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New Plateaus: College life in China

A pair of college students are shown in Zhuhai, China. Submitted Photo

I kept hearing that we Americans are supposed to be threatened by the countless graduates being pumped out of the universities in China. Well, I figured I ought to check things out for myself. I was just interested in seeing what a Chinese college looked like. I had met a couple local gals who talked up their campus something special, so I agreed to pay them a visit. I turned back the clock a few years and grabbed my book bag to mingle with the coeds.

I took the half-hour bus ride north. It came to a stop, I got off, and it pulled away with its noise fading, giving room for the conversation some students were having nearby that I didn't understand. I waited and looked around: I saw hedges, dorm buildings, and of course, young adults. It was a college all right. Soon, my guide, Lei, a thin young woman who studied finance, arrived with a smile and we were off to tour Beijing Normal University in Zhuhai.

There was no elegant, floral, brick-columned archway welcoming me like the one at Bemidji State University. It was more casual than that. The grounds weren't as well-groomed as those at many American campuses, either, but it was still nothing to sneeze at, and the lush green hills in the background made for a lovely setting indeed. The signs of campus life were unmistakable. We walked by a bunch of guys out at the soccer field jocking it up. Several students glided by on their bikes -- with a Chinese twist: Their colorful umbrellas were attached despite their being no downpour. They apparently don't like to tan in China.

Lei and I first approached the library. Apparently, the whole student body was studying that day as there were what seemed like hundreds and hundreds of bikes parked outside. Yes, China -- a nation that already loves bikes -- and college -- a bunch of active young adults without cars. That explains it.

Nothing screams college, though, like an organization's table to recruit people or fill out surveys set up near the high-traffic zone near the library's entrance. In China, though, you'd never have anything political touted at these tables -- as opposed to the United States, where practically every table is a lesson in activism. It made me wonder what does happen to all that fire in the belly to "make a difference" that students have in college? Maybe it's career and family responsibilities or perhaps just the reality that making a difference can be really hard. But sooner than later, it seems, maintaining one's life becomes enough.

Inside the library was a beautiful, open entryway encompassing the entirety of the four-story building. There were sculptures near the stairwell across the way and portraits of the fathers of Chinese intellect lining the walls, inspiring thought from beyond the grave. I wanted to see the oldest books they had and discover what sorts of historical indicators Lei could help me decipher. We took the helpful library employee away from his computer card game to see these "ancient texts" and discovered books that had worn, weathered, brittle, and discolored pages.

I asked Lei the print date of one. She studied the opening pages and agreed that it was an old book, all right. All the way back from 1980. Wow, I thought it was way closer to 1880. Poor books in China must have bad lifestyles; they age quickly. Actually, the absence of old texts was indicative of China's history. I'd fill you in on the detentions and killings and book burnings in the last 50 years, but college isn't the place to be learning details like that.

Next, it was time to head into the relaxing, calming environs of the lecture hall. Lei had to attend her contract law class. The room was white and bland -- kind of like the banks and hospitals in China. Rows of table and desks with blue chairs connected lined the room, which held about 75 students. The students there were surprised to see me. I did kind of stick out -- I mean, I am 30. Most students wanted to lay low in the back of the room; several arrived with phones and music players buzzing. Not too many looked thrilled to be there. (Actually, and surprising to me, my friends who teach at colleges have told me of a fair amount of lethargy. This went against the idea I had of the "front-row" types with hands eager to raise.) Then again, this was contract law, right? A young but nonetheless professorial professor named Wang Jian entered the room and began to lecture. He spoke and went through his PowerPointed lecture in a language completely foreign to me -- law.

But after being versed, I felt even better about my job prospects in China. That's right, I don't want to hear any excuses for not finding that job; you just have to move a hemisphere. You wouldn't be the first American to go to China for work, or the first Minnesotan -- myself excluded. Turns out there was a handful of Minnesotans working at another nearby United International College as English teachers and teaching assistants. I met one, a fella named Jonas, who is from Grand Rapids, as a matter of fact!

There's actually quite a connection between China and Minnesota. Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty made several trips out to China to foster business interactions. The executive vice president of UIC had met with Pawlenty in the past. And Minnesotans such as Jonah get to take advantage of the exchange programs and teaching opportunities as a result of these relationships.

Maybe China will be in your future, too. As it continues to build its wealth, opportunities will rise. China will need more educators, entrepreneurs, entertainers; you'll at least be wearing, playing with, listening to or preparing food with something that was made in China. I've discovered much good from what a better China means for Minnesota, the United States and the rest of the world.

It was a great year in China, from the day-to-day to the exploration of colleges, a factory, villages and cities; to the enlightening observations of the country's religious practices; and to my own participation as the master of ceremonies at a New Year's celebration and studying tai chi. But it came to an end and this will be my final post about China. Though I'm sorry to not be able to share more about my time there, you will have the chance to read about all these experiences and insights later this year when I release my book, "New Plateaus in China." In fact, I'm planning a book release event in Bemidji. Stay tuned, and hope to see you there!

Here in the Sunday Pioneer, I'll continue to share. But I'll be sharing stories I've uncovered closer to home.

For video of the lecture and the many pictures I took -- including Jonas from Grand Rapids! -- visit my Facebook page,


BRANDON FERDIG, who spent a year teaching and traveling in China, writes a weekly blog at Email him at