ISLP International Relations and Diplomacy delegation: South Africa v. China

Last month I spent nearly two weeks traipsing around China as part of the International Scholar Laureate Program’s International Relations and Diplomacy delegation. For those who remember, last year I went on this same delegation, but to South Africa.

As I’ve previously written about my experiences in South Africa as part of the International Scholar Laureate Program, I thought it would be worth comparing the my experiences in both China and South Africa for any future scholars.

China

My goodness, the China delegation is so tightly packed that you will be exhausted by the end of it. But it is absolutely worth it. You get to explore three Chinese cities – Xi’an, Beijing and Shanghai – and see past, present and future China respectively.

We had some really interesting talks from NGOs, government officials, think tank researchers, university lecturers. We even visited the Polish Embassy in Beijing! As someone who wants to break into diplomacy, this provides valuable insight into the world of international affairs.

I do however recommend critically analysing the content that government officials say, as you would in any country. But keep in mind that China adopts the culture of “saving/keeping face” – so consider the language you use if you feel like voicing your opinions.

Then there was the fun stuff… we visited the Great Wall and took sweaty selfies, the terracotta warrior army of Xi’an (which is still being excavated!), we attended a cheesy kung fu show and intense acrobatic show in Shanghai. There are also multiple additional excursions that you can choose to opt into at an additional cost, which isn’t really touched upon in the pre-departure information.

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A different angle of the Forbidden City 🇨🇳

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The Diplomacy delegation to China is one of the largest programs run by Envision. In 2017 we had approximately 80 scholars, with other delegations (nursing, engineering, business etc.) there were 210 of us in China at once. That means no time for dilly dallying or you’ll get left behind.

 

South Africa 

If you prefer a more relaxed approach to your study tours, the South African delegation is definitely the way to go. Fewer people choose to attend the South Africa delegation (there were about 20 of us in 2016), meaning that there is a greater chance of flexibility in the schedule. For example, I was super interested in visiting the International Criminal Court, where crimes committed under apartheid were trialed. This wasn’t in the original schedule, but I mentioned it to our guide and he arranged a visit – we just had to start the day half an hour earlier.

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Constitutional Court, Johannesburg

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A large portion of this trip is focused on learning about the historical context of apartheid in South Africa, its implications and moving forward to seek justice and reconciliation. This is a really moving topic, and can really affect you if you’re empathetic to hearing about these stories. Visiting the apartheid museum puts things into perspective and will probably make you cry.

One thing I found really refreshing about South Africa is how aware everyone is of current affairs and the political climate. Everyone seems to be well-versed in these issues and have really interesting conversations and debates about them.

A big bonus if you choose to head to South Africa is the optional cultural extension – you’ll spend two days on safari searching for the “big five”:  the African lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, African leopard, and rhinoceros.

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The watering hole outside our rest stop to Kruger

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In short, both the China and South African International Relations and Diplomacy delegations are incredible experiences and they are what you choose to make of them. You’ll meet a lot of interesting and passionate people – whether they’re speakers, university students, members of the delegation or even people you meet on the street. Each delegation will teach you about a different area of international affairs and you’ll learn an incredible amount in such a short period of time through experiential learning. While no study abroad tour is 100% perfect, I would still absolutely recommend experiences such as these – textbooks and internet searches can only teach you so much.

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Lovebirds: exploring Chinese farmer painting in Xi’an

Nansuo Village in rural Xi’an is famous for Chinese farmer painting – a unique art form that utilises a calligraphy brush and ink to replicate natural images such as bamboo, peonies and lovebirds. As this artform doesn’t involve erasing any mistakes, each painting must be perfect from start to finish and takes artists many years to master.

Today, myself and 70 international scholars from the United States, Canada, Australia, South Africa and Latin America have been invited to Nansuo Village to learn more about the intricate details involved in traditional Chinese painting.

An elderly farmer leads us down the dirt roads to his courtyard. This man is Mr Jiang, a Chinese farmer and renowned painter in the Chinese farmer painting circles.

As we walk the streets, we pass multiple colourful murals depicting smiling children and village life.

We enter through the large traditional Chinese gates and line the path of his courtyard to watch as the local villagers put on a traditional welcoming ceremony.

