Posted by: Jason | December 9, 2009

Guangzhou Day 1 (and only)

After the transfer from Hong Kong, we had one full day in Guangzhou, and we spent it with students and faculty at Sun Yat-Sen University.   More specifically, with Professor Chen and 50-60 hydrology and engineering students, both undergraduate and graduate.  An extra-special thanks to Vivian, who gave us a presentation in the morning and an excellent tour of Guangzhou’s quickly-developing north shore area in the afternoon.  She spent the entire day with our group, and we owe her.

Vivian’s presentation was followed up by discussion, which I think all parties would agree, suffered from some communication difficulties.  The language barrier was actually the easiest to solve – a number of the SYSU students spoke English, and four of the students from Lawrence are fluent in Mandarin (including two who joined us in Guangzhou straight from three months studying Mandarin in Beijing at the Associated Colleges in China Intensive Language & Culture Program, which Lawrence helped found in 1996.)

Instead, the larger communication difficulties were, in my mind, a function of (1) very different programs of study – social sciences and humanities vs. engineering, and (2) fundamentally different understandings of the relationship between water and society, as well as the importance of sustainability.   We seemed, unfortunately, to speak right past each other for about 30 minutes.  Our students were asking very difficult questions about public policy, economic development, environmental sustainability, and political management, but had difficulty communicating them to their SYSU counterparts.

It struck me as an example of something Jeb Barzen, the director of the International Crane Foundation, discussed when he visited Lawrence last year.  The way to start a discussion, he argued, is to find common ground.  If you can’t identify some sort of common goal – no matter how small, how abstract, how far into the future – a productive conversation just isn’t going to happen.   It took some time, and the groups had to poke at each other a little bit, but I think we found some common ground for discussion after a while.  Specifically, I think both groups were interested in the parallels between China’s current economic development and its effects on water management, on one hand, and the history of the United States for similar questions.  There are not inconsequential connections to be drawn, and that seemed to be our common ground for discussion.

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