Sierra in Asia

Sierra, a senior majoring in marketing and member of SMU’s Cross Country and Track and Field teams, is participating this summer in SMU-in-Australia-and-Asia. The group will spend three weeks traveling in China to cities including Shanghai and Beijing, and then will spend three weeks in Western Australia.

A square of history

SierraTiananmen.jpgWe began our day with a trip to Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately our appointment at the U.S. Embassy was cancelled, but we made up for it with other perks and extra time on the Wall. It was an incredible experience to walk around a place you only ever see and read about in books.

A great deal of history lies in Tiananmen Square, this being the largest public city square in the world – most notably for what took place almost 20 years ago, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. After Chairman Mao died in 1976, his successor Deng Xiaoping introduced series of reforms in order to modernize China. However, not all was just fine and dandy. Despite a great deal of economic change, restrictions on the Chinese people’s freedom of speech kept human rights in China far from Western standards.

Social discontent came to the fore when students and workers gathering in the square to mourn the death of liberal figurehead Hu Yaobang turned into a protest. After warning the demonstrators to leave, the army got sent in, and around 1000 civilians were shot down and run over by tanks in the famous square, in full view of international media. This was an awakening for the rest of the world. The result of this protest just proved how truly suppressed Chinese people still were and the freedom they were denied. Clearly the students didn’t have a right to free expression.

We walked around, and then just like any good tourist would do, took a million pictures facing every direction. Afterward we headed for the Heavenly Temple, the largest sacrificial temple in China. Built in the 1420s during the reign of Emperor Yongle, it is the site where the emperors during the Ming and Qing dynasty would offer their sacrifices to Heaven and pray for rain and good harvest. While walking around the gardens we observed groups of mostly elderly citizens dancing, singing, and playing Taji Ball. Ricky and Dan decided to join in and practice using their “soft hand” skills.

n18809562_33229765_1630.jpgThe Great Wall of China

After our breakfast feast we headed for the Great Wall, one of the Eight Wonders of the world. Built to keep foreign raiders out, it is perhaps the most remarkable defense system known to man. It’s hard to imagine this entire wall being built by hand, and consequently, the inevitable death toll that followed. Our guide, Tina sang to us “Hey Jude” on the way; it was quite amusing. She was seriously the best guide ever; even though she did carry around that ridiculous-looking bright yellow flag held up in the air – it just screamed “tourist.”

Once we got to the Wall (or an accessible section of it at least), what had started as a beautiful Beijing day turned to pouring-down rain. That just further added to the experience because then we got to dress up in these cool white plastic ponchos that made us all look like ghosts.

Some of the guys thought it would be cool to race to the top (by top I mean as far as we could go). Unfortunately for the guys, though, the girls conquered. As the sky started to clear up and it stopped raining, we could see further into the distance. It is difficult to put into words how incredible this was to see. The thick smog also made for a fantastic series of mysterious, “urky” pictures … though we could hardly make out the other side of the valley to grasp the full expanse of this majestic wall.

Beer and then some …

Next we headed for dinner at another traditional Chinese restaurant, but with hula dancers this time. Yep that’s right, and not to mention one of them was a guy. When we finished our meal the dancers came off stage and for some reason aimed straight for all of us “outsiders.” First they tied red thread around our wrists. We were nervous about what this could possibly mean, and they then brought out beer for everyone. Everything seemed perfectly normal until they started to force feed it to the guys themselves. We girls were very entertained. That whole time I was thinking “oh man I hope they don’t do this to us because I have an aversion to the taste of beer.” Well sure enough, one of the girls forced a cup of beer down my throat. Right when I thought all this jazz was over, we were all coaxed on stage to perform some sort of traditional Chinese cha-cha dance with them. It was quite hilarious, and we all got a good laugh out of our newfound moves.

The Olympics

Since its incredible billion-dollar makeover, Beijing is very different than what I expected it to look like. New roads, new buildings, an incredible airport; you could tell that most of the city had been very modernized. Although we could only see from a distance, we were fortunate to be able to see some of these Olympic sites. This included the famous “Bird’s Nest,” where the opening ceremony will be held, the infamous “Water Cube” for the swimming, as well as part of the Olympic village.