First comes the crashing of symbols; a group of three women set the scene with great gusto. One woman steps into a dragon boat costume, pulling the straps up over her shoulders and makes her way down the path, swaying in time to the music.

Next, two smiling papier-mâché masked characters dance down the aisle, twirling and curtseying to the audience.

As the performance continues, I notice a group of villagers and their young children have gathered at the entrance to the courtyard and are clapping along to the familiar rhythm.

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Nansuo villagers perform a traditional dragon dance


The music ends and soon five young women dressed in the same green silk suits pick up the sticks of a five-metre-long dragon puppet, ready to impress their international guests. The symbols start up again, this time with the addition of a large hand drum. The women run up and down the aisle, twisting and turning the body of the dragon to give the illusion of flight. The red and gold dragon is restless, and snaps its jaws at the crowd. One girl in front of the dragon is startled, until she remembers that it’s being controlled by the five women, and laughs it off.

The drummer speeds up his tempo, the symbols crash together even louder, and the dragon moves faster and faster, doubling back on itself to create a red figure-of-eight.

Finally, the performance comes to an end, and the scholars are invited to the second floor of Mr Jiang’s house, which serves as his art studio and showroom.

“So, the performance just now we performed in my courtyard is for the big holidays, traditional Chinese holidays or the occasions when we are welcoming distinguished guests from far away,” Mr Jiang explains with the assistance of an interpreter.

“I feel very happy and honoured for you to come and visit my farm, the village, and my family,” he continues.

“Our village has a population of 900 people and the agricultural area is more than 1000 mu” (which equates to approximately 666 square kilometres).

“Our people grow a lot of wheat and corn. Some of the families grow fruit and vegetables. In the agricultural seasons, we all work in the farms but in our spare time we will go and work as the labourers.

Mr Jiang explains that Nansuo village was established during the Qing dynasty from 1644 to 1912.

“This area was the back garden of the Qing emperor and with the growing of the populations, more people moved to this area and we filled the pond so we could start to grow things in the farms.

“There are four villages surrounding the four sides of the garden. Our village is on the south side of the imperial gardens and we call it the South village.”

When asked how long he has lived in the village, Mr Jiang replies: “my family always lived in this village and for so many generations it is hard to remember”.

Mr Jiang begins to paint – dipping his calligraphy brush into pigmented ink and dabbing it on the page repeatedly; creating delicate pink flower petals.

As the calligraphy brush moves across the page, the pink flower petals receive stems and leaves.

Mr Jiang explains that he is painting peonies, as they are renowned in China as being the favourite flower of Chinese emperors because they symbolise prosperity and happiness.

china2.jpgMr Jiang’s first strokes

Mr Jiang sets down his calligraphy brush and explains how he got into the Chinese farmer painting movement.

“I’m just a local farmer and I have worked in the farms for a long time. I’m a farmer but also an artist. Painting is my hobby and since I was a child I loved painting so much.

“At that time, I had a big wish that I would go to college and have further education and become a professional artist.”

But Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 had severe consequences on Mr Jiang, and many other aspiring artists.

“When I graduated from junior high school, the Cultural Revolution burst out. As a kid of a low-ranked official in the national army I had no chance to further my education.”

The stated goal of the Cultural Revolution was to eliminate existing traditional influences and replace them with Mao-ist ideologies.

“At that time, the students needed to be recommended to continue their education. But as a kid from this background I had to drop out,” Mr Jiang explains.

Despite the Cultural Revolution, in 1973, Mr Jiang had the opportunity to join a farmer’s painting club and fulfilled his dream of creating traditional art.

“At that time, a lot of professors and painters from universities of Xi’an came to this village and I had a chance to study and learn from them.

“Through years of study I created so many different artworks and many of my works had won a lot of prizes in domestic and international awards and some of my paintings were collected by public exhibitions.

“Now I’m the vice chairman of the committee of the Pu Shen farmers painting and in my spare time I like to teach the students too.

“I had two exhibitions in Minnesota in the United States in 2000 and 2009. My exhibitions there were very successful.

“I made a lot of friends with Americans and they love my paintings very much. I’m very happy to see my paintings collected by them and hung on the wall or given as a gift to their friends.

