Ole Miss Student Abroad: Reflections on the Suzhou River

Posted on Jun 22 2017 - 8:35am by Jacqueline Knirnschild

Illustration by Jake Thrasher

SHANGHAI-The grey skyscrapers framed a cloudy blue sky as dragon boats raced across the Suzhou River at a much faster pace than I had anticipated – each team’s 20 paddlers in sync.

My clear view doesn’t last long, as my new friend, Jia Cheng Li, takes me down off his shoulders.

Jia Cheng is a senior sociology major at Shanghai University and the roommate of another Ole Miss student in my Chinese Flagship cohort. As part of our intensive two-month program here, we all live with a Chinese roommate who is hand selected by our teacher according to our mutual interests.

It’s the second day of “Duanwujie,” also known as the Dragon Boat Festival – a public holiday in China that commemorates the death of the ancient poet and minister of the Chu royal house, Qu Yuan, who, after suffering a major war defeat, drowned himself in the Miluo river in 278 B.C. The tale is that the local people then raced out in their boats to try and save him, starting the tradition of the dragon boat races.  

Jia Cheng smiles at me and asks if I was able to see. I quickly nod yes and then crane my neck to watch the next race. 

I can’t believe my luck; what are the chances that my study abroad program coincides with a Chinese national holiday? I’m basking in the moment – this is something I’d never be able to experience at home.

Yet, despite my excitement, I couldn’t help but notice that the event was a lot less crowded than I had imagined. I had thought the streets would be so packed I’d have trouble walking, but that was not the case.

The attendees mainly consisted of older Chinese people and their small children or tourists. Also, no one else from my program had wanted to come with Jia Cheng and me to watch.

“I thought this was a big festival, how come there’s not very many people here?” I ask in my rudimentary Mandarin.  

Jia Cheng says Shanghai teenagers and college students could care less about traditional events and they would rather watch TV or play video games.

A Chinese man then walks by and we hear him grumble to his companion, “No one comes to watch these races except for old men.”

Jia Cheng himself is from a small town in the Henan province and a strong proponent of protecting traditional Chinese culture, which he thinks is diminishing with globalization.

As an anthropology major, I feel disheartened by such assertions. The Dragon Boat Festival has been around for over 2,000 years now – it’s older than even the oldest American documents – and it’s about to be overtaken by TV and video games?

Jia Cheng nudges me, pulling me away from my thoughts and gestures toward a Chinese man snapping a photo of me. This isn’t an unusual occurrence – as a blonde haired, blue-eyed, pale-skinned American, I stand out in Shanghai.

Jia Cheng explains that because the Chinese economy used to revolve around agriculture and outdoor work, tan skin meant lower class while white skin has historically symbolized a higher social status since one was able to work inside. Such a trend still persists today as Chinese girls use umbrellas to protect their skin from the sun. There’s even a slang word to describe “Ms. Perfect” – ‘bai fu mei,’ which literally means fair-skinned, rich and beautiful.

Chinese girls use photo editing apps to enlarge their eyes. Larger eyes are just more beautiful, my roommate told me. She compared big eyes to big windows – with larger eyes, one is able to gain a deeper understanding of the world.

We walked into an empty cafe for something to drink. Boxes were scattered everywhere. Even though his shop was closed, he still offered us some water and started chatting to us.

The owner looked at us and said he was in the process of moving all of his sales online since 80 percent of his profits already came from internet orders anyway.

Online orders are extremely popular in Shanghai – nearly every restaurant has an extensive delivery menu and will arrive at your doorstep often in 30 minutes or less. The Chinese “kuai di” (delivery) put American takeout to shame.   

At Shanghai University, almost no one even carries cash or credit cards around with them anymore either. Instead, they all use WeChat – the Chinese equivalent of FaceBook.

We began discussing differences between our generations.

The man, in his late thirties, said that his generation revolved around responsibilities, but since my generation has more free time and money, we’re able to focus more on finding and developing our own identities.

Jia Cheng agreed that even 10 years ago in China, people simply didn’t have the time or money to have hobbies or interests.

My dad quit the military, which he loved, when I was born so that he could spend more time with me. And my mom declined a dream job in New York City because she wanted to raise her children. Why should I deserve the luxury to explore my passions and identity when my parents didn’t have the same option?

But the cafe owner did not seem bitter at all. He seemed very satisfied with the way his life turned out. He told us he likes working alongside the Suzhou river and mentioned proudly his daughter will attend Stanford.

For some reason, though, I don’t know if I’d feel fulfilled with the same life as the Chinese shop owner or my parents. 

Am I just young? Or is the shopkeeper right and these self-discovery desires are just a byproduct of the time period I was born into?

Jia Cheng and I then say our goodbyes to him, and head back to campus.

The Dragon Boat races have finished for this year and now the water has returned to its uninterrupted, slow, rippling. These introspective questions still occupy my thoughts but when I look at the stillness of the Suzhou river, I am strangely calm down.

For a moment neither Jia Cheng nor I say a word and I am overcome with peace. I don’t need to know all of the answers to those questions right now.

All I can do – all anyone can do – is live in the moment and do whatever makes them happy; whether that be raising a family, owning a café, traveling the world or watching television.