Student Success

Field study illuminates modern-day China for U of L students

This past summer, a group of nine University of Lethbridge students began to understand the wisdom behind the Chinese saying ‘Better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books.’

They spent two weeks in China as part of Dr. Bonnie Lee’s China Field Study course. Before the field study, the students completed a course in global mental health with Lee, a professor in the Health Sciences, Addictions Counselling program. The course covered the political history of modern China, its cultural beliefs and practices, and global mental health concepts.

“A lot of people think mental health is something that resides in people’s heads but mental health is really a product of how people interact with their environment. So the context does matter,” says Lee.

The forces at play today in China include mass internal migration, globalization and a breakdown of families similar to what has occurred in the West. China is also undergoing a sexual revolution marked by freer sexual expression, divorce being seen as more acceptable, and an imbalance in the ratio of men to women that has resulted from the country’s one-child policy. Those factors increase the risk of addiction in Chinese society.

Once they gained an understanding of China’s current context, the students got a few lessons in Mandarin before their departure. The students were billeted with host families who had some knowledge of English during their stay in Shanghai.

“This is definitely a class I’d recommend to everybody. It was literally one of the greatest experiences of my life. It was like landing on an alien planet,” says Aaron Eelhart, a student who participated in the field study and winner of the inaugural $1,000 Michael Chan Prize in Asian Studies. Michael Wing-Cheung Chan (1952-2001) was a Chinese Canadian scientist and humanitarian known for his passion in promoting Canada-Asia understanding.

“It really was a life-changing experience for me. It opened my eyes to how other areas of the world operate and live and how much I appreciate living in Canada,” says Chantella Friesen, a fourth-year nursing student.

Chantella Friesen's blonde hair was the object of much attention in China. People often asked her and her fellow U of L students to pose for a photo like this one at the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Mausoleum in Nanjing

“We hear a lot about China in Western media but to experience it firsthand is completely different,” says Brian Bohn, currently in his final year of studies in neuroscience.

While in China, the students delivered presentations on addictions and global mental health to two groups of students at Fudan University in Shanghai and to professionals at two counseling centres, one in Nanjing and one in Shanghai.

“There was such enthusiasm in the audience. They really wanted to participate and the best part was when we had these small groups where people could share. That really built friendships,” says Lee.

The students also noticed a difference in how addiction is viewed in China. Lee says addiction is often seen as involving illegal drugs associated with the seamy side of society.

“Seldom do people worry about addiction that can occur with legal substances, such as tobacco and alcohol. Use of alcohol has become much more widespread.  Even less concern is given to addictive behaviours, such as use of gambling, food, money or sex to regulate moods and create euphoria,” says Lee.

“I’m glad I went for the cultural experience and it’s always nice to see how the other half lives, so to speak,” says Bohn. “I found China to be a very safe place. I never felt threatened. Everyone I came into contact with was, at least from what I could tell, friendly.”

The students also found some of the presumptions they held about China were challenged. Eelhart imagined the country to be a totalitarian state where people live in an oppressive environment. Instead, he found a nation too large and varied to be narrowly defined.

“When we view China we tend to view their problems or issues the same way that we view our own,” says Eelhart. “That doesn’t always work because there’s so many different confounding factors. All of a sudden you realize that your assumptions are just in 

Aaron Eelhart poses next to a statue of Confucious at the Shanghai Confucious Temple

accurate and not relevant.”

Eelhart says he also left China with a new respect for traditional Chinese medicine after the group toured a

hospital where it was practiced. In addition, some of the students visited Beijing after the field study.

“It’s just so eye-opening to see how this whole civilization operates. It’s completely different and it’s a real cultural and learning experience,” he says. “I had an incredible time.”

The next Global Mental Health and China Field Study courses will be held in 2017.

Participation in the course isn’t restricted to full-time students and anyone interested can contact Lee at for more information.