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Getting to the heart of Communism

Feb 18, 2008
by Carrie Pack Chowske, '00

Most college students would scoff at the idea of spending their summer vacation sleeping on plywood and concrete beds or using a community shower and toilet. But for senior Jessica Griner, achieving a lifelong goal was worth a little discomfort.

The English major spent years dreaming about traveling to China after seeing a television special on Chinese adoptions when she was in elementary school. By middle school, she was telling anyone who would listen that she hoped to live in China one day.

Finally, with the last summer of her undergraduate studies looming, Griner decided it was time to “test the waters” and see if living in the communist country was really for her.

“The whole country intrigues me,” she said. “I had to go there for myself and walk the dirt roads and shake hands with farmers to really understand what China is all about.”

Griner spent seven weeks there training in Beijing, taking classes at a teachers’ college in north central China and living with a rural Chinese family, which turned out to be her favorite part of the trip.

She took a four-hour bus ride to a remote village that had a reputation for being hostile toward outsiders. But Griner said the people in that small town were some of the most warm and caring she met during her trip.

“They loved me not for my flowery words or grand ideas, because they couldn’t understand me,” she said. “They loved me just for existing, just for being me.”

Despite having to help kill a chicken for dinner, sticking out like a sore thumb with her bright red hair and white skin, sharing a concrete slab bed with an entire family and using a “town bathroom” – which meant a concrete block wall surround and two bricks to stand on to keep the user’s feet clean – Griner says the rural experience was rewarding.

“I now know there is really nothing I cannot do,” she said. “There are only boundaries that I set for myself. If I have to eat scorpion, or chicken feet, or shower with 40 other people, I can.”

Most Chinese live on farms and are very poor, Griner said, in stark contrast to the images of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong portrayed by magazines. But she believes the country has a lot to offer.

“China is a place of extraordinary contradictions, and this generation of Chinese college students has an incredible future,” Griner said. “My impression of China is one of incredible natural beauty, a rich and spiritual history and a people whose kindness has invigorated my soul.”

Griner finds the “hustle and sensory overload” of America exhausting after spending her days cultivating sunflowers and getting to know people with more basic needs. She still appreciates the United States and the freedoms it offers, but she plans to make the move to China this summer after she receives her degree.

“I strive to become more Chinese each day – which means lessening my need for identity, control and independence,” she said.

Even so, Griner is unsure of her ultimate plans.

“I don’t know who I will be in 20 years,” she said. “But I know that my experience in China has changed my life forever.”

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