Feb. 1, 2006
By Jody Grenert
When David Matthews conceived the idea for a study-abroad trip for his interior architecture students, Asia was an obvious choice. After all, China's galloping economy and growing appetite for Western style are generating a market that his Ohio University students may tap one day.
What he didn't know at the time was just how much that both his students and their Asian counterparts would gain from the monthlong collaboration. Or the profound lessons he would take away from the experience.
Matthews, an associate professor in the School of Human and Consumer Sciences, took 18 students on the journey, which began July 15 and included stops in Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong. The Ohio students worked with students at Japan's Chubu University and the Beijing Institute of Graphic Communication.
The Ohio students' assignment involved working with Chinese and Japanese students to design entry areas for video game stores in Columbus, Tokyo and Beijing. The designs had to incorporate the aesthetics, culture and user issues.
The project reflected real-world trends in the multibillion-dollar video game industry which generated more than $24 billion in revenues in 2004, according to market-tracking firms such as PricewaterhouseCoopers and DFC Intelligence. And the region with the highest growth rate in gaming, Asia-Pacific, is expected to generate that much revenue on its own by 2010.
Beyond video games, China has embarked on a wave of urban renewal projects staggering in its scope. In a movement reminiscent of the "rust belt" revival in cities across the U.S. Midwest, Chinese planners and architects are remaking dozens of urban centers in the country's industrial regions. In one such project alone in the northeastern city of Harbin, an urban core the size of New York City, is being rebuilt a few miles from the old city center, according to a recent article in the New York Times.
These developments factored into Matthews' choice of Asia over Europe – a more traditional area of study for U.S. designers and architects.
"[Asia] is a little bit more about the future than Europe is," Matthews said. "It's the growth market."
Though the video game project provided an academic focus for the Ohio students, Mathews hoped that the cultural interactions would bring deeper insights. This cultural insight is especially important for interior design, whose concepts are woven seamlessly into a society's culture.
"I think the primary objective is to introduce them to the cultural diversity that makes the world work," he said. "We used design as a tool to get to that issue. Design is interwoven with cultural decisions – one informs the other."
The larger cultural lessons are what stuck with the students, too.
"When I look back on the trip, I don't think of all the design things that I learned about," said Liz Horton, a senior. "It was just a vehicle to learn about the culture, which I loved."
Communication was a huge challenge. At each of the institutions in Chubu, Beijing and Hong Kong, the American and Asian students separated into small groups to collaborate on the store designs. At first, the students struggled with the language barrier, despite the help of the occasional translator. Eventually, they discovered that, as students of design, they shared a common visual language. When words failed, a quick sketch could often make the connection.
When it came time for the mixed student groups to make their final oral presentations, Matthews noticed a key difference between the Americans and Chinese.
"[The Chinese] would never, ever talk about what they contributed, only what the team members did. You would never hear the world 'I' out of a Chinese student."
While some groups worked better together than others, Matthews was impressed by how the Asian students emphasized the project's value in terms of what they learned from the other students, rather than the final product. He attributed this to the tradition of a "we" society in Japan and China.
"It's a very mature attitude. It's one that says 'I respect you for who you are, and no matter who you are, I will learn from you.' "
This collectivist sentiment was particularly evident in China as the group toured landmarks such as Beijing's Tiananmen Square and the Great Wall.
"It became very evident quickly that in China, public spaces are more polished than private ones. It's more about 'we' than 'I.' The hotel room [in Beijing] had more wear on things than Western guests are used to. But the public spaces – roads and sidewalks – were very nice. In our culture, the individual spaces are more tended to. In China, it was the reverse."
Matthews also noticed unique architectural characteristics in Tokyo, a city that was rebuilt from the ground up after World War II. The Japanese link the use of space to the landscape more than in the West, he said. And while it's a nation that reveres its past, it's always looking toward the future.
"In Japan, the design sense was 'we're moving into the future and we're going to provide a vision toward that future," Matthews said.
In Hong Kong, the group was struck by the population density and the synthesis of the two cultures that had forged the city's identity: British and Chinese. The former British colony was turned over to China in 1997. Today, Hong Kong is a bustling center of international trade and finance with a degree of political autonomy that sets it apart from other Chinese cities. The resulting cultural blend is unique.
"You see what happens when two cultures merge – the battles and having to work things out. All within a small geographic area," Matthews said. "You have this third thing emerge, which is Hong Kong."
The cultural divide between East and West was a theme that would crop up again and again. During tours in Japan, students learned that talking softly in public is a cultural norm. Outside one Buddhist temple, Matthews offered them this advice: Don't do anything unless you see the Japanese do it first. And when in doubt, don't talk, especially in a holy place.
During an outing at a Tokyo museum, for instance, he watched customers at a snack machine for 10 minutes before feeling confident that it was acceptable for him to eat a Popsicle in the street.
Despite such touchy situations, everyone involved found the interactions valuable. Several of the students described gaining confidence in their communication skills by tackling the language barriers on the trip. Matthews sees a maturity in the group that he didn't see before the trip, one he thinks will serve them well in the years ahead.
"When you have it in your face that people value things other than you, it forces you to ask fundamental questions about yourself," he said. "When you see things you've never seen before in your life, learning how to respond to that helps you mature."
A university administrator who helped Matthews arrange the excursion echoed the value of such cross-cultural collaborations.
Tom Shostak, dean of Lifelong Learning, said that the interior architecture trip was unique in that at each location (Chubu, Beijing and Hong Kong), the Ohio students actively collaborated with Asian students on a project. In most foreign exchange programs that he's involved with, students from one country simply attend classes in the other. He adds that there's much that Ohio University students can learn from a study trip abroad, such as how other cultures approach a project.
"You learn the environment that a person is sitting in. You learn the culture, you get the experience of travel, you learn how education is approached in those environments." Indeed, these kinds of collaborative, outside-the-classroom, global experiences for students are a part of Vision Ohio, the university's strategic plan.
"This experience will have made their Ohio University education truly distinctive for these undergraduate majors,'' said Gary Neiman, dean of the College of Health and Human Services, which houses the Interior Architecture program.
Matthews, who hopes to take another group on the trip next summer, learned a lot from the experience as well. As an instructor, he had to make space and instructional arrangements with Chinese and Japanese faculty members, then find a way to instruct and evaluate Asian students – all without speaking their language.
The experience was no less valuable for the Asian students, especially those in China, where competition is fierce for a university education and the opportunity to study abroad. The value of interacting with American students and practicing communication skills can't be overestimated, Matthews said.
For some of the Chinese students, it was their first interaction with an American. In a society that places a high value on age and experience, it's probably not surprising that they view instructors with a respectful formality. Casual conversations between student and instructor are rare.
The reserved nature of this relationship became apparent to Matthews one day as he joked with a group of students in Beijing. One of them, clearly taken with the American instructor's openness, struggled with the words to express his appreciation.
"He said 'thank you for being a human being.' I will never forget that."
Jody Grenert is director of communications for the College of Health and Human Services.