Spring 2013

Posted by Matthew Corcoran on 12/29/2014



The first thing I did when I got off the plane was hugging my former host sister. It was nice to see her back home safely. After that, I met my host family in person. I had Skyped my host brother before, but it was much better to see him and my host parents in person. I have not been able to see any family beyond my immediate family, but I am sure they will be a pleasure to be with. When I arrived at Beijing, I first felt overwhelmed. There where a lot people who were speaking a language I could barely understand very quickly. I was also afraid of whether or not I could survive in this country with only the knowledge I learned from school. These feelings were gone by the end of the car ride. My family was so engaging, and anything that l did not understand, my host brother helped translate. My family was definitely a great environment for me to expand my Chinese learning. Another fun experience was when my host father tried to teach me mahjong when he could only say safety and easy. That being said, I did learn the game and I actually won some money (fake gambling of course). Over all it has been a great experience so far.

My first impressions of Beijing developed mostly in the airport and during the ride to my host families' home. To me, everything seemed so large and vast. My host parents and Abby have also been very helpful, especially when is comes to helping me learn to speak Chinese. Their extended family was very welcoming as well. The first meal I ate in Beijing was dinner with Abby’s family, her uncle, and her maternal and paternal grandparents. Everyone was very warm towards me, especially Abby’s grandmother, who helped me learn the Chinese names of the foods we were eating. After this great first impression of Beijing, I am sure these will be a great four months!


A major view that many Americans share is the prevalence of the tiger mother. She is only concerned with how her child does and makes him or her study long and hard. I've discovered that there is some basis to this. The parents here do generally concern themselves with their kids more than those in America. I think that this is an unavoidable outcome of the environment. This parenting style has two main causes: the one child policy and the GaoKao. The one child policy means that you only have one chance to see your child able to reach success. This causes parents to focus all their attention on one child, rather than spreading it out amongst siblings. The GaoKao is the ominous test at the end of a child's education. It essentially is an all or nothing test that will determine the rest of your life. You need to do well on the GaoKao. This pushes parents even harder to get their kids to study because they only have one chance to get it right. So while the stereotype may exist to an extent, there are clear and obvious environmental causes for it.

Before I applied to the exchange program, I had developed some stereotypes about Chinese students. I thought all students in China studied constantly and strictly followed all school rules. In my mind, to be a Chinese student was to be the ideal student.This notion was quickly destroyed as I got older, and even more so after I began school in China. While Chinese students certainly have a lot of schoolwork, it doesn’t prevent them from spending time doing other things, like watching TV, playing basketball, or talking with friends online. While many students do also take extra classes over the weekend, they also find time for other interests and activities. For example, my host sister, Abby, has an SAT class every weekend; however, she also plays basketball and goes shopping with her mother. I also no longer think that every single Chinese student is a model student either. Despite rules stating that students are not to leave the campus while school is in session, I see countless students leave through the front gate to buy food from the nearby shops. During class, one of the students sitting next to me is often messing around with his phone or eating something while the teacher is talking. One of the misconceptions I had that changed only after I began school in China was the classroom environment would be incredibly strict. While the classroom environment tends to be stricter than it is in the United States, it is a bit more relaxed than I expected. I think the most relaxed class I have seen so far in the English class. The teacher is very friendly with the students, and he often interacts with the students, asking them questions about the material during class and letting them speak up more than they do in their other classes.


Every day I take the subway to and from school. In the morning, I go to school at five forty-five, so the subway is never really crowded. However, when I return home, there is so little room that I cannot even wear my backpack because it will not fit. I discovered something interesting about modern Chinese culture: there is very little spacial awareness. I have seen many actions that would seem “rude” in the United States. After time, however, I realized that these are just a causation of people not being conscious of their surroundings. While waiting in line for our train back to Beijing from Shanghai, the three “lines” to get our tickets checked merged into a mob of people when there was enough space. We had to force ourselves through the crowd in order to get to the check. Overall, I think that this is an inherent consequence of any big city. I was just so shocked by this because I have never lived in a city as big as Beijing. It is not as much a problem as simply a way of life. All of these actions seemed strange at first, but as the months go by, I find myself doing it too.


I had always assumed there would be some sort of cultural misunderstanding upon my arrival to China. I viewed it as an inevitable event, and one I would just have to get through when I came to it…The earliest I saw this was when I had just come back from my trip across China. Exhausted from travel, I had woken up late so lunch was my breakfast. They had prepared spicy beef, which tasted great, but also had the effect of causing my nose to run. After a couple of sniffles, and a grab for a tissue, my grandma got to inquisitions. "Miles, you have a cold!" "No, no" I stammered as I tried to explain "My nose is hot, this is hot." This of course did nothing but cause my grandma more grief. "Hot nose! You have a fever! Sheng Qi, Miles is sick!" I had no chance to counter such claims and I was whisked off to the bathroom and given a pill to make me feel better. The next thing I knew, I was in my room with strict orders to go back to sleep. I left a couple of times, mainly out of boredom, but I quickly saw myself back in bed. The next morning I was eager to emphasize that the pill and the sleep had done wonders, and that I felt great. They seemed content with this and I kept blowing my nose a secret from then on.