SierraPollution.jpg I know they are starting to take measures to clean up the pollution too but it’s hard to imagine it being any worse than it is now. There is so much hidden beauty being blanketed by the overwhelming smog. Coming from mountain air myself, this was definitely the first thing I noticed. Beijing has cleaned up quite a bit though, and much of the city seems fairly modernized. Also since being in Beijing, I was surprised to see how much less friendly the people are compared to in Vietnam. They are not as eager to help, and for some reason they do a lot of pushing and shoving.

That night we met with our professor to further discuss our case study and prepare for our final presentation in Shanghai on July 3. The following morning we left for Qing Dao. We had to wake up at 5:30 to beat the rush-hour traffic. And by the way, traffic in Beijing is unreal. I have never seen so many people walking around at 5:30am. It seems like rush hour around the clock.

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On to Beijing

Well, it is hard to believe it has already been 5 days. We are currently on our way to Beijing. While flying over Hong Kong, it was incredible to see how highly dense the city was and yet so contained. Most all of the buildings were so similar to each other.

Tomorrow we will get a briefing from the U.S. embassy on the current economic and political situation in China, followed by a briefing on the changing dynamics of Chinese society and the increasing appetite for consumer goods. We will make a few cultural visits, walk the Great Wall and then see the Olympic Game sights. We have a busy day ahead, so I better get some rest.

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Five days in Vietnam

After 36 hours of time travel, Ricky, Rachael and I (better known as the three Americans) finally made it to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. Although it was a long way, we had fun just getting here. We met up with the rest of our group in Vietnam, making a total of 11 of us, including our professor, Dr. Ian Farnie.

There are six Australians from Curtin University (Dan, Tash – the only other girl – Daniel, Jared, Chris, Tristin – and then there is Benji, the lone Swede). Working with other students from different cultures has been rewarding on many levels. I have been able to learn from them and hear what life is like in their home countries. Plus, they have awesome accents; I am hoping they will rub off by the end of this trip.

Sierra65.jpgWelcome dinner
That first night we met our guide, Linh, and then briefly introduced ourselves to each other. We had a great dinner at this very quaint and authentic Vietnamese restaurant called Kinh Bac. I am not entirely sure what it is I ate, but I liked the food a lot. Breakfast is served buffet style and is very different, to say the least. You will find anything from chocolate cake to steamed vegetables or even sushi. As much as I like to try new things, I think I’ll stick with the traditional breakfast foods.

On our way back from the welcome dinner, we were bombarded by a bunch of little girls trying to sell us gum. It was a sort of surreal scene. These little girls were running around at night in their pajamas by themselves. It was hard to see such desperation in such young children. Yet it was also rather humorous at the same time because they only went after the guys, grabbing and chasing them all the way back to our hotel.

The next morning we went to meet the Australian General Consulate, Mr. Scully, who spoke to us about the current state of the Ho Chi Minh City economy. Some of the issues Vietnam is currently facing have much to do with the U.S. war with Vietnam over 30 years ago. It is a very transitional country right now, as it moves from a highly centralized “command” economy to more of a market economy, like that of China.

The rapid growth in urban industrialization and population migration are increasingly corrupting the environment in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. In the past several years, Vietnam has been among the countries with the highest growth rate in the world, maintaining a steady 8.5 percent annual rate. That is very good considering their current poverty state. There is still a strong correlation between the corruption and poverty that we see here.

Mr. Scully discussed the culture as giving preference to family members in the job market. At every level of bureaucracy here, money is absorbed by accepted corrupt practices and bribery. Previously the Ho Chi Minh City was the center of production, now these factory industries are being spread out to the surrounding provinces.

Bargaining power
We went to the market our second day here and did a little bargaining. Sierra19.jpgI must admit, though, I am not very good at this. Rachael, on the other hand, caught on real fast and didn’t give in till she got the price she wanted. Ricky didn’t buy anything but rather stood by as our “fashion expert” helping us decipher the fake stuff from the real. It’s overwhelming sometimes when there is so much of the same thing everywhere you turn. Everything here is very cheap, though, and you can often easily bargain down to at least 50 percent of the stated price.

While in the market we had a quick sit-down lunch at tables knee height made of trays that appeared from nowhere as soon as we seemed remotely interested in lunch. The food came out equally as instant. Talk about fast food – but in the Asian sense: healthy, cheap, and to be eaten with chopsticks.

To cross or not to cross?

See video of Sierra crossing the street.

