A few weeks ago it fell to me to me to escort a dozen students from Coventry University to take a two-month placement at Zhejiang University of Media and Communication (ZUMC) in Tongxiang, China. This was my first trip to China and I had no real preconceptions of what to expect other than I guessed that it was likely to be something rather unique. I couldn’t have been more right. While I was there for only a week, I came away with a powerful respect, admiration and affection for the Chinese people that I and my students came into contact with. Universally, we were treated with unfailing courtesy, openness, kindness and, on many an occasion, a willingness on the part of individuals to go far beyond the bounds of merely polite hospitality to help us and look after us.
This spirit of enthusiastic and open-minded reaching out was embodied by the Chinese student volunteers who’d all actively competed for and been chosen for this coveted ambassadorial role and who’s task it was to make us feel at home, show us the ropes, translate for us and generally keep us out of trouble – all of which they did with enthusiasm, flair, great good humour, grace and a maturity beyond their years. So much so, that the UK students themselves were universal in their admiration of them and vowed to learn from their new-found Chinese friends. In conversations of admirable candour, our UK students readily acknowledged that in their lives back at Coventry University they had never particularly attempted to positively reach out to visiting international students and had hitherto adopted a position towards them that could probably best be described as benign indifference.
For certain, our presence at ZUMC was, in reality, very much something of a novel event for the institution and to a degree it became clear that our presence was even unusual enough to prompt the more adventurous members of the local population into asking to have our photographs taken with them as we went about our explorations of the nearby towns and cities. In that context, we clearly had a degree of curiosity value which was enough to prompt people to come forward and engage in conversation without embarrassment or reticence. By contrast, back home in Coventry it is fair to say that at any given moment around the university campus – and indeed, within the city centre itself – one could reasonably expect to see representatives from at least a dozen nationalities at any hour of the day as a matter of straightforward routine. There, (in university life, at least) race and nationality simply don’t command much attention in the mundane reality of daily matters – certainly not from native students!
But novelty aside, the UK students at ZUMC were so impressed and affected by the show of hospitality that they’d been treated to that they vowed, upon their return to Coventry, to be much more proactive themselves in extending the hand of open welcome to international students, visitors and guests in future. On the basis of having first-hand experience of what it feels like to be far from home with practically no grasp of the language (spoken or written) and very much dependent on the help and guidance of others, the experience had given our students a genuine sense of empathetic understanding of what it means to be a stranger in a strange land. And this immensely valuable insight is perhaps among the most valuable lessons that they – and I – have harvested from the trip. In the words of Maya Angelou:
“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.”