How little I know

You go to China and think you know a little bit. You stay a while and realise you know less, then after a year realise you know nothing. This was said by Harry Liu, Associate Professor, Deputy Director General (CELAP) at at the Chinese Executive Leadership Academy Pudong. I wanted to learn about China and see for myself how much the stereotypes matched or contrasted with my observations, and came away realising how little I knew. I also realised how hard it is to develop understanding. 
At the Australian consulate Jeff Turner, the trade commissioner, explained the development of Chinese aspiration over the last 50 years by describing the products that were desirable. Initially people aspired to the three circles: a bicycle, a watch, and something he’d forgotten. Next it was the three squares; white goods such as refrigerator and washing machine. Now people want a car, an apartment and travel. This level of aspiration requires significant development, infrastructure and trade. That is certainly happening. The pace of growth is massive, and the official mood is one of national pride and success. What I wondered about, and tried to explore through my questions to people at various institutions , was the level of political freedom, the status of women, support for LGBTIQ people. I didn’t get far! Indeed, at the Suicide Research and Prevention Centre when I asked about data on and programs for same-sex attracted young people, was told that there are not many gay people in Hong Kong. The implication was they were not numerous enough to matter.

As an ambassador for my university and country it was important to be polite and respectful. At the same time I could tell some of the people who were part of university meetings wanted to speak more deeply and honestly yet were constrained by time, language and circumstances. I asked questions of the tour guide and interpreter in the informal environment of the bus, and their answers and reactions were really interesting, usually expressing conservative attitudes and behaviour. 

The status of our visit was high; China and Chinese universities are keen to build good relationships with us. There is status in international collaborations. At Sichuan University in Chengdu the head of the health department (mr ?) who had been in charge of the rescue and restoration efforts after the earthquake gave a presentation about how hard everyone worked to get the place going again, and thanked the communist party and different levels of government at the end. One of the speakers had been at a conference in Beijing and was told to return early to speak to us; another had travelled some distance from another university to be there, although he did not speak. The events were for show as much as information exchange. Students were encouraged to return to study in China. Most people addressed us in Chinese, and the interpreter lacked public health vocabulary so the information was limited. The support for another child for parents who had lost children in the earthquake was a project they were very proud of. My questions about the evaluation of this program’s influence on the wellbeing of the parents were probably too complex and inappropriate for a straight answer. Photos of smiling mothers with babies depicted the official line.

The museum guide spoke loud Chinese via the microphone and our interpreter conveyed the translation in a normal voice. It was odd to experience this reversal of the expected process.

One public health professor was into reproductive health, and had been to Melbourne for the AIDS conference in 2014. He was keen to communicate with me, and we had a short conversation with the exchange of business cards. I asked about the provision of birth control measures after natural disasters, and sexual health policy which had condoms supplied in the hotel rooms. He said that condoms were encouraged yet the challenge was getting people to use them. After the earthquake many of the response workers were from other parts of China, and sex workers also moved in to meet their needs. HIV prevention was an important part of the work in responding to the disaster. Was sex work legal, I asked? No, he said, but it happens anyway and they needed to be responsive to it. Another important health official, a woman, was there, and I asked a question about gender equality. It is illegal to know the sex of a baby before it is born, was her vehement answer. At the time I thought she was being evasive, but in later conversation with the interpreter I realise that he had interpreted my question about gender equity into one about sex selection. 

Mr ? met us the next day as well to take us through a museum dedicated to the earthquake and subsequent recovery. It was dedicated to the glorious efforts of China. I wondered how the students would see through the propaganda; I underestimated their insight. A huge sculpture at the entrance depicting a dozen men carrying something up a rocky hill had the inscription ‘Unity is strength’. One of the descriptors about the earthquake response, which I could not photograph completely, had phrases like ‘A world-moving reconstruction makes us harvest appreciation. A historic reconstruction makes us create miracles!’ ‘Strong leadership…great support from all the Chinese people…overcame all difficulties, winning the great victory…the Communist Party of China is incomparably superior, our homeland is incomparably warm…incomparably intelligent’. There was no scope for acknowledging any errors, and it doesn’t seem to be part of the culture. The photos of important leaders taking the time to visit the site and being surrounded by children reminded me of Goya’s paintings of the Spanish royal family; the royals were so impressed with the depiction of their finery they were oblivious to the criticism in the paintings that was obvious to outsiders. The strained faces of the children who had clearly been encouraged to smile for the important man were heartbreaking. 

