Encountering History: The AES Study Abroad Program Goes to China

The AES Fall Exploration Seminar has provided a remarkable opportunity for AES students to study the history and culture of southern China through a study abroad program crafted by Senior Lecturer, Dr. Connie So. Now in its third iteration, the program—titled “AES Finding Chinese American Roots: Exploring the Cantonese and Hokkien Diaspora with Dr. Connie So”—took students on a trip of six Southern Chinese cities over three weeks before the start of Fall Quarter 2016.

So started the program after reflecting on the current study abroad options offered throughout the University of Washington. So was invested in creating a study abroad trip that was grounded in her experiences in order to use her own resources and connections with people she knows in Southern China. Because she was born in Hong Kong and later moved to the United States, So is able to use her local knowledge and connections to help students have a more immersive experience during their study abroad. Prior to the trip, students are encouraged to take AES 498 with So, a course that serves as “field work” designed to prepare them for study abroad. Students learn about the history and culture of the regions they will visit on the trip and become acquainted with customs to anticipate in their travels.

On the trip itself, students travel through the cities of Hong Kong, Macau, Shenzen, Xiamen, Guangzhou, and Sanya. Each region presents the distinct history and culture that students are able to engage in their journeys as a tight-knit group. So fills their days with activities and visits to various locations throughout the cities, and students quickly form close relationships with other members of the group during their travels.

Huy Nguyen, a Senior majoring in AES and Informatics who went on the trip as a student in 2015, went again in 2016 to help support So and the other students in the group. Nguyen took the summer course because he considered it an opportunity to “better understand Chinese culture and the differences between it, as well as a lot of background history, cultural history and sayings in Chinese.” Nguyen described a long list of things he enjoyed about the trip—visiting Hong Kong University and Buddhist Temples, fresh seafood buffets and barbecue duck pizzas—but the social aspect is what he appreciated the most. “Getting to know people over the trip was the best thing that I got out of it—it’s the people that you’re with. It needs to be particular types of people,” he said. “You have to have taken one of Connie’s classes to understand that you don’t go there to party, you go there to have an experience, meet people, and get to know the culture.”

Dalen Thompson, a senior graduating from AES this year, also enjoyed developing a strong relationship with the other students on the trip. Though Thompson started out her career as a student at UW, she took some time away from college and returned to finish her degree in AES with instructors like Connie So. Thompson is interested in architecture and was delighted to experience the different aesthetics found in southern China and to learn about the region’s cultural history. She also found it to be a growth experience on a personal level. Thompson explains, “Going to an island full of monkeys, going to a rainforest, seeing incredible views, getting on a bridge that is swaying as people go on and off. It was incredible and I think experiencing this at my age was amazing because it kind of brought my journey at the UW to a great end.”