Chinese exchange student finds meaning, connection in Israel

How about a different perspective on the Middle East from the Middle Kingdom? I am a Chinese exchange student at San Jose State University studying international relations, and I hope to bridge China with the U.S. and Israel.

This summer, I participated in BlueStar Fellows, which took me on a 10-day trip to Israel. This program gave me firsthand insight into the real situation in Israel. It opened my eyes and enabled me to connect the historic cultures of Israel and China within a modern context.

In China, Jewish intellect and Israel as the startup nation are held in high regard. After my trip, I traveled to China for five weeks to visit family and friends. What amazed me is that people did not ask me “How is America?” but rather “How was Israel?”

This topic is much more engaging because most Chinese know nothing about Israel. After BlueStar, I had so much to share with them. The whole trip was full of surprises at every turn.

On the surface, Israel and China are two very different countries. We have totally different cultures, politics and history. However, peel back a layer and there are numerous similarities. BlueStar allowed me to touch the pulse of Israel, and often I felt I was back in China.

For instance, both countries work hard to build strong and defensible nations. Both have economies that are developing rapidly, and both have territorial issues with other countries. If those similarities are not enough, my three days at Kibbutz Parod in the Upper Galil proved the connection beyond doubt.

This kibbutz, part of a movement that began as an experiment decades ago, now has a large swimming pool, a cute pub and a hub for residents, which to a Chinese eye resembles vacation homes. People at the kibbutz worked very hard to achieve success. The communal lifestyle reminded me of the people’s communalization movement 60 years ago in China.

In the late 1950s, the Communist Party tried to create an agricultural workers’ paradise called “people’s communes.” These communes made an important contribution to the rise of Chinese socialism. I have to admit that the kibbutz is a prominent contemporary example of communism, while in China, the “people’s communes” faded and were replaced by private ownership.

Qi Li checks out a missile at an Israel Defense Forces outpost near the Lebanese border.

How safe is Israel? This was a common concern of my friends and family in China. After the trip, I had to dispel their belief that Israel was dangerous. I felt very safe, even safer than being in the U.S. I saw brave young soldiers at an Israeli army base. I saw women soldiers who smiled at me on the street. Maybe there are risks, but I felt protected. I know every person’s life is valued in Israel.

I can barely describe how I felt when I learned about daily life in Sderot, located only a half-mile from the Gaza Strip. They have only 15 seconds to run to a shelter when the rocket alarm goes off. Concrete shelters are in every building, and life revolves around being prepared.

In contrast, Palestinian extremists seem to have an opposite view on life. They not only use children as human shields, but I saw how they had dug up water pipes in their neighborhoods to use them as rocket launchers and then blamed Israel for cutting off the water supply to innocent Palestinians.

I have hope for peace. I am convinced there can be peace among Israelis, Palestinians and the neighboring Arab countries. BlueStar encouraged us to connect with all parties. During the trip we met with Palestinians who live in Israel. After I observed firsthand the rights of Arabs in Israel, it was hard for me to believe how people could support Hamas.

I am now seated in the loft of my apartment in China. I can smell the scent of jasmine that my mother planted in flowerpots on the window. The air is humid and hot just like in Tel Aviv. Next week I return to San Jose to begin my senior year at San Jose State University.

As I gaze at the setting sun, I realize it will take me the rest of my life to digest, reinforce and think about what I learned and observed in Israel.


Qi Li is a native of Sichuan, China, and is majoring in accounting at San Jose State University. She was a member of the 2013 BlueStar Fellows cohort.