Springfield, Ohio — Living through one of the most devastating earthquakes in Chinese history has made Andrew Scarponi, Wittenberg University Class of 2007, even more of a believer in the merits of a quality liberal arts education.
"My sophomore year, I took a class called Volcanoes & Earthquakes with Dr. Katherine Bladh," Scarponi said. "This was far outside of my major (East Asian Studies) and my primary interests, but I took it to satisfy a general education requirement and ended up getting a lot out of the class.
"Three years later, I found myself in an earthquake zone. The knowledge I'd gained in that class helped me understand the situation, access the level of risk, evaluate government ‘aftershock predictions' and, in short, make sense of what was going on around me. You never know what life is going to throw at you, but I believe strongly that a liberal arts education like Wittenberg's gives you the best chance you're going to get at being ready for an unpredictable world."
A native of Akron, Ohio, Scarponi has been in Chengdu, China, since September 2007 on a grant from the United States Department of State's Fulbright Program. He will continue to study marketing and bargaining strategies for curio (fake antiques) in China's open-air bazaars, and what role information plays in that process through July 1, 2008.
The damage in Chengdu has been minimal. However, Chengdu is the capital city of the hard-hit Sichuan province, where an estimated 70,000 people have perished and nearly 20,000 more were still missing as of June 2 as a result of the earthquake. Scarponi has felt the tremors, but more importantly the city in which he lives has changed tremendously in the weeks since the earth first moved so violently.
"Although the city of Chengdu suffered little to no damage, the entire feel of the city has changed dramatically," said Scarponi, who has been blogging about his experience. "Chengdu is renowned as a relaxed city with a sort of West Coast feel, where people spend their afternoons playing mah jong and drinking tea.
"Since the earthquake, however, the city has been tense. For weeks, tens of thousands of people were afraid to re-enter their homes, sleeping instead in tents or makeshift shelters on sidewalks and public parks. Fortunately, this is beginning to ease up now. Even still, the city is shaken by at least one noticeable aftershock almost every day, a constant reminder that the earthquake somehow isn't 'over' and it's not yet okay to move on with ordinary life."
Scarponi's research, on which he is collaborating with Gary Schirr of Radford University to produce at least two peer-reviewed journal articles, has naturally been affected as well. He said Chengdu's tourism industry has suffered, and the open air markets aren't as crowded as they were previously. It could take a significant amount of time before tourism in the area fully rebounds, which impacts the research Scarponi is conducting.
"The dubious nature and quality of the antiques creates a situation of asymmetrical information, where the seller knows more about the good than the buyer ever will," said Scarponi, who studied in China while an undergraduate at Wittenberg. "Within the economic study of bargaining and decision making, this has some interesting implications. In the real world, too, asymmetrical information is often a major factor influencing business negotiations, so understanding how both buyers and sellers collect, analyze, distribute and use information has wide-reaching implications.
"I'm using an ethnographic methodology, so the majority of my research consists of observing transactions in the market, interviewing both buyers and sellers, and making and analyzing notes about everything I see, hear, and do."
The former associate editor of the internationally recognized East Asian Studies Journal, produced entirely by Wittenberg students, Scarponi plans to work in international business for a few years, and then probably pursue post-secondary studies in either behavioral economics or economic anthropology. He said his experience in China has been excellent, and he has even become an ambassador of sorts to people who have previously had little or no direct exposure to the United States or any of its residents.
"In the course of my time in China, I've developed some wonderful relationships, both with local Chinese and with other foreigners," Scarponi said. "Three or four times, I've had someone say to me 'Knowing you has changed what I think of Americans,' which is really an incredible experience. It's wonderful to have the opportunity to serve as an ambassador for my country, and contribute to the Fulbright mission of increasing international understanding."
There are two other Wittenberg links to the earthquake zone. Nora Liang, class of 2011, returned to her hometown of Chengdu about a week before the natural disaster, but she has reported to Bin Yu, professor of political science and director of Wittenberg's East Asian Studies program, that she and her family are safe. Likewise, Helen Ting Lu, who was a Fulbright teaching assistant at Wittenberg during the 2007-08 school year, and her family are reportedly safe in Yixing City, near Chengdu.
Written By: Ryan Maurer