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All of the universities that I visited had some version of a giant Chairman Mao statue. This one is at Fudan University in Shanghai.
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Throughout the semester I’ve addressed a number of topics such as poverty, sustainability, culture, trade, politics, and activism. However, I’ve overlooked specific examples that require last minute mentioning.

First are the retaken factories of Buenos Aires, where workers began operating factories that were closed by their owners after the economic crisis. The workers’ slogan was “Resistir, ocupar, producir” (Resist, occupy, produce), and their democratic self-governance proved successful. I visited Cooperativa Chilavert Artes Gráficas, a small but famous retaken printing factory. Coupled with the example of the popular assemblies organized by residents of low-income Buenos Aires neighborhoods, these retaken factories beg the consideration of decentralization as governance 2.0, particularly when higher governments fail their citizens.

Contrast Buenos Aires with Beijing, where the centralized government’s heavy hand plays a very visible role in society. My host mother, who recently moved into her high-rise apartment after being evacuated from her traditional hutong, bore the brunt of Chairman Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Because she lost her educational opportunities, she was employed as a television factory worker. When I was in Shanghai, I befriended a Tongji University student, Betty, and asked her what she thought about Mao. She replied that all she learned about the Cultural Revolution was that it was Mao’s “mistake”. Then she pointed to a giant statue of Mao located at the campus’ entrance and said, “Everybody says he was a great man.” Even from our lecturers and guest speakers, it was difficult to find an opinion dissenting from the government.

These two examples address a broader theme underlying the topics I’ve written about. The idea of citizenship dawns upon me: what it is, to where it is bounded (e.g. neighborhood, city, state, or nation), which responsibilities it entails (e.g. voting), and who is included or excluded (by force or by choice). Shouldn’t how and with whom we live affect how we live as individuals?

At first glance I thought I had nothing to do with the cities I visited. But, studying abroad helped me understand myself as a citizen living within a global system.

Perhaps this column’s title, “Big, Big World,” is not appropriate. The onset of globalization has arguably made the world smaller. Multinational firms outsource to India, and workdays become 24 hours long because technology bridges time zones. The Internet allows me to keep current with international news and catastrophes. With trade and worldwide environmental problems, national boundaries become more and more invisible. How I live in the United States has global ramifications.

If we live in a small world with big problems, then how do we respond, if at all? We need to ask if we consider ourselves global citizens. If we are, then what are our responsibilities? Do we see everybody else living on this little planet as a fellow citizen as well? For example, our small contributions to global warming by driving unnecessarily will aggregate and affect vulnerable slum dwellers in India. The corn that we essentially put into our gas tanks could feed the mouths of people experiencing food crises in Egypt, Haiti, Thailand, and other countries. What we consume may deplete natural resources that are essential for some of our fellow citizens’ survival.

As we learn to live together, an understanding of global citizenship, charity and compassion, although important, needn’t be the only motivations that drive us to aid one another. Sheer respect and responsibility as co-citizens sharing this world are enough. Each of us can independently contribute toward big solutions. This lifestyle change requires a mindset shift concerning others and ourselves.

I leave you with what I’ve learned studying abroad. May it help you think about your own experiences.

1. Write and keep everything in a personal journal — My most treasured possessions from the trip are two extra large Moleskine cashier’s notebooks filled with near-daily entries that capture my memories, thoughts, feelings, conversations, sights, diet, and experiences. For me, to write is to think, to process, and to untangle. Not writing is actively avoiding the convoluted mess that is in my head. Writing in a journal isn’t as much about the end product as it is about the process.

2. Converse with those who share the experience or similar interests — My classmates were some of the most passionate people I have ever met, and talking with them definitely expanded my thinking.

3. Explore — The more you observe and experience, the better your chances of finding something that triggers new ideas and thoughts. Since I had free weekends, I spent a lot of time wandering around. Get out of the books and try learning from experiences.

4. Meet new people — I spent a lot of time with natives whom I met through a series of interesting circumstances. Their authentic perspectives taught me about real life in their respective countries.

5. Reserve down time — Time alone to reflect, read, and sleep is necessary. Taking a break from the busyness to reflect on what’s happening helped me learn tremendously.

6. Continue the experience — I picked up many relevant books when I returned home. I’ve found that what I’ve done after the trip has been more important than what I did before or during the trip. Learning lasts a lifetime.

7. Share — One reason I decided to write this column was to learn from it. Sharing in written form has forced me to formulate thoughts and to take stances. If I didn’t do it, I fear that the trip would only be remembered as that awesome term spent traveling.

This is the end of Big, Big World, which ended up being kind of small after all. Thanks for reading. I hope you learned something. I sure did.