Welcome to JHU Around the World, a collection of my thoughts and musings as I travel the world representing Hopkins! I’m Dana M., and this is my fourth year back at JHU working in admissions (I’m also an alum – I graduated in 2001 as a Political Science major). I have traveled abroad on my own and for Hopkins before, but this year, I am literally spanning the globe! By the middle of November, I will have traveled to 8 countries on 3 continents, with 5 languages and 8 currencies. Just don’t quiz me on what day or time it is, and I should be fine!
This is the first of several travel blogs I will be writing, so stay tuned for entries from the UK, Turkey, France and the Caribbean. Also, if you are from London, Paris, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad & Tobago or Jamaica, you can come hear me talk about Hopkins!
And now back to China….
This was my first trip to China, so in addition to meeting with a host of Chinese applicants, I wanted to see a little of the country (a little – it’s a VERY big country).
I landed in Beijing on September 16th after a VERY long flight. I observe Rosh Hashanah and this is the first year I haven’t traveled home for either Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur (I grew up in NYC and my parents still live there). Before leaving for China, I asked our wonderful Hillel director, Debbie Pine, if she could help me find a service in Beijing to attend. Services in China were interesting. It was a little sad to spend the holiday away from my family, but the group was so welcoming. It was a mix of students traveling to China (undergrad and grad, plus one Temple Law School professor who helped catch me up on the fascinating and fast changing world of Chinese politics), Americans working abroad for a year or two, and ex-pats who have permanently moved to China. After services, I was invited to Rosh Hashanah lunch at an Indian Buffet restaurant. If you had asked me before I left my top ten predictions for dining, Indian Buffet would not have made the list; but I like stepping out of my comfort zone, and practicing something very traditional and close to your heart in a completely different way is part of what makes life fun.
After services and lunch, I ventured to Tiananmen Square and the night market with Leslie from Bard. We were able to watch the flag lowering ceremony, which attracted a huge number of mostly Chinese tourists. Tiananmen Square is close to a very lively, pedestrian-only shopping section with an evening food market. They primarily served the more traditional dumplings and dim sum, but one stand had all kinds of interesting delicacies.
Both Leslie and I chickened out of trying anything and opted for a fantastic meal of Peaking Duck instead, a Beijing specialty. My excuse was that I was keeping Kosher style on Rosh Hashanah, but really, I try not eat anything with a multiple of 4 legs or deadly stingers. Call me picky.
I had one more day before joining up with my US university counterparts to hit the local high schools, so I opted to spend it visiting the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall is one of the 7 wonders of the world, but I was ill-prepared to be in such awe. It’s hard to explain the experience, but I was overwhelmed by expansiveness of it and how beautiful the surrounding Chinese and Mongolian mountain sides were. It’s also quite a workout, and I wish I could have spent even more time there. I don’t normally reference Nixon, but this was indeed a great wall.
After two days of sightseeing (and a good amount of time adjusting to the 12 hour time difference), I met up with Jason from Carnegie Melon, Drew from Case Western Reserve, Emily from Emory (easy to remember), Julie from NYU, Jon from the University of Rochester, and Grace from Wash. U. I think admissions people are generally an outgoing bunch (we spend a lot of time talking to strangers!), but I feel very lucky to have had so much fun working (and laughing) with such an extraordinary group of colleagues.
We spent the first day meeting with students from Beijing high schools and the next three attending a conference with about 30 US universities and 50 Chinese high schools from across the country. There are so many differences between the education systems in the US and China, that Chinese high schools sometimes have a hard time advising the students and parents about how to go about a college search and how best to present the student through the application process. This conference was an opportunity for us to explain the best practices of college guidance and what we look for in an applicant; and for the high schools to ask questions of the process and explain to us what is happening in high schools across China (there is so much provincial variation!).
At Hopkins, we spend a lot of time carefully selecting an interesting, dynamic and diverse class of only 1,265 from over 20,000 applications, so we want to be extra careful that each and every applicant is authentic and that the students who show up on campus are who we admit (if we catch you lying on the application, your admission will be revoked). There are some Chinese high schools and applicants who hire agents to help the students get into US schools through the use of falsified transcripts and letters of recommendation, essays written by the agents, and sometimes even fake SAT or TOEFL scores. This practice had the unfortunate effect of tainting many qualified and authentic Chinese applicants, and this conference was a very important first step in bringing the two sides together and creating a better understanding of the process. It was also an opportunity for me to meet with principals and guidance counselors around China and hear exactly what their college counseling practices are.
After Beijing, my group (minus Grace from Wash U) headed out for a whirlwind, 1 city a day tour of Shenyang, Shanghai, and Shenzhen. In Shanyang, we got to take a tour of the Imperial Palace, which was originally the capital of China during the 1600s, and later became the Northern palace when the capital moved south to Beijing. The Forbidden City in Beijing was modeled after Shenyang.
Our group was incredibly impressed by the questions asked of us in China. I often describe Hopkins as a traditional college experience, and one student at Shanghai Pinghe High School asked what it meant to have a “traditional” US college experience – a very fair and thoughtful question. All six of us answered that it means your whole life really revolves around the campus – you eat, work and play there. College is often described as the best four years of your life, and that’s in part because your classmates, professors and advisors become your friends and family, the people you debate issues with, join a sports team or theater productions with, and collaborate on cutting edge research projects with. For each student, the experience is different because, unlike in high school, you have the freedom to design your own curriculum and chose your own activities (we offer 370+ at Hopkins!).
We spent less than 24 hours in Shanghai, so I am sad to report I have no fabulous pictures of the sky line or great tales of adventure. Jon described the city as landing on the moon – the buildings are so creative and futuristic – and I hope to return soon for a longer visit (and the opportunity to meet with more students!).
Other things I learned about China:
– Beijing is very crowded. I grew up in Manhattan and am used to big city life, but Beijing has 22 million people! A city of 6 million people is considered small or midsized in China, and the traffic reflects this. The subway system in Beijing, however, is cheap and clearly marked in Chinese and English. Next time I won’t take so many cabs!
– There is only 1 time zone in China, so in some parts of the country if gets dark very early at night. In contrast, the US has 3 time zones, and some states, like Indiana, have 2 (which was very confusing for me when I was campaigning there in 2008).
– Things change very rapidly in China. Our last city, Shenzhen, is only 32 years old. Now a “small” city of 6 million people and almost as many bright lights, there were scarcely roads, let alone high rises, there 20 years ago.
– Most English teachers pick a Chinese student’s English name for them, which seemed a little unfair to me. At 13, I could have come up with a two page list of possible names for myself, so why would some adult, who is not my mom, get to choose for me? Thankfully, many of the schools we visited let the students pick their own.
– If you go to the pearl market in Beijing, be sure to check out Fangua on the 4th floor (ask for Maggie and tell them Dana from JHU sent you!). The pearls are exquisite, high quality, and in so many varieties. The prices are very reasonable (we got a good discount), the staff is helpful and not the least bit pushy, and they had a cooler of soda, water and beer for shoppers, which Jason availed himself of while he patiently waited for Emily, Julie and me to finish oohing and ahhing. I also learned I need to return with a much larger budget!
– The food is FANTASTIC. I’ve always been a fan of Chinese food, but this trip has ruined me for at least the next 6 months.
Stay tuned for volume 2 of JHU Around the World, my report from London!