I write this blog very hesitantly before I leave China and leave my wonderful study abroad experience behind. Since the end of January I have lived and traveled in various parts of China including: Nanjing, Xi’an, Kunming, Yuanyang, Jianshui, Gejiu, Shangri-la (Zhongdian), Dali, Lijiang, Weishan, Shaxi, Beijing and finally Shanghai. I depart from Shanghai tomorrow and head to Germany for a month of travels, but I cannot help but TO think about the past few months and how much this entire experience has molded me into a more rounded person who knows herself much better.
My study abroad experience started at the end of February. I went into the SIT (School of International Training) bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. I thought that because I took some Chinese history at school that I understood China, but I was completely wrong. The China that is in Yunnan is not the China of Beijing or other large industrial cities. Yunnan Province, whose largest city is Kunming, has twenty-five different minorities, just under half of China’s total minority count. During my program, I was introduced to quite a few of these minorities (Bai, Hani, Yi, Miao, Tibetan, Naxi, Dai), but I still can’t fathom how many exist and how complex each and every one of the minorities are. I learned the most about the Bai ethnic minority because of my Shaxi homestay in a Bai family. Just AFTER four days living with my new friends, I learned to understand and appreciate so much, from what it takes to make food on a wood fire to grinding grain by hand every day so that they can make a living. I had another homestay in Kunming for two weeks. During these two weeks, my language skills improved drastically because I didn’t have the crutch of a teacher to call on when I didn’t know a word or two. The main thing I learned from my Kunming family is how hard both parents work to have the life they currently live and how important education is to both parents so that my little didi could go to college and eventually get a good job. I saw how hard my homestay mom worked everyday, and how tired she would get at the end of the day, but all she and other people her age could say was how much better today was better than twenty years ago. People in Shaxi and Kunming feel the important of different values have different things in life that are important. In Kunming, my parents thought that education, friends and things were some of the most important values in life, but in Shaxi, my family didn’t care about material possessions. In addition, education did not have the same impact on a small rural community that it has on a large city with a family who can afford to pay for high school and eventually college. Family was the most important thing to my homestay parents and family in Shaxi. Family was always there for you if you needed it. If you were sick, it was family who had to take your place in the fields, and they did it willingly and with love. There is a saying in the city that I heard: A good friend/neighbor is better than a distant relative. In the city, this saying is mostly true, although, it is a good friend that is better than a distant relative. In the country, just as Shaxi, family is the most important relation you can possibly have. Because their families are so large, family can sometimes make up the majority of their networking system. Family has always been extremely important to me, but after meeting my Shaxi family, I think that family should be one of the most important things to me. Family is stable and forever, while other things may come and go. Even though my family was in the United States and other places in China these past few months, they were my rock while I was down and struggling, they were my support and guidance when I needed help, and they were there when I needed to share and talk about my many new experiences.
I learned so much from my homestay experiences, but not nearly as much as I learned from all of my new friends, Chinese and American. Apparently, every group who goes through the SIT China program has a different character/temperament. Lu Yuan, our Academic Advisor, told us at our final dinner in Beijing that our group was like no other group, in that because of how diverse we were and of our personal temperaments, we all clicked together to form a great team. My study abroad group consisted of nineteen American college students, sixteen were juniors and three were sophomores. We all came from different backgrounds, universities, and parts of the