Unity is strength

Some of these faces are heartbreaking 

At another university in Shanghai a PhD student who had been conducting interviews with earthquake survivors was able to give a good answer about the outcomes from the baby program. One mother who still slept with the photo of her child which she kissed every day said no baby could ever replace him or make up for her loss, while another said her new baby represented a new future and was important for her hope. I liked the balance in this story, which made human sense in its diversity. 

The scope and ambition of China as a world leader is clear. The China Executive Leadership Academy Pudong (CELAP) complex is designed to look strong and imposing. World leaders, political and business, attend and deliver training sessions there. They learn things like media skills, and do problem solving simulations about responding to a crisis. There is a photo of Julia Gillard giving a lecture. 

Go our Julia!

Most of the pictures are of men. Associate Professor Harry Liu gave us an address. He included things such as the importance of leadership training for the future of economics, and the cultural challenge of obedience versus questioning. Over lunch, using this last point as an introduction, I asked Professor Liu about how people who want to express a critical opinion, and dissidents were treated in China, and gave Ai Weiwei as an example. He hadn’t heard of him. The assistant looked him up on her phone and explained the detail in Chinese. His interpretation was that some artists want to become rich so they do things like that to make money from westerners; it was more attention seeking than valid criticism of China.

This work at Tigjuan University seemed interesting yet language barriers hampered deeper understanding 

These were the best snacks of the trip, although the accompanying presenters were frustrating in their inability to communicate about what looked like interesting research.

I don’t have a slick summary of my experience in China. The study tour was a success, the students mostly seemed engaged and thoughtful, and we were treated very well. I have an impression of a country that is determined to be successful on the global stage and has resources to make this happen quickly and on a massive scale. I’m not sure where individuality comes into the collective culture, if it does. The people I met were eager to communicate and create a good impression. I’m starting to realise how little I know about China.


Babies in romper suits with their bare bottoms exposed, and small boys pissing on the grass by the pavement 
Men with their shirts pushed up to their armpits, showing their bellies, cooling off in the heat.

A single worker in orange hiviz on the side of the freeway, sweeping stones to the edge with a broom made from sticks.

Toll booths on the freeway with bright pots of flowers around the outside, and women cultivating garden beds in the centre of the concrete lane dividers

Grey skies, and the contrast of one rare blue patch

The translator who spoke like a thesaurus and offered several synonyms when one word would do. ‘This chair, seat, or bench, as I discussed with you this morning, is available for sitting on’

The tour guide with toy pandas on the telescopic wand

Lush greenery, and magnificent ginkgo trees

A huge above ground freeway with roads beside it, and a play area set up underneath with kids and grandparents playing there 

Freeway flowerpots 

Crossroads is an international aid organisation that was founded in Australia. It takes donations and matches them with people and places in need. They have simulation programs where people experience conditions such as being a refugee, blind, or HIV risk. The aim of these simulations is to build empathy for people in those situations. We spent our day at Crossroads volunteering in the morning and doing two of the simulations in the afternoon. 

The volunteer activities included unpacking donated goods, or loading sorted goods for dispatch; painting, and book sorting. In book sorting a pallet of boxes of donated books was being unpacked and placed on shelves according to category. The ones I unpacked seemed to come from the library of someone who liked fashionable cook books, Japanese crafts such as felting and quilting, and high end urban design books. 

