group to return, we saw the motorcade of the Kenyan Vice President and realized the story was not a ruse.
During the last week of the China program we were fortunate enough to be visited by Judge John Walker. Judge Walker lectured for several days in Professor Tiefenbrun’s International Business Transaction Course. Judge Walker’s knowledge of the Chinese legal system was rather impressive. Most of what Judge Walker stated coincided with the Chinese Legal System course I was taking. I was surprised that Judge Walker was able to be as open as he was with the problems that plagued the Chinese legal system. However, I was even more impressed about how candid the Chinese professors had been. I was under the impression that such candid talk about the functions and dysfunctions of Chinese politics was taboo. This was seen during our weekend trip to Beijing when several classmates saw a girl kick The Red Book in Tiananmen Square and was subsequently taken away by police. The rest of the week was marked with the usual stress and anxiety of trying to catch up on neglected readings and studying for finals.
In retrospect, the Chinese program was fast paced, hectic, and intensive. You feel that you never have enough time for your reading, and there is never enough time to explore China. However, years from now, that is not what I am going to remember. I am going to remember how students at Thomas Jefferson, whom I had never met before, opened up not only to each other but to the Chinese students as well and how beautiful and amazing all of the sites are.