A Cultural Illumination in Justice

The recipe of a successful study abroad experience typically carries a checklist of core requirements: enthrallment in culture and society, academic captivation and meeting the right people.

You can have two out of the three and still call it a wonderful experience — but my personal list can go on, filled with checks that have made my study abroad experience one of the most memorable trips in my short but fruitful college career.

As a result, I am coming home with an extra beat and note to add to the incessant rhythm and melody of my life.

“I learned that compared to some countries in the world, the United States criminal justice system is a forgiving one.”

First and foremost, China is a country filled with an endless beauty that requires its own discovery in person. In two weeks, I climbed the Great Wall of China on steps that carried with it over 2,000 years of history and walked across the Bund of Shanghai where I witnessed the effortless collision of Western and ancient Chinese culture, where towering buildings illuminated the skies with contours of pink and purple.

I scurried to class in the countryside branch of Xiamen University, passing by local and foreign students lost in the vastness of the campus. I hiked Nanputuo Temple in downtown Xiamen and witnessed one of the most breathtaking sunsets that overlooked the city, neighboring Gulangyu Island, and the Pacific Ocean all in one alluring yet tranquil setting.

It reminded me of the enormity of the world and its luminous elements — and how it is often our own experiences and decisions that shape the way we light and see it.

Nanputuo Temple
The Bund – Shanghai
Great Wall of China

I never thought that I could learn so much in a span of two weeks in a classroom setting. Led by a City Prosecutor and County Public Defender, our instructors treated us with valuable and honest insights into the demands of a profession in law and criminal justice. I learned that compared to some countries in the world, the United States criminal justice system is a forgiving one.

We have rehabilitation programs in place, the right to an attorney, due process and our unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness that are so ingrained in our Constitution and society. We may feel that those rights are often overlooked, but I learned that much of the U.S. criminal justice system and our presumption of innocence stems from those rights. Stripping people of their unalienable rights is extremely consequential, and our frustration with the pace of the law arises from our careful deliberation of whether someone should be allowed to retain such rights.

I learned that although China has laws that may surprise some with its dissimilarity with U.S. law, these laws have benefits. After talking to several students, many have noted how safe they feel late at night while wandering the streets in Shanghai. Sure, some of us were charged an extra pretty dollar on cab rides — but our overall safety was never at serious risk. A few students marveled at how they had not even seen a single homeless person in the streets of Xiamen.

There was a calmness and overlying satisfaction in the daily work that Chinese locals seemed to carry with each step they took. It was as if people knew their role in society and had a sense of comfort and pride in what they were doing, regardless of the numbers on their paychecks.

I learned that China has very strict laws and harsh punishments for crimes such as possession of controlled substances, homicide and embezzlement. It is not uncommon for people to be given the death penalty for crimes that would warrant a lifetime or substantial time behind bars in the U.S. Many of us students were startled by the intensity of the punishments, but it’s worth noting that the People’s Republic of China is only in its 69th year of governance, with its Criminal Code first created in 1979.

Chinese culture as a whole values harmony in society, while in the U.S. we tend to speak out for our individual rights. While China’s criminal justice system is moving in the direction of western law, we need to remember that both countries have systems that are simply different. There is no right and wrong. The best we can do is to ensure that our own communities move in a fairer and more equal direction of justice.

Our class in a moot court at a top criminal defense firm in Xiamen.
At a local courthouse in Xiamen

In the end, the program really was all about the people.

It was most meaningful knowing that some of us skip to the same beat in our dreams of becoming significant contributors of our society. Even more so was having been able to talk about issues that matter in society: Why has the death penalty not worked in the U.S.? How is our generation going to play a role in shaping our politics and government? What are our personal reasons for wanting to become public servants?

It helped that I made friends who were fearless in venturing out to the many colorful corners of China’s major cities, whether it was eating fried rice on plastic stools by a local food truck, enjoying Irish floats at the local pub or hailing a cab under the thunderous rain with 10 cent rain ponchos we had bought in the nearby Wu Market — there was always a new adventure to seek. It was a type of fun I could only spell with the friends I had made.

With friends on Gulangyu Island.

Choosing to take part in the Criminal Justice program in Xiamen, China has been one of the best decisions I have made in my three years at SDSU. The threads of my own story could not have been from a more divergent path than some of the friends I made, but I learned that you are much more likely to find commonalities in the direction of where the threads of your life take you.

In the end, I was reminded again of how the world can be so vast. How you immerse yourself in it — and with who you share it with — shapes the light in which you see it.

I’m glad that mine is illuminated with a few more shades of brightness, that only the right people could have helped me find in one of the world’s oldest, most historic civilizations.


Marjon Saulon is an international student from the Philippines and fourth-year comparative international studies major. He will be participating in the two-week College of Extended Studies program Criminal Justice in China. He spent 12 years in Taiwan prior to his arrival at SDSU.

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