Roanoke College students connect China's Silk Road with modern culture

The student team and Dr. Stella Xu ride camels on Echoing Sand Mountain in China. They are, from left to right, Thomas Emerson, Kathleen Ouyang, Mathilda Nassar, Zachary Hottel and Xu.

The student team and Dr. Stella Xu ride camels on Echoing Sand Mountain in China. They are, from left to right, Thomas Emerson, Kathleen Ouyang, Mathilda Nassar, Zachary Hottel and Xu.

A four-student Roanoke team spent three weeks in China this summer for research funded by the prestigious Freeman Foundation Fellowship.

Mathilda Nassar returned home from a spring break trip to Nicaragua in March with a severe acne breakout that covered her face. She wasn't sure how it happened. But she had to figure out how to heal her skin.

Eventually, she found some answers -in China.

Nassar was one of four Roanoke College students who traveled to China for three weeks this past summer to do research for a project funded by a prestigious fellowship.

Last fall, Dr. Stella Xu, a history professor at Roanoke, encouraged students to apply for the competitive Freeman Foundation Fellowship, given by the ASIANetwork, a consortium of North American colleges that aims to strengthen the role of Asian studies in liberal arts education. Only 14 student teams nationally win this $24,900 grant a year.

Nassar, a sophomore from Midlothian, Va., who is majoring in international relations, never before considered studying in China. But the prospect of a research adventure in this Asian continent caught her attention during Xu's history of East Asia class at Roanoke.

"I like to dabble in different things," said Nasser, who would like to do humanitarian work after she graduates from Roanoke.

The Roanoke student team worked on this project proposal for several months before submitting it. To their surprise, they were one of the teams selected for the fellowship and the first students from Roanoke to win the award.

The students, with guidance from Xu, made plans to study the globalization of China as a result of the country's storied Silk Road, a trade route that connect China to Western Europe. They wanted to research how various ideas exchanged along this route through the decades now spill into Chinese culture and perhaps impact other cultures.

Each student took on their own research topic within the Silk Road umbrella. Nassar chose Chinese medicine, with a focus on skin care remedies. Zachary Hottel, a 2012 Roanoke graduate, focused on the Chinese Christian Church. Kathleen Ouyang, a Roanoke senior, researched the National Museum of China, while senior Thomas Emerson chose Buddhism. All of them are majoring in either international relations or history.

Each submitted a detailed plan for the research, including what people they hoped to interview and the Chinese cities they would visit.

This journey began on May 22 in Shanghai, China, where Nassar visited a Chinese pharmacy that prescribed aloe vera capsules to heal her skin reaction.

From there the student team, led by Xu, traveled to Hangzhou, China, by train, stopping at churches, a temple, an herbal medicine store and the Museum of Chinese Medicine.

Then, it was back to Beijing for a night's stop, before hitting the Silk Road. The group, led by a tour guide, endured the desert's heat and a long seven days of travel in what were considered underdeveloped areas compared with larger Chinese cities.

The students picked up the full Silk Road journey experience with a visit to the Heavenly Lake on Tianshan Mountain, the world's largest outdoor Buddhist art gallery, a camel ride on the Echoing Sand Mountain and a sand sliding adventure on sheep skin mats.

After the Silk Road, the group returned to Beijing to finish their research work.

Nassar tried acupuncture at a medical clinic and visited the Beijing University of Chinese Medicine to interview a skin care doctor and the university's director. She also tried a mud mask skin treatment that a Chinese doctor suggested. The treatment took away much of the redness and scars from her face. A doctor also prescribed herbal pills for Nassar.

The other students attended church services, temples and went to museums to collect information for their individual projects.

Now they are back at Roanoke and preparing ways to share their research. The fellowship requires that the students present their research results at a national ASIANetwork conference in March and in other ways to Roanoke's campus community.

"I want them to inspire the entire campus community, so that students can be more proactive in undergraduate research projects," Xu said.

Nassar said she plans to highlight Chinese skin care home remedies and herbal medicine practices that were passed down through generations as a result of travel and commerce on the Silk Road. She'll also compare these Chinese medicine practices with Arab treatments. Nassar is a native of Palestine.

Her time in China changed her in many ways, not only medically.

"I learned the world is a lot bigger than I thought it was," Nassar said, explaining that she was surprised by differences in life for college students in China compared with students in the United States. For example, at some Chinese schools, eight students may live together in one college dormitory room and they may have to pay to take showers in a separate building.

Still, since Nassar has returned to the United States, her skin care regime has changed. She simply washes her face daily and uses a gel treatment that was prescribed for her in China. She's also hunting for the same aloe vera capsules that she received from the Shanghai pharmacy.

"I am not currently taking antibiotics nor do I plan on ever taking them again," Nassar said. "The most important discovery I made about skin care was that the skin is just a reflection of what is going on inside your body."

--Published Sept. 18, 2012