China and Japan: A long and complicated shared history often creates tension between these two ancient countries. But thanks to a project run by the Waseda University (the famous Japanese university were Haruki Murakami studied), these countries are getting together for a good cause. The Waseda Univesity established the project “Work Camp”, which sends Japanese students to China and Vietnam to work along with Chinese and Vietnamese students at the old Hansen’s disease villages. These are villages where people infected with Hansen’s disease, also known as leprosy, were segregated by the Chinese government in the old times.
Our Work Camp was called “Teng Qiao”, located in Guangdong province. We were around ten Japanese students, nine Chinese and me, the Mexican. We divided up into five teams of four persons each. Every day each team either had to cook, visit the villagers or work at various small construction projects (we built a garbage container and five benches).
One of my funniest experiences at “Teng Qiao” was the day my team had to cook. Every team usually prepared one Japanese dish, one Chinese dish and one soup. The latter on some days ended up being Chinese soup and on other days Japanese soup, the difference being that the Chinese soup was quite fatty while the Japanese soup was always Miso Soup, something I did not argue with.
My emergency recipe
But the day my team was scheduled for cooking was different: My team decided we should also cook a Mexican dish. I was worried because I was not sure if I could get the ingredients, but what worried me even more was that I did not really know how to cook. On the verge of panicking I pieced together a recipe of my dad’s for beef marinated in beer along with onions and peppers, a quite simple but delicious dish.
Sure enough, as soon as everybody tried the dish they noticed the taste of beer. When I told them about the recipe a Japanese friend could not help but let slip a comment, “That’s why Mexicans are always drunk, they even put beer in their meat!” Everybody laughed at the joke, but at the same time they enjoyed the dish, and even asked me to prepare it a second time.
In the camp I found two great friends through music, one Japanese and one Chinese. I could barely believe they knew so much about music and that we even had similar tastes coming from such different countries. We would talk about all kinds of music, ranging from The Beatles, Oasis to The Strokes and even Kanye West. It is always amazing how music helps us to lift boundaries between countries. I believe that this is a truly great recipe for mutual understanding.
“Teng Qiao” also helped me learn more about the thoughts of young Chinese and Japanese students about different topics, from school to sex, from traditions to cultural differences. I had to take as much as I could from this experience.
In our discussions we also touched upon China’s and Japan’s historical problems. Everybody at the camp agreed it was an old problem that does not concern their generation, but still is a really sensitive topic for their parents. Some of the Chinese students did not tell their parents that “Teng Qiao” was a project in co-operation with Japanese students because they were scared of their disapproval.
A true stereotype?
The media in the West and the stereotypes found on the internet gave me the impression that parents in China generally decide the future of their children. At “Teng Qiao”, I got a little glimpse of how that works in reality. A Chinese guy had a crush on a Japanese girl, so I started to ask him hypothetical questions, like what would happen if they started dating? He replied that even if he liked the girl, she would need to be approved by his mother. I asked him how important that was in his opinion and he said that he could be deeply in love with a girl, but if his mother didn’t like her he would have to break off the relationship.
These were the moments when I realised how large the influence of our previous generations looms. The famous quote “Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it” is true, but sometimes, if we are too tied to history, we cannot grow towards a better society.
Make a difference
All in all, we just had a really great time. There were no problems at all. The people in the village were really sad when we left, and that showed me how important this project is. Everybody said that it had been the best “Teng Qiao” so far. Even today I recall these days, talking with the villagers, the construction projects in the village, the cold nights, the moments when we sang together, Korean dance choreographies and Chinese morning exercises in the middle of nowhere. And all I can say is that it has been one of the best times of my life.