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Linsey KunesLinsey Kunes

China Trip Inspires Love for Democracy

Linsey Kunes has gained a new appreciation for freedom - and for small towns like Salem. A senior at Willamette University with a major in psychology and a minor in Chinese, Kunes won a $5,000 Freeman-Asia scholarship last semester. The funds sponsored an eye-opening, five-month study abroad experience in Bejing, China, a city with a burgeoning population of more than 7 million people.

"It was really overwhelming, especially at first," says Kunes, commenting on living in China's heavily populated capital city. "In Beijing, you can never get away from people or noise, no matter what time of the day or night. You have to get used to people pressing up against you and bumping into you all the time. In the subway, if you don't push people, you don't get in. That was hard for me to get used to."

Kunes, who grew up in Crested Butte, Colo. (population 1,600), lived in a big pink apartment building off-campus with a student from Thailand and a student from Beijing. "My apartment was in an area near the university," she says. "Every morning, I'd ride my bike over to the university. It was really stressful because there were so many other bikes and cars."

Another challenge for Kunes was the language classes taught only in Chinese. "I took listening, speaking and writing Chinese language classes," explains Kunes, who attended small classes of about 15 students. "The professors were Chinese and the students were of all nationalities. Many of them didn't speak English, so we'd communicate in Chinese. It was really interesting. Believe me, my Chinese got significantly better."

One of the perks of her travel abroad experience was meeting people from all over the world. "The international students were easy to meet," she says. "I got to hang out with students from everywhere - Africa, Cuba, Asia, Europe."

Unlike Kunes, many of the international students weren't able to travel throughout China. The Freeman-Asia scholarship enabled Kunes to travel with five other Willamette students to many of China's historic and architectural gems, including the Great Wall, the Military Museum and the Temple of Heaven. She also explored many of the provinces throughout southern China.

Whether studying in Beijing or traveling throughout the country, Kunes says she always felt the presence of the communist government. "I'd never lived in a communist country and it was hard for me to feel how the government affected my life every day," she says. "When I first got to China, I had to go to the police station five times to get my visa straightened out. Each time, I'd need a different person's signature. The police harass people too, especially foreigners. My roommate's boyfriend was stopped and fined for riding a motorbike in sandals, even though everybody does it. They told him he had to pay or go to jail. If you have something stolen, don't report it to the police because you'll end up paying them."

She also struggled with feeling like she was being watched all the time. "I didn't realize how much I appreciate not feeling like my every decision is scrutinized," she said. "The Chinese government wants to know where foreigners are all the time. Because I lived off-campus, I had to register with the police. Government officials came by our apartment all the time asking for our information. They track every time you go to the library. They record all the things you buy at the store. When I traveled, I had to stay in three-star, so they'd know where I was and what I was doing."

Kunes, who plans to go to Alaska to graduate school next year and then teach in the Aleutian Islands, says her experiences in China have changed her forever. "I'm naturally really shy, but I learned to find other people and depend on them. Now I'm not so worried about asking for help. I feel more confident, like I can do anything."

It also gave her a keen appreciation for democracy. "Before I went to China, I'd taken our government for granted," she admits. "But, you know, freedom is really a beautiful thing."