Like most every Filipino, John Gokongwei Jr wanted to see the Philippines flourish. After years of watching the country take guidance from the West—with such mixed results to show for it—he realized it was time for our country to begin looking to the East, China in particular, for inspiration.
In late August 2007, the first batch of Gokongwei Brothers Foundation (GBF) China Scholarship Fellows (I among them) met each other for the first time a week before we were scheduled to fly to Beijing. There were 34 of us, ages ranging from 21 to 29, from all sorts of backgrounds and coming from all over the country.
We didn’t know what to think of one another, especially since, once we began talking to each other, it immediately became apparent that we had accepted our scholarship offers for vastly different reasons. The one thing we all had in common, however, was our curiosity about the country we were going to.
The first time I really became interested in learning more about China was in 2001 when they won their bid to host the 2008 Olympics. I knew China had been developing rapidly prior to that, but it wasn’t until they were granted the right to host the Games that they solidified their position as a member of the Big Boys’ Club. By then, nobody could ignore them.
It wasn’t so much China’s ascent to political and economic heavyweight status that caught my attention as it was the image they presented of a country that managed to maintain its own identity while catching up with the rest of the world. As Chinese artists, athletes, and other notables made headlines the world over, my interest in the country took firmer hold.
All those Discovery Channel and NatGeo documentaries about the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest sealed the deal, addicted as I was to funky architecture. So when GBF offered a full scholarship a year before the Games, I jumped at the chance.
Our 10-month stay in China took place mostly at the Beijing Language and Culture University. There, we received intensive Mandarin language instruction everyday, as well as lectures on Chinese politics and society and the country’s economy, history, arts, and culture. On certain weekends and long holidays, we would go on trips to explore important places in or around Beijing, or nearby cities and provinces like Tianjin, Ha’erbin, Shanghai, and Inner Mongolia.
As important as the formal classes and trips were, though, a significant part of our education actually happened during our off hours. Living in Beijing didn’t just mean we could practice our Mandarin day in and day out, it meant we had the time to immerse ourselves in Chinese life and observe. We watched locals, foreigners, and China’s capital itself as it went through victories, calamities, and ordinary days during a very special year in China’s modern history.
It also meant we had time to gain some perspective on all the hype we’d heard about China in the past couple of years. We even learned to look at the issues of our own country, the Philippines, with a bit more clarity.
In the end, our 10 months in Beijing didn’t turn us into China experts; nor did we discover some magic formula for economic development or political stability.
We picked up the language, appreciated the country’s recent history, and gained a more nuanced view of Chinese society today. Of course we also got to do a lot of exploring. But, by far, the most important thing we got from China was a more hopeful attitude towards our own country. You see, as bright as China’s image appears to outsiders, the country really does have many of the same problems the Philippines does.
As with the Philippines, China also displays a marked inequality between regions and classes, social unrest is a real threat, corruption and abuse of power in government are serious issues, and the youth are as uninterested in public debate as the youth are here.
The difference is the Chinese don’t let these problems slow them down the way we have. They go on planning and dreaming great things for their country—despite famine, violence, uncertainty, and criticism. If Filipinos can learn to do likewise, we would be so much better off.
print ed: 11/08