Mr Jiang picks up his calligraphy brush and paints two grey lovebirds perched on the peony branches. As he does so, Francis, our interpreter, provides us with some background on traditional Chinese painting.

“In China, there are four treasures for artists – the first is the brush. Normally it’s like a bamboo stake with the fur from a wolf or goat, or sometimes the whiskers of a mouse.

“The second is the rice paper. The Chinese invented paper – it’s one of the four greatest inventions invented by the Chinese. The best paper for paint and writing calligraphy is rice paper. The best rice paper can last for thousands of years, and the rice paper holds the ink very well – that’s why painters like to use the rice paper.

“The third and fourth things are the ink and the ink stone. Of course, we don’t use ink stones anymore – just liquid ink,” Francis explains.

Mr Jiang changes to black ink and leans over the rice paper, carefully writing the Chinese characters for ‘lovebirds’ in his elegant script, as Francis continues her explanation of traditional Chinese artwork.

“If you look at a Chinese painting there are four elements. Firstly, you need to look at the painting itself – the contents. Second, in the corner of the painting you will see a sentence written in Chinese calligraphy. This sentence tells you the meaning of the painting. A second sentence will tell you where and when it was painted. The last thing will be the artist’s seal.

“Chinese oil paintings try to paint a scene to replicate nature – just like taking a photograph. Chinese paintings try to absorb the feeling of the thing.

“The artist will observe the subject, for example bamboo, for many years so he starts to know the growth of bamboo in four different seasons. After so many years of observations, suddenly the artist will become enlightened and come back into the studio to finish the painting within five minutes with no corrections.

The students watch silently as Mr Jiang holds his stamp up to the light and rotates it to the perfect angle, before firmly pressing the seal onto the rice paper, leaving behind a perfect red character.

In less than 15 minutes, a scene of two love birds sitting on a peony bush has been recreated on rice paper.

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Mr Jiang’s final artwork

“Mr Jiang can finish the painting quickly now, but it took him many years to get to this point. He doesn’t like the sketch work where you can use erasers to remove your mistakes and repaint again. You don’t do that – you just finish the painting in one time,” Francis tells the awestruck group.

Mr Jiang’s self-discipline is evident in his artwork – each stroke is intentional and adds to the beauty of his work. It seems that years of perseverance and hard work has lead him to this point.

In the age of emerging digital artwork, there is something intrinsically simple and beautiful about this traditional approach to art.

If art is intended to replicate the complexities of life, perhaps we can learn something from Mr Jiang.

By carefully considering what is around us and learning to be intentional with our actions, we can create a beautiful life that we’re proud of.

How unpaid internships benefit the rich [opinion]

I’m having difficulty adapting to the end of university life. For the past four and a half years I’ve been able to focus on assignments and blocking out the real world. It wasn’t until my final year that I realised the importance of gaining work experience through internships and volunteering.

I was so focused on getting decent grades and completing all my assignments that I forgot that university was a pathway to get to a desired career goal. I think that a lot of people fall into this trap, and we come away from university with our degrees and minimal job prospects because of it.

I heard the other day that it takes a graduate an average of four years to get full-time work related to their study field. That’s longer than most of the degrees out there.

Most workplaces won’t hire you without experience, which makes sense because they don’t want to hire people who may not be able to perform well. But how are you supposed to gain experience if no-one will hire you?

That’s when unpaid internships come into play. In the international relations sector, majority of internships are unpaid and go for several months at a time. If (like me) you come from a city that doesn’t offer internships in your field of interest, you need to relocate at your own cost – either interstate or internationally.

This is where things start to really irk me. If you’re working full-time for several months away from home, it’s going to start getting expensive. Accommodation, food, transport, work-related expenses… it all adds up. Full-time unpaid work doesn’t leave a lot of time for paid casual or part-time work, so you need to prepare to save a lot of money beforehand or go into debt. If you don’t have the money, you can’t afford to live.

This means that only people who are financially well-off or have saved like crazy can afford to take part in these initiatives. Intentionally or not, these unpaid internships benefit the rich, further widening the gap between rich and poor graduates. If you can’t afford to work for free to get experience then it seems like you might be waiting a while for that graduate-level position.