Jumping in at the deep end to soak up the culture | Duke Kunshan University

Jumping in at the deep end to soak up the culture

Anisha Joshi (middle row, third from left) visits Beijing's Temple of Heaven with classmates as part of DKU Quest

By Anisha Joshi

It was with a bit of trepidation that I stepped off the plane at Shanghai Pudong International Airport in August 2018. The realization that I was about to start a journey at a completely new program at a nascent university had slowly sunk in on the flight to Shanghai.

I hadn’t set foot on the campus before, having missed the International Admitted Students Experience weekend due to a final, and the scale of the gamble I was taking was finally hitting me.

But as I boarded the shuttle bus to Duke Kunshan, I reminded myself that I had a clear vision of why I wanted to be at DKU – I’d be in the perfect place to learn about China while being exposed to varied perspectives from around the globe.

With a deep breath, I braced myself for the beginning of my China experience, and prayed that whatever was about to unfold would work out for the best.

The path was certainly thorny in the beginning. I had no experience with the Chinese language; as if being in a country so vastly different from where I’m from wasn’t difficult enough. Add to that having to navigate a new social environment, new friendships and intense seven-week sessions, and the experience became one that left me questioning my decision to come. I found myself expending more energy simply surviving China and college rather than learning about the culture.

But, as I learned, one must persevere, and one will see things change – whether through classes or real-life experiences.

It’s simply not possible to sequester yourself and avoid learning about China at DKU. The Chinese 101 class wasn’t just limited to grammar and vocabulary, but as an international group we navigated many dimensions of Chinese culture, from dining etiquette to the intricacies of China’s gift-giving culture.

The Interpretation of Written Texts course explored how cultural differences are amplified when there is a language barrier. By discussing things like renshan renhai (literally: mountain of people, sea of people) and the cultural nuances that languages can't convey with classmates from China, New Zealand and around the world, the class turned out to be the perfect representation of what I had expected of DKU in terms of intercultural learning.

While classes are one thing, the experience of being in China is another matter.

One field trip took me to Bacheng, an ancient water town about 15 minutes by bus from campus. Looking out over the arched bridges and water town houses that rainy day, it struck me what an amazing stage China is at right now: A magnificent juxtaposition of the past and present. Embodied by the polarity between Shanghai’s skyscrapers and ancient water towns, there is no better way to understand the changes the country is going through.

It is also something else to see the discussions in your Global China sessions and Chinese philosophy classes take shape right in front of your eyes every day.

As part of DKU Quest, a program designed to help students explore China, I went to Beijing, the country’s political and cultural capital. Blessed with uncharacteristically blue skies, I scaled the Great Wall with friends who talked of their experiences growing up in North Carolina and San Francisco. After soaking in the beauty and history of the Summer Palace, we discussed cuisines from our homes over a resplendent spread of traditional Chinese food.

During my five days in Beijing, I grew closer with friends from Oklahoma to Astana, all while exploring the colorful streetscapes. Away from the academic environment on campus, I was having the same cross-cultural discussions while interacting with Chinese surroundings and history, which was more than anything I could ever have asked for.

Anisha Joshi (left) visits a section of the Great Wall in Beijing with classmate Amy Westerhoff

As I forged new friendships and connections in my freshman year, I also forced myself out of my comfort zone and went about exploring on my own, which was a rewarding experience in a completely different way.

Used to the hustle and bustle of chaotic Kathmandu, it took me a while to adjust to the relative silence of Kunshan. But the transition was made easier by the city’s proximity to Shanghai, a booming metropolis where one is never short of things to do.

On several weekend trips to the city, I experienced the magnificent works of some of China’s rising young artists at museums such as M50. While the sense of being in a major city was comforting, watching people square dance in East Nanjing Road on a bright Saturday morning wasn’t like anything I would have experienced back home, and was a wonderful reminder of why I had so wanted to come to China in the first place.

Venturing alone in a city much larger than any I’d ever been to before required gall and gumption, but I realized there wouldn’t be a better way to make the best of my time in China, and I was right. As cliche as it sounds, throwing myself in the deep end really did turn out to be a better way of getting to know the country.

Across music shows and subway rides, I found myself talking to more strangers and making friends along the way. Without the pressure of having to have the perfect day, I found myself moving away from the more popular streets to far-flung neighborhoods, exploring as I went along and soaking in the quotidian details of life, from colorful fruit shops to laundry lines protruding from windows.

Learning about a country is an ongoing process, and I have merely scratched the surface over the past year. But over my yearlong journey of discovery, I’ve realized the importance of taking initiative in wanting to know rather than passively interacting with my surroundings.

My fears stepping off that plane in Shanghai were not completely unfounded, but as difficult as it was to grow into my surroundings, the experience of getting to know China is one I wouldn’t trade for anything.


Anisha Joshi is a member of Duke Kunshan’s inaugural Class of 2022. She is from Kathmandu, Nepal.