An English-Japanese dictionary in the mix made me wonder if the donor was Japanese, or had lived in Japan. One shelf of secondary school texts was full, so I packed up some boxes of geography workbooks, written for English schools, to be sent to Tanzania. How does this cultural dissonance play out? Are the students in Tanzania better off with inappropriate books than no books at all?

The organisation is situated on the former airport, so has a lot of space relatively for Hong Kong. Conventions are held there, as well as large areas devoted to the simulation experience. The convention hall was called Rivendell, and the dining room Narnia, which says something about the reading taste of the founders.
For the Blind X-perience a group of seven of us handed over all phones, watches and glasses, took a walking stick, and accompanied a totally blind guide into a mock Ghanian village. We went down a corridor into a completely enclosed space with no light. The Chinese guide, Ming, shook each person’s hand, introduced himself and asked our names. He spoke with a voice that sounded like Lenny Henry, which was quite incongruous. He learnt them all and quickly recognised each person by voice and used their name. We were encouraged to feel and describe what was around, and listen to the sounds around to make sense of the environment. In the scenario we were blinded because of a river fly, and there was no possibility of sight again. We felt grasses and a tree, and could hear the river. We made our hesitant way across the open space towards Ming’s voice, and crossed a bridge to the village. There was a house, with simple furniture and cooking equipment, and a market place with baskets of produce and clothes. We were encouraged to feel them all and explore the environment. Finally we were ushered to a bench for a debrief. I had expected to be freaked out by not being able to see, yet was OK in the space, learning to find my way around. Having the stick gave me confidence that I would not fall. I held on to the shoulder of the person in front (with consent) as we navigated around. We must have looked very timid and tentative on the infrared cameras. I noticed a tendency to hunch over, even when sitting, and had to make an effort to sit up straight. This simulation was done well and gave interesting insights into negotiating the world without sight.

‘Catch’ and ‘infected with’ are poor word choices IMHO in these posters seen before starting the experience. 

The AIDS E-xperience I was less happy with. It came with baggage and attitudes that were stigmatising, despite a goal being to increase understanding and reduce stigma, and did no health promotion at all. We were assigned a character, issued with headphones and an MP3 player, and waited in a room until it was time to start our progress through the activity. Posters in the room gave statistics about HIV and AIDS. Despite it being called an AIDS experience it was more about the acquisition of HIV. My character was a middle aged Eastern European woman, Svetlana. Her family was poor and they earned money by running a bed and breakfast accommodation service. In the activity I progressed through a series of rooms, hearing stories about her life. Each room had furniture and equipment suitable to her situation. 

Svetlanas’s house, hospital bed with improvised equipment, and portrait. 

When Svetlana is hit by a car she needs hospital treatment, which was hard for them to afford. The hospital in her village is poorly equipped. When she does not get better the nurse suggests that a re-used needle or unscreened blood might have exposed her to HIV. Her faithfulness to her husband, and his to her, is emphasised: ‘They were a match made in heaven’, so sex can’t have been a factor. There was an emphasis on heteromonogamy in the script. When I got to the final room to find out my ‘HIV status’ the card said positive. 

I’m not sure how I was meant to feel, although shame from having HIV clearly flowed on from the script, with a dose of helpless righteousness thrown in. What I did feel was frustration at political systems where health is not prioritised and hard working poverty is a recipe for suffering. Other scenarios could be interpreted through the same lens, with disempowerment as a theme.

Posters at the end of the experience. Please hug me. Note confounding of HIV and AIDS

The head of Crossroads, DJ Begbie, gave us an impassioned talk about how no one is too small to make a difference, and encouraged us to do our best to make the world a better place. I agree with these sentiments and goals, and some students were clearly moved. He gave a great performance and is a charismatic speaker. The organisation sounds like it plays an important role, however I have some misgivings. He told a story about a nine year old American boy who used google, emails and persuasion, plus local fundraising, to get playgrounds set up for children in (African country…Ghana?) who had nowhere to play. He reported on the voices of the boy, the influential senator, the equipment manufacturer, local dignitaries, yet the voices of the children who were to use the playgrounds were missing from his story. [Written later] I had a conversation with colleagues whose impressions of the AIDS X-perience were different from mine. It was suggested that for a lay person, not a sexual health/public health focused person like I am, that the level of the activity was enough to give an idea of the circumstances people found themselves in. Fair enough!

