Griffith University students exchanged sweltering heat for snow as they traveled to Beijing, China in the second installment of the 2016 Asia Future Fellows (AFF) program for undergraduates.

The Griffith Asian Century Future’s Initiative brought 12 Griffith University students and 10 Peking University students together in Brisbane during the June-July university break; beginning a journey of challenge, triumph and – above all – collaboration as students worked with their international counterparts to write papers for Griffith Asia Institute’s working paper series Regional Outlook.

Students investigated the complex and multifaceted relationship between Australia and China. Papers explored subjects that pertain directly to the Australian-China relationship, as well as independent issues that comparably inflict both Australia and China, including: Australia-China economic interdependence; university students’ perceptions of financial security; quality of and access to healthcare; disparities between rural and urban education accessibility; and the presence and influence of state media. Students presented their papers in the first two days of the November program, to an audience comprised of their peers and several distinguished guests from Peking University. The success of these presentations represented the culmination of the personal and professional development each student achieved over Semester 2. All the students who participated in the program, Australian and Chinese, should be immensely proud of the quality of work produced and of the individual and collective growth we all achieved.

Natasha Hoppner takes the time to learn Braille at Bethel

Natasha Hoppner takes the time to learn Braille at Bethel

In addition to presenting and discussing their findings and that of their peers, the students also participated in academic and cultural workshops. Professor Liu Shusen, Director of Australian Studies Centre at Peking University and long-time partner of the AFF program, delivered a thought provoking welcoming address on the challenges and opportunities of the Australia-China relationship. His enlightening analysis of the shifting regional and international dynamics set the tone for the compelling dialogue that would be exchanged among the students throughout the week. Professor Ding Dou from the Peking University School of International Studies also presented an exceptional lecture on China and Australia’s predicted economic trajectory domestically, regionally, and internationally – with an emphasis on the economic interdependence between the two countries. To conclude the formal component of the week, Endeavour Scholar and PhD student Bradley McConachie provided the Asia Future Fellows with the opportunity to contribute their personal insights to a greater research project which seeks to improve relations between Australia and China through people-to-people links in the area of research and education.

Concurrent to the formal lectures and presentations, the visiting Griffith University students had the privilege of taking part in a number of Chinese cultural activities and sightseeing ventures to Beijing’s most significant sights – the Red Gate Gallery, Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China to name a few. The Australian Embassy graciously hosted the Asia Future Fellows for a Q&A session, which gave students the opportunity to gain unique insight into potential opportunities and career paths open to us, inspired by the vibrant Australia-China relationship. The Mandarin lesson was undoubtedly the most practically useful workshop of the week however, particularly considering that most students continued to travel around China after they’d finished in Beijing. Developing even an elementary understanding of key Mandarin words and phrases proved to be insurmountably valuable in our day-to-day interactions with shop vendors, taxi drivers and wait staff. If this experience has proven anything, it is that soft-skills such as communication are fundamental to creating the people-to-people links that enrich us as individuals, improve our teams and strengthen the greater community.

The most profound and reflective experience of our time in Beijing, which we will all hold fondly in our memories for years to come, was visiting Bethel. Bethel provides family care and education for visually impaired orphans in four homes in China, and supports orphanages and families with visually impaired children across the country. The majesty of the Forbidden City paled in comparison to the bright and resilient spirits of Bethel’s children. The staff at Bethel exude an unavoidably contagious passion, drive and optimism for the children and the organisation. The Asia Future Fellows team raised funds for Bethel throughout Semester 2, which resulted in a fantastic contribution of $2,000 that we were able to hand over to the orphanage during our visit. This money will go toward purchasing the next year’s supply of walking sticks for the children. We also gave some hands-on help during our visit, individually cleaning each of the balls in the orphanage’s ball pit – so as to maintain a healthy environment for the very hands-on kids. It is safe to say that the residents, staff and work of Bethel utterly inspired us all.

Our time in Beijing left a passionate yearning to explore even further the robust relationship that exists between Australia and China. It was validating and enriching to see our hard work come to completion in our presentations, and to observe first-hand the vast similarities and differences between our two countries – which we had all already heard and read so much about. There is no better way to solidify learning than to put that learning into practice, which can sometimes be hard to achieve as an Asian Studies student living in Australia. Working with my Chinese peers throughout the semester gave me an invaluable opportunity to put into practice the intercultural communication skills and validate the Asian literacy I have acquired during my degree. Seeing them again after presenting our findings, and spending time witnessing and being immersed in their culture, added another even deeper dimension to our (hopefully) long enduring, prosperous personal and professional relationship. There is no doubt that China has become intrinsically linked to my personal and professional self, and I cannot wait to go back at the next available opportunity.

Photos from the Asia Future Fellows program can be found on our facebook page – Brisbane program / Beijing program.

Article by Natasha Hoppner, Bachelor of Asian Studies student and 2016 Griffith President, Asia Future Fellows program for Undergraduates.