Reflections from Abroad

Published 11/06/2022 in Scholar Travel Stipend
Written by Joyce Wu | 11/06/2022

Although my time in China was cut short, my experience abroad in a country that seemed so foreign to me just a couple months ago has inspired me to pursue interests in urban planning. From pursuing further studies in urban planning, I hope to gain a more globalized perspective on the idea of community and how it relates to the physical organization of land.

For the spring semester of 2020, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Beijing, China at the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Students based on the campus of Tsinghua University. There, I planned to intensively study Chinese, attending Chinese class for four hours a day, following by four hours of Chinese homework. My goal was to become fluent in Mandarin in hopes of being able to use the language in the future as a powerful tool of communication with Chinese diasporic communities around the world. I entered China with the notion that my perception of China has been dramatically shaped by my personal experiences—specifically, my upbringing in the United States, my personal history as a descendent of Chinese immigrant parents, and my conception of Chinese technology as presented in Western media.

As a computer science major, I was extremely interested in the way the Chinese government has fashioned the power of technology to maintain a sense of nationalism and peace within the Chinese population. However, upon arriving in Beijing, I realized the way in which cities are planned and developed are a much more telling example of what it means to exist and to live in China, a country driven by profit and rooted in its beliefs country's history of communism and government patriarchy. Urban planning, much like technology, shapes the economic and cultural construction of China. They exist as symbols of the country’s attempt in bridging their past with their present, developing a culture that is beginning to reconcile its tenuous relationship to a consumerism that is driven by economic success.

In China, the tier system exists as an unofficial organization system for cities within the country. Although un officially recognized by the government as a formal label, Chinese media sources often refer to cities in four different tiers, the first tier being the most economically, politically and culturally developed and the fourth being the least. Shanghai and Beijing are considered to be Tier 1 cities, while Chengdu and Fuzhou are Tier 2 cities. This tier system exists as a marketing strategy, an attempt to attract an increasing number of citizens that are moving from rural areas of the country to cities in search of labor opportunities.

Certain cities, however, have been unsuccessful in marketing new housing developments. Known as ghost cities or ghost towns, there are several severely under-occupied cities that exist within the country. Motivated by the assumption that growing populations of people have a demand for housing in cities, many investors began developing large urbanization projects meant to become a bustling urban district before actual housing demand existed in the area. Housing demand never catalyzed, in contrast to their expectations. As a result, such cities never became fully populated, and many residential complexes remain empty. These ghost towns offer an glimpse in the way Chinese culture has come to operate within the context of the search for economic profit.

While living in Beijing, I had the opportunity to continue exploring the way Chinese culture interacts with urban planning. My first impression coming this Tier 1 city was its extreme sense of vastness and density. Although Beijing is a fairly large city, I rarely saw roads unpopulated by a conglomerate of bicycle, cars, and people. Because of its large population, car owners are restricted 

to using their car every other day to limit traffic and pollution. In the predominantly college student neighborhood I lived in, large groups of people would spill onto roads while waiting to cross the street. The general culture of the enjoyment of existing within the liveliness became very apparent while living there. However, it was surprising to see that there was largely a lack of green space within the city. Given that many elderly Chinese people enjoy exercising outside, there generally lacked small neighborhood parks and other public green space. Rather, malls were more popular social spaces within the city. The city is planned based on a ring system, where public transportation operates on routes that circle around city center.

Given the unprecedented circumstances relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, my semester was unfortunately cut short at the end of January, and while I would have loved to explore other Chinese cities, I was unable to travel. During the time period that I had left the country, the epicenter of COVID-19 cases had not yet spread internationally. However, within China, it was intensely heartbreaking to see the city I had come to know become empty of its movement and liveliness. The silence and fear wraught in the streets of Beijing were unsettling. However, in recognition of my privilege as an American national, I was granted the opportunity to come home and depart from the current circumstances of China. After a month of being abroad, I returned home to New York City. Now, COVID-19 has spread throughout the United States and remains an urgent situation.

However, the need to understand the way urban planning and culture interact and shape each other has intensified as communities continue to be displaced and daily lives are disrupted. For many, access to supermarkets and daily necessities become increasingly difficult, especially for immunocompromised peoples. Hospitals are straining under the lack of resources as certain neighborhoods, specifically low income and communities of color, are being hit harder by the pandemic. Asian American communities are struck by incidents of racism and xenophobia. This is a time of unrest and uncertainty, yet it is also a time that begs an opportunity for imagination. How can we restructure and replan spaces that are equitable and effective in providing neighborhood residents with the opportunity to live a healthful, fulfilling live? How do we build community in physical and non-physical spaces?

In the future, I am interested in conducting research on the specialization of global Chinatowns, influenced by the racialization of the pandemic. “Chinatown” was historically conceived as an umbrella term for an area predominantly populated by Chinese bodies and culture. However, “Chinatown,” delimited as the spatial formation of a Chinese community, is reductive in embodying the complex history of the Chinese diaspora. This project aims to redefine the term ‘Chinatown’ to reflect the current state of various communities around the world. In contrasting the urban spatial patterns I observed in Beijing with my experience growing up in New York City Chinatown, I will analyze the way Chinese diasporic communities situate themselves in cities that are historically not built by or for them, specifically in the way they operate through movement.