I have a new lecturing job, still at La Trobe, in the Hallmark Program, which has taken me to China as co-leader of a 14 day study tour. It’s a great opportunity!

The Hallmark Program is a La Trobe undergraduate scholarship program for high achieving students from a range of disciplines. Their study focuses on research and leadership skills, and in third year they do a study tour. This inaugural tour is to China, with the theme of resilience, resistance and recovery. As well as being an educational experience for the students, a purpose of the tour is to build Australia-China relationships, and make La Trobe connections with selected universities here. The three cities we visit are Hong Kong, Chengdu and Shanghai. 

Hong Kong 
What contrasts! My first time in Hong Kong I flew into the old airport with the final approach through the tall apartment buildings, looking into people’s living spaces. I stood at the plane door and breathed in tropical humidity before descending the stairs to the tarmac. That was 1981, and my memory of the city was one of tall buildings, hillsides with shacks for housing, festooned with satellite dishes despite the impoverished buildings, and markets selling a mix of food, clothes, souvenirs and manufactured goods. My husband bought reading glasses and was offered a Chinese newspaper to test them with; ‘now you can read the newspaper’. Alas, the improved eyesight did not come with magic capacity to read a new language. Stalls were lit, yet my impression is of painted signs, not neon or lit up. Today there is a new airport out of town and the airconditioned air bridge led straight into the terminal. The hillside shacks have gone and tall buildings are everywhere–the city has grown enormously. Lighting has changed too, with LED lights everywhere, and market stalls seem brighter, more compact, and brash. The harbour night time light show is an unimpressive laser show, not the astonishing fireworks from 35 years ago. It’s probably more environmentally friendly and safer, though. The Star Ferry still plies its way back and forth across the harbour for a cheap fare. 

We visited the Suicide Research and Prevention Centre at the University of Hong Kong. The professor there is a La Trobe alumnus, Paul Yip. He gave a lecture about his work, and the centre. Mental illness is a taboo topic, and individual counselling such as we have in Australia is not the norm here so approaches to improve mental health and reduce the suicide rate are different. The centre was founded in response to an increase in suicide rates. When after a year the rates had not decreased they were asked to explain why not, and justify their funding. Apparently the need to gather data before implementing possible solutions was not understood by the funders, and some fast talking was required. Another academic, Rainbow, introduced as a former ballet champion, spoke about her work using creative arts with primary and secondary school children as a way of increasing wellbeing and resilience. She showed us recordings of students doing blindfolded trust exercises, choreographed group dancing, and painting. Teachers did inservice training in their holidays to learn how to do these creative activities, and how to evaluate the student responses. Inspectors would visit classrooms to check their delivery of the activities and their interactions with students. Apparently it is a successful program. I asked if creative arts were a part of the usual curriculum; no, she said, only in kindergarten. This is a big cultural difference from Australian school curriculum where creative arts are expected. 

View from the University of Hong Kong

Professor Yip invited us all to lunch. We attended a hospitality training centre, where the restaurant had fabulous views over the harbour, and waiters in padded tunics reminiscent of the terracotta warriors served us a stunning nine course meal. 

Hand towel, plate and swan ornament (indicating vegetarian meal) from lunch. 

The opulence of the university and lunch venue contrasted with our afternoon visit to Oxfam Hong Kong. Oxfam responds to natural disasters around the world, and their work is a mix of fundraising, technical innovation and responding. We saw equipment for purifying water on a small and large scale, and systems for keeping sewerage separate. Basic hygiene kits include bars of soap and a mini personal toilet.

Good to see they aim to leave places better than they found them. Women’s rights are a big part of this at Oxfam. 