I never thought crossing the road could be so scary until we arrived in Vietnam. The very first thing Linh taught us when we arrived is how to cross the road. Since crosswalks, street lines, and stop lights seem rather meaningless here, it is important to know when it’s your turn. If you start, don’t stop – keep walking because the people literally aim right for you, anticipating that you will keep moving. The key is to wait for a pack of scooters, then immediately GO! What seems like complete chaos on the streets to us is perfectly normal to them.

On our way back from shopping at the local market, we decided to cross a busy intersection just for kicks. In America, I would say this situation would likely get you run over, but here, somehow you end up on the other side alive. People don’t stop honking either. It’s like playing musical instruments here. Everyone wants to chime in and see who can make the most noise or something.

I also noticed that there are a lot of motorbikes here. In the past these were all bicycles, and if the economists are right, in the future we should see all these being replaced with cars. That’s a scary thought, considering how small the roads are and crazy the drivers – yes even crazier than in Texas. Sometimes you will see a mother and four kids crammed onto one motorbike. It’s an indicator of your status and wealth whether or not you own a scooter bike. The “wealthy” are the ones who can provide their own form of transportation.

Later that day we had a meeting with some Curtin alumni from Vietnam themselves. They were all graduates of Curtin Master of International Business, now holding prominent executive positions in banks and corporations. They helped to give us a little more insight into the current business environment in Vietnam. Mr. Quoc Vu works in Vietnam’s largest bank, ACB, as the managing director. One of the others, Ms. Dao Nguyen, works for the second largest bank as deputy general director. They both have benefited from the rapid development of banking in Vietnam.

That evening we had dinner with our guest at the beautiful Lemon Grass restaurant in the Palace Hotel. Located on the top floor, we could see the city of Saigon very well. Unfortunately this is when the jet-lag kicked in real bad for me. I have never felt so tired as I did that night. However, Rachael and I somehow managed to fit our training in late that evening. Tash and Chris accompanied us as we snuck into the Sheraton next door to use the treadmills because the ones at our hotel were not working.

Cu Chi Tunnels
The tunnels were originally built during the time of the French and were later added to during the time of the Americans. It was a very complex system that the Vietnamese villagers of Cu Chi escaped to when they were being bombed.

Sierra88.jpgWe had the opportunity to go in the tunnels and see what it was like for ourselves. The tunnels were very narrow and stuffy, and we crawled about 180 meters – long enough to make us feel claustrophobic and very hot. It’s hard to believe that this is the way these people lived for so long. Any outsider could admire this huge complicated system they had built. They were a very tactical and innovative people, and even as an American I can’t help but respect them for what they endured those many years.

Prior to entering the tunnels we watched a short video talking about the War from the Vietnamese perspective. One line that really stood out to me described the American soldiers as a “crazy batch of devils.” The Cu Chi Fighters were relentless. I thought one phrase captured it best in saying it was “fatalism mixed with courage.”

Sierra26.jpg We also had the opportunity to take a few shots at the shooting range. We all bought some ammo and practiced our shooting skills. I think I almost blew out my eardrums, though, on that first shot.

War Remnants Museum
The museum is public display of exhibits showing the effects and aftermath of the Vietnamese war. There were eight different exhibits to walk through, and I was very taken aback by many of the displays. Many of the photos were very alarming to see, images that will stay in my mind forever. Just walking through some of the exhibits gave me goosebumps.

One exhibit showed the aftermath of “Agent Orange,” a chemical weapon experimented for the first time by the U.S. against Vietnam. Many have termed this as a “reckless misuse of chemical pesticides” and also experimentation on human subjects, many of whom who were civilians. It was the most disturbing reality to see.

One section was dedicated to the international newscasters. It was often chilling to see pictures that these reporters took just seconds before their death. This exhibit was dedicated to showing the reality that prompted a major public outcry from much of the Western world. This was in part due to the fact that the gruesome experience of war was being captured in color for the first time, and broadcasted right in the living rooms of those back home. These reporters played a major role in getting the truth out there. Seeing these realities face to face was certainly an eye-opening experience for all of us.

Water Puppet Theatre
In the evening we enjoyed a traditional Vietnamese water puppet show by the Ho Chi Min City’s Golden Water Dragon Theatre. With a live orchestra of percussion, lutes and voices, the show consisted of a series of mini stories – everything from the celebration of sacred animals to planting rice paddy fields and catching frogs – and all on water. This vibrant and beautiful form of puppetry has been performed by the Vietnamese since the 11th century and has been an instrument of international cultural exchange for the Vietnamese.

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