My host family has been great to me. They have done a wonderful job of keeping me safe and well fed. Sometimes, however, they do this job a little too well. At first I thought this was because they see me as a guest in their home, and as some one who isn’t used to being in Beijing. I soon found out that they often treat my host sister, Abby, the same way. I have never had a problem with it, but sometimes I find it interesting.
This started only a few days after I arrived in Beijing. While I was in my room organizing my things, Abby’s father came to my room and presented me with a down jacket. Later, I found out my host family actually bought the jacket for me as a gift. When I wore the Jacket I had brought from the US, my host father would pinch the jacket to test its thickness, and occasionally insisted that I wear even more layers.
Another thing they paid more attention to towards the beginning of my stay in China was my eating habits. I ate slightly more quickly than the rest of my host family, so when I stopped eating before they did, they assumed I hadn’t eaten as much. They would urge me to eat more, and whenever I told them I was full, they would tell I was too skinny and that I needed to eat more. After I started eating a little more slowly, they stopped saying anything about how much I ate altogether.
Despite how overprotective my host family was at first, it did not bother me in the slightest. I appreciate how kind they have been to me, and how much they have done to make me feel welcome in their home.

The biggest difference between my life in China and my life back home is how my parents treat me. Here in China, my parents do not give as much freedom as I would get back home. One of the first things my host family said to me was “chuan yi fu” (wear more clothes) because they thought it was too cold to be going outside in just a t-shirt and fleece. This initially took me by surprise because my parents back home would let me go out without wearing three layers of clothes, and if I was cold, I would learn to put on more clothes. Chinese parents teach by telling their kids what to do and what not to do, while most American parents tend to use consequences to teach their children. My parents in the U.S. give me a lot of freedom so it was a major culture shock when my host parents told me to wear more clothes.
There is another side to this coin: my host parents do a lot more for my host brother and me than they do at home. After our first meal home, I went with my host parents into the kitchen and started to clean, but they quick stopped my and told me not that they would do it. I tried many times to help them, but the most I could do was bring my plates to the kitchen. Another example is if my host brother or I want something that is not a necessity, they buy us it. Back in the U.S. my parents have me buy things with my own money that I earn from working. I know parents also buy thing for their kids in America, but having their kids earn their own money is a lot more common than in China. I think it contrasts with me so much because my parents brought me up to be independent, but I think in general American kids do a lot more work outside of school that the Chinese kids do.
I think that this could be because the schoolwork load is so great that the students cannot do too much else but work, and, therefore, the parents need to do a lot of the housework for them. The parents also need to stay on top of their children so they get the work done. In my opinion, these factors and the fact that the One Child Policy focuses all of the parents attention on their one kid, led to helicopter parenting.

Reconstruction, Renovation, and Rebuilding

There seems to be a habit amongst the Chinese to have all of their historic sites constantly under some sort of repair. Walking up to an area of certain significance, one is certain to find it guarded by green scaffolding and groups of cigarette-wielding laborers. The most famous Chinese sights like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City have been rebuilt or renovated countless times.
In a Western mind, rebuilding the Great Pyramids, or the Parthenon, or even Stonehenge seems odd. Why would we alter what has survived to us for thousands of years. The remains offer us a true glimpse into the past. But to an eastern mind, this view makes no sense. Why would we allow our famous temples and palaces to crumble and go to ruin when we can make them look as they did? What’s the point of looking at a bunch of rocks? The Westerner sees value in preserving the original substance, while the Easterner sees value in preserving the original look. Both views have their own way of honoring history.The Westerner finds worth in landmarks because they had the ability to survive until today. They believe rebuilding, or reconstructing, them would be a slight to their longevity and originality. The Chinese have a different point of view. They see their history does not last forever, and so they decide to keep everything new. They don’t see a point in having the original walls to the Forbidden City. They take worth in preservation of the original idea, the original material is less of an issue.
So is there a better way of doing things? Both viewpoints have their own merits, though I would’ve liked to get more pictures without the construction.

In most of the other journals, I have written about the differences I noticed between Beijing and Newton. Now that I look back, the things that struck me before seem much less significant. The subways do not seem so bad. I am starting to accept my parents’ wishes, no matter how unjustified. I watch what I do or say so I do not cause any misunderstandings. As I reread my journals, I learned that these three months have made me adapt to their culture, and all of the differences that I noticed earlier are not so prevalent anymore.
Whenever I ride the subway home from school, it is crowded. But now, I do not notice the people pushing or the packed cars. It just seems as if it is the normal part of my routine. Not only have I gotten used to the crowded subways, but I have started to enjoy it as well. The act of riding a subway has become positive: I become ecstatic when I get a seat, or I start to talk to the people around me. I also see a lot of interesting people in the subway. Once, even in a crowded subway train, people made room for a guitarist, who played music inside the car until his stop came. When I was able to overcome my initial culture shock about the crowds in the subway, I was able to truly experience what it was like to live in Beijing.
When I first arrived here, I was taken aback by how caring my host parents were. Back then I tried to negotiate the rules, for example wearing two layers instead of the three they wanted me to wear. As I read my journal and remembered that time, I realized that it just did not happen anymore. The arguments we had had changed into jokes or regular conversation. Now, instead of “you are wearing too little” or “your not eating enough,” it is “how was your day” or “what did you do today”. This made my time with my host parent a lot more enjoyable, and helped me improve my Chinese comprehension even more.
I feel lucky to be able to participate in this exchange program because it is one of the few programs where you get to stay long enough to break through the culture barriers and truly live the Beijing experience. At first I was preoccupied with what I was eating or the crowded subways to really just enjoy living in China and take in the culture. Now after three months, I feel as if I have finally immersed myself in the Chinese culture.