We were given a tour of the office, where people working in small cubicles waved and smiled. PR and design featured, and event planning and management for things like the Trailwalker, where people commit to walking 100 kilometres in 48 hours and fundraise on this basis. 
Yet another contrast was the evening harbour cruise, where we had a huge buffet dinner, views of the lights of Hong Kong, and danced the YMCA with actions to the music of a Filipino cover band. Hannah, a student, and I took a taxi to Hong Kong’s tallest building, the ICC tower and had a drink in the Ritz Carlton bar. The design of the space was gorgeous and surreal, and the cloud base half way up the window. This was just day one!

Ritz Carlton view with eye-level cloud base, and Matt, the student who came with us, standing in the exit corridor

Hoi An by night is gorgeous as coloured lanterns are everywhere. The light is soft and gentle, welcoming and festive. Away from the main streets with hectic and unpredictably fluid traffic the pedestrian streets were delightful to stroll along in a relaxed fashion. 


Green lanterns Hoi An


Lanterns for sale in Hoi An

 Everybody us advised to visit Morning Glory* restaurant, so we did. The food was wonderful. The flavours and textures were complex, creative and varied. Jim’s pancake came with a demonstration of how to construct the different components: filled with shrimp, shredded carrot and shredded papaya, held together with a sheet of rice paper wrapped around the outside, and dipped into a beautifully balanced acid/salt/sweet/chilli sauce. I relaxed my usual no-chicken rule as I heard they are grown in fields, not sheds, and had the traditional chicken rice. Wow; really flavoursome rice, two different green salads and some meat. The salads were shredded green papaya, which is my new favourite, and another with a mix of leaves and a vinegar based dressing. They complimented the rice really well. We were not hungry yet had the creme caramel for scientific, cultural investigation purposes. It was creamy and delicious. Despite our intention to only taste, not finish it, we ate every scrap. We made our way back to our hotel in a leisurely fashion via some of the bright lantern-lit streets. 


Jim enjoying the view from our balcony table at Morning Glory restaurant

*Not what you are thinking; it is a green vegetable grown here. 

Posing with the lovely Linh in my new A-line dress (I have a green one too) and jeans

Hoi An is gorgeous, and tranquil compared to the rush of Hanoi. The thing to do there is have clothes made. I’d been pondering for ages just what to have made, and how to choose where to go. We met friends Alex and Helen Morton in Hanoi for dinner, who strongly recommended Tina Design. Off we trotted on arrival and were greeted with enthusiasm. Linh, one of Tina’s tailors, was cheeky, friendly and very talented. She as an excellent salesperson too, and talked me into more than I’d planned. Light wool work pants? Black, or grey? Why not get both? Two cashmere/wool made to measure pants that fit perfectly, have a front lining and pockets deep enough for an iPhone 6 (I don’t have one of those, but you never know) were ready within 24 hours, for $50 US each. I also bought two dresses, some tops and had my favourite pants copied. I’m very happy with the outcome. 

The body image aspect was about the young women’s response to my skin. When I was getting changed one of the other tailors rubbed her fingers on my belly, then rubbed them on her face, trying to transfer my white skin. She said how beautiful I was compared to her and wished she looked like me. Vietnamese men don’t like brown skin, she said. The whitening products for sale, and TV ads promoting treatments to lighten skin ‘and make you more beautiful and confident’ show where this attitude is encouraged. Women working outside are covered head to toe, including gloves, as sun protection. Probably good for cancer prevention yet also a beauty regime, as the men were dressed in much lighter clothes, suitable for the heat. I wish body positivity was more prevalent!

Halong Bay

The loudspeaker on the nearby tri-decker cruise ship boomed out over the bay. “Passengers not going on the cave trip can relax on board. When those going to the caves return, French pancakes will be served on the sundeck.” There was no question that the cruise was about being pampered, and herded about in well-managed groups. It seemed that the beauty of the place the ship was visiting took second place to the ship’s organisation or the experience of others visiting the bay. In a Huxleyesque* response I felt pleased I was in a small boat with only 15 passengers and our guide did not need a megaphone.

