Emily Hayes recalled joining what she described as a "flash mob" of dancers on her way back to a hotel from dinner. She remembered climbing the Great Wall outside Beijing and learning what kind of dishes her guides cooked at home.
But as a journalist, Hayes, a recent graduate of American University's political journalism and public affairs graduate program, said her 2019 China trip has broadened her worldview and has helped enhance her international reporting, especially regarding China.
"Wording really matters, and having a global mindset from traveling and experiencing the culture yourself, so that you are better able to understand the policies, where the people are coming from, have empathies and choose your words wisely when you are writing. It's an experience that really humanizes the people in the country that is not always covered in the press that way," she said.
Hayes was one of five US student panelists who shared their firsthand experiences of visiting the "Middle Kingdom" at a webinar presented by the US-China Heartland Association and sponsored by the China-United States Exchange Foundation on Thursday.
Their journeys took place in January 2019 amid escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington. Despite the ups and downs in the bilateral relationship at the time, many panelists said they gained an understanding of Chinese culture that goes beyond existing perceptions.
Josh Schwartz, who studied international security and defense policy, said the opportunity to visit China helps maintain dialogue around "hot-button issues" and prevents miscommunication.
"Even with conflict of interest, different regional or international goals, there's still a massive need for a global mindset, because communication is the key to conflict resolutions and conflict management," said Schwartz, who traveled to China with the exchange foundation and the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs delegation.
Schwartz said his trip took him to vastly different regions in China, from the vast Forbidden City in Beijing to the tropical jungles in the Yunnan province. He even stopped by DJI, a Chinese technology company headquartered in Shenzhen, Guangdong province.
He spoke with officials and experts from different parts of the Chinese government about issues such as renewable energy and urban development.
It was important to hear how Chinese policymakers articulated their perspectives, he said, because reading a Western interpretation of a Chinese statement often omitted the social or political context behind it. "It's very important for understanding the motivation behind those policies," he said.
Schwartz noted that Chinese and Americans, who come from distinct historical backgrounds, tend to embrace different sets of values, which led to misunderstanding of each other's goals.
Schwartz said he has thought a lot about the negative opinion some people in the US have about life in China. "Then you think about generations that in the past had very little economic well-being, and over time, their situation is improved," he said.
Schwartz said that thinking that what your own culture sees as high quality of life is universally true is misguided. "And I think that does go both ways," he added.
No topic off-limits
Aly Azhar, who studied energy policy and finance at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs, said his group engaged in "very open conversations about a lot of very difficult topics" with Chinese officials.
He was told by his hosts at the welcoming dinner that no topic was off-limits, which was a pleasant surprise since China is "portrayed in a very specific way here in the US".
"We engaged in a lot of very difficult conversations, but I really appreciate how upfront and how open officials from the government and from the private sector were in engaging with us and answering our questions," said Azhar, whose group visited China in January 2020.
He noted how pushing back on the misconceptions that have stemmed from political differences and focusing on the shared values helped him bond with Chinese university students.
"Similar to how Americans may have perceptions of China, I am sure Chinese people have perceptions of America as well. I didn't want the university students, in particular, to have a perception of me based on the decisions that my government was making," Azhar said.
He encouraged future students who might have the interest in traveling to China to dispel any "fear of the unknown".
"Go beyond what you read and what you consume in the media. It's important to realize that we definitely portray other countries through a certain lens in a very specific perspective here in the US, and that is rather unfortunate. ... Anyone should really travel as much and as frequently as they possibly can," he said.