Universiteit Leiden

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Lost in Shanghai? Experiences of an exchange lecturer

In February 2017 our faculty newsletter included an announcement on lecturing in China. I immediately thought I should apply.

By Esther Kentin

In the last ten years I have had many Chinese students in my Moot Court class as well as Chinese thesis students, and I found that most of the time they were very motivated and dedicated, characteristics you sometimes miss with some of our Dutch students ;-). Having never visited China before, this opportunity would introduce me to their world, and at the same time I could transfer some of my knowledge on Moot Court education and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). I decided to call my course ‘the Leiden Introduction to the Great Cases of the ICJ’.

After several emails and preparations in September and October, I arrived in Shanghai on the 8th of October for a two-week period. Hua, my very nice contact person at the Shanghai International Studies University (SISU), had already arranged my classes and the distribution of the reader to the students. The first week I would teach Master students at the city campus in Hongkou, while the second week would be spent at teaching Bachelor students at the new campus of Songjiang. A room had been reserved for the full two weeks at SISU Guesthouse in Hongkou, not far from the city centre, but not a tourist area at all. From the 16th floor I had a beautiful view over Shanghai. I really enjoyed staying at the campus as I was fully emerged in campus life, with both Chinese and international students. Also, in the first week, class rooms were only a 2-minute walk, which was also true for the canteen, library and other facilities.

I found the atmosphere and composition of staff at SISU very comparable to what I experience in Leiden. Dress code and mores are rather similar. Hua had arranged several meetings to introduce me to other staff members, also from other universities in Shanghai. The law department has a very nice lecturers’ room, comparable to those in Dutch secondary schools, where staff can drink tea and socialise, but also work and read the newest issues of journals and books. An example to follow, I would say, to encourage collegiality. Staff and students speak very well English, and often also other foreign languages. Two of my colleagues, for example, also spoke perfect German. SISU is a renowned university for languages with a relatively small law department. Many people I have met have studied abroad, in Europe or the US. Regarding my own ability to learn Chinese, I was heavily disappointed: after two weeks I was hardly able to pronounce simple words in a correct way.

Of course, there were also many things very different. Most obvious was the lack of access to Gmail, Google, Whatsapp and Facebook. Furthermore, many websites are not accessible, and the lack of a good search engine impedes research on the internet. Getting around was another challenge. Hua had arranged an app on my phone to use a city bike. Everywhere in the city, you can unlock a bike and after use lock it again wherever you want. But because of the dimension of the city with so many streets, and also many rules (one way, forbidden for cyclists, etc.), as well as the heavy traffic and many people, my travels often resulted in a big detours with double travel time. Something else was the vast presence of the Communist Party. My second week coincided with the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which led to party meetings at the university, increased security measures in the city and 24-hours reporting on television. Last but not least, I was highly impressed by the patience people have when waiting in long lines for tickets, shops, restaurants, etc. in this enormous city of almost 30 million people. Shanghainese are hardworking people, do not complain and are proud to be living in Shanghai!

When travelling back to the Netherlands, I watched the film ‘Lost in Translation’ in the plane, recognising several feelings and emotions. Looking back, I nevertheless feel that I have a better understanding of Chinese culture and of my Chinese students. Shanghai got under my skin and already started to feel a little bit like home.,.