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September 3 , 2006


Report from the Field: Nina Roach '07
In Hinterland and Heartland of China

photo ofHomay King

Haverfordian Stephanie Wu and Nina Roach '07 in a shop in China

This summer Nina Roach '07, a senior major in the Bryn Mawr-Haverford East Asian Studies Department, visited areas of China that few tourists see. Haverford Professor of History and East Asian Studies Paul Smith, accompanied by UCLA historian Richard von Glahn, led Roach and three Haverford students on a trip called “Hinterland and Heartland,” funded by Haverford's Center for Peace and Global Citizenship. After touring with the group for several weeks, Roach enrolled in language-study courses at the Harbin Institute of Technology. It was Roach's third trip to China. She had spent the summer of 2004 traveling and teaching English in China, and she spent fall semester of 2005 in a study-abroad program, living with a host family in Shanghai. Her account of this summer's trip follows.

The Hinterland and Heartland trip began Monday, May 15, immediately on the heels of finals. As I watched the clock and gathered my bags together in preparation to leave my room in Pem West, it felt oddly not unlike any other Monday morning. But of course I knew as I waited for my ride to the airport under the Pem Arch, that it was no ordinary Monday and I was in fact embarking on a three-month-long summer adventure. The torrential rain that slowed our drive to the airport did nothing to dampen my spirits. This was my third trip to China since freshman year and I was ready to return. Shouldering two modest backpacks, two pairs of pants, fewer than ten shirts, an empty Moleskine notebook, and an overwhelming sense of adventure I would have walked through the rain to the airport.

We spent the first three weeks of the summer on the road. We blitzed through eight cities in 19 days starting with the traditional capital city of Beijing, then looping across central and western portions of China to plunge into major cities like Xi'an and Xining as well as smaller, less-developed cities like Ya'an, Yulin, Yinchuan and Lanzhou where we were gawked at to the point that the fuss actually slowed traffic. While the attention was interesting at first, even flattering, I took to wearing sunglasses everywhere as the constant staring became unsettling. We concluded the journey, fittingly in Shanghai, China's most populated city. Shanghai's international flavor leads many people to describe it as more urban and hip than most western cities, including New York and Philadelphia.

Our journey was always about the process, never just a means to an end. We took battered buses filled with peasants between the small inland cities and survived hard-sleeper trains that most Westerns don't brave. Moving from one city to the next kept us on the road nearly every other day. Within the first week I'd fallen easily into the rhythm of living out of my bags and sinking exhausted into any hotel bed at the day's end. Exploring new cities' center streets and discovering different historical sites on the outskirts of nearly every city easily kept me enthralled as I filled my Moleskine notebook with observations. Every night the group met for dinner, like a family, to recount the day's happenings and our observations. Often Professor Smith and Richard would entertain us with anecdotes about their days living together on Haight Street in San Francisco, where their closest friends were some of today's leaders in the field of East Asian Studies.

I couldn't begin to choose one highlight of the trip. Three weeks of Chinese journeying adventures added up to countless miles of rapidly changing landscape through the windows of trains and buses, long discussions with Professor Smith while on the road and hours upon hours of exploring vastly differing Chinese cities. We visited temples, ate yak meat, bargained with Chinese vendors, chatted with Tibetans, rode Chinese bumper cars, and photographed everything. Every hour of the trip was rich with meaning.

I'm so grateful that I was able to participate in the Hinterland and Heartland trip. Since I am an East Asian Studies major and the trip was led by my major advisor, I couldn't have found a better way to spend my last college summer. This year, I'll be working on a senior thesis on urbanization and economic inequality in China. Observing these processes firsthand, in the company of experts in the field, has added invaluable depth and richness to my academic work.

I stayed on in China for the whole summer, traveling alone for a bit and spending two months in Harbin, the largest city in northeast China. Attending classes full time, living with Chinese roommates and speaking no English for the duration of the program kept me busy enough in Harbin to prohibit having much time to think about or miss our early summer whirlwind. After the Hinterland and Heartland trip and my summer in Harbin, I am even more eager to return to China. Its vast reaches of landscape and endless variety of people and experiences gave me a summer I'll always cherish.

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