The cruise on Halong Bay was gorgeous. The other passengers became friends, the crew members were delightful, the food yummy and plentiful–we came back from the cave to sliced pineapple and watermelon on our terrace–and it was a relaxing, charming experience. The departure was like a flotilla heading out at peak hour, but we spread out and found some less populated waters. It was warm, calm and peaceful. We had some off-boat activities, including a trip into the limestone caves, a visit to a pearl farm, swimming in the bay and kayaking around a fishing village.

The caves were stunning. Once up the side of the island (the first of the reputed 800 steps) and into the cave entrance, the stalactites and stalactites were complex and beautiful, many looking like jellyfish with long, trailing tendrils. The ceiling was scooped out in a series of smooth depressions, formed when the caves were under water. Many of the features were lit with coloured lights; red, orange, and blue. One stalagmite looked amusingly like a penis and testicles pointing skyward, and it was lit in red. If you followed the trajectory from the penis there was a large hole in the ceiling, which was pointed out with some mirth. The caves were huge inside. The contrasting textures of the rough, dribbly walls and the smooth curves of the roof, which dipped to different heights, made it hard to determine distance and perspective.

Some people will see a phallus in everything

Cave at Halong Bay; what is up, what is down? Floor, ceiling?

There were lots of uneven, slippery steps with limited handrails to access and traverse the caves, and Jim was rather freaked out; he’s had a fall on steps in the past while travelling. He braved the experience and I was pointing out each step, as he said he could not see. After a while I looked at his face, not feet and realised he was still wearing sunglasses. He saw a lot better after taking them off. 😎😂😂😳🤓 (I have permission to josh him about this, as it took a long time before he stopped teasing me about asking innocently about the signs in Europe that pointed to Allemagne and Deutchland, not realising they were the same place.) One of our new friends, Ron, a 76 year old Queenslander, walked with us all the way and assisted with the reassurance, direction, and being available to land on if we fell, which we fortunately did not do. His assistance was great. I tried to get him a thank you beer later, but he said no, as we all need to look out for each other.

Having a local bevy after my swim

Several of us later went swimming in the bay off the side of the boat. It was cool after the humid day, and felt great to move freely after a day that began with a four hour bus trip and included a steep climb through caves.

The captain of our little boat sat in the wheelhouse, which was also his bedroom. He steered, sometimes with his feet, sitting on a ledge with a thin mattress. A pile of neatly folded bedding was behind him, and clothes hung from a rail at the back. It was a bit like sleeping space behind the driver’s set on a truck. I walked past late in the evening and the curtains were drawn and soft Vietnamese music could be heard. The rest of the crew slept in the dining room on bamboo mats so he had relative comfort and privacy. He offered a 0630 Tai Chi class, which was attended by 12 of the 15 passengers. We did our stretches and lunges on the roof deck in the soft warmth of the early morning looking over the bay and islands. It seemed a great way for him to get his exercise and value add to the passengers’ experience.

Halong Bay was home to a large  fishing community who lived on the water. Now most of them live on the mainland and the remainder still do some fishing the main industry is tourism. While I understand the importance of tourism to the economy, I felt a little uncomfortable observing them from my cruise boat as the little boats went past, dragging a net or with produce as a floating shop. We had an early morning trip around one of the remaining villages, with a choice of being rowed by one of the locals, or paddling ourselves in a kayak. I’ve never been kayaking and thought it was time to start. Jim opted to be rowed and hopped in a wooden boat with five others that was propelled from aft by a local wielding two oars. His rower was a man, yet most of the people doing this work were women. The kayaks were two person ones, and I paired up with Ron, who had not done it before either. It was surprisingly easy, and great fun. We paddled a rather zig zag course around the bay, looking at the people going about their daily routines in their boats and floating houses. They looked absorbed in their tasks, and took no notice of us.

Kyacking on Halong Bay

* Brave New World, where everyone is conditioned to be satisfied with their lot.