Twelve Curtin journalism students and two academics departed a chilly Perth for a two-week study tour in sweltering and sultry Shanghai at Fudan University in July. The purpose was to learn, challenge and experience, and to give and take writes Professional Fellow Glynn Greensmith.
Ni hao (pronounced nee how) is a deceptively simple way to say hello in Mandarin. There are five main languages and 200 separate dialects in China. Attempting to offer some elements of genial conversation in the local tongue is not easy. A simple ‘thank you’ can have you subtly re-attempting the pronunciation ad infinitum. ‘Xiexie’, we would say, again and again in every encounter, wishing to be both polite and cosmopolitan. It turns out pronouncing it five different ways in the same conversation mostly highlights deficiencies in the latter. Try saying it – xiexie – it’s easy, just exactly as it looks.
In a country of 1.3 billion people, with a history stretching back well over 5000 years, the city of Shanghai is far more complex and nuanced than most of us think. It is appealing, disarming, brave, intelligent, endlessly photogenic, cultural and multicultural; an intellectual whirlwind.
Each morning the study tour began with a lecture, featuring topics as diverse and fascinating as Chinese imperial history, food, the rise of new media, and feminism in China – past, present and future. The feminism lecture was presented by former Fulbright Scholar Professor Lian Lu and lasted over three hours due to the peppering of questions from students utterly rapt with both content and delivery.
Journalistically, it was an eye-opener. Any assumptions we had about a country dominated by state-controlled media were swept aside in a tide of stories about brave, investigative reporting that aligned to the breadth and scope of new media and innovation. China may not have Facebook, Twitter or Google, but its citizens are talking on Weibo, Wechat and Renren in epic numbers. We also learned the media landscape in Fudan is in some ways similar to ours, and under pressure from increasing workloads, new media proliferation and government influence.
We toured museums, historical areas and media outlets, including the Shanghai Daily newspaper and the International Channel Shanghai, an independent English language station resplendent in resources and production values.
Besides the formal talks and visits, we were thrown into a glorious cultural maelstrom that placed us outside our comfort zone. We hit the streets, talking to people with whom we shared no linguistic or cultural commonalities, but who provided some of the most inspirational, amusing and rewarding moments of the study tour. We talked, explored and wandered, photographed, interviewed and inquired into some of the myriad tales Shanghai has to tell.
With a true nose for journalism, student Kira Carlin set out to dig under the skin of Shanghai to find out more than just the usual tourist information.
“We investigated the weekend marriage markets and gay Shanghai, saw insect and animal markets, old mixed with new, discovered the realities of death and burial in a city of 24 million people, photographed cats, scooters, green spaces, metro crowds and everything else visually appealing,” says Carlin. “ We discovered a more nuanced idea of China, of journalism and of who we are within this profession.”
The students were also able to compare Chinese and Australian journalism with surprising results.
“Students at Fudan [University] harbour many of the same aspirations and uncertainties as those at Curtin, in many cases magnified,” explains student Rohan Domville-Lewis.
“When the journalists we visited talked candidly about the opportunities and frustrations of their work in China’s technological and political climate, it did not sound a million miles from the situation Australia’s media finds itself in. For all the eye-opening unfamiliarity, one comes away with a sense that just as much is shared,” he says.
It was only after landing back at Perth airport, as farewells were exchanged, that we realised we hadn’t learned the Mandarin words for goodbye. After an extraordinary two weeks it seemed appropriate: Shanghai is not the sort of place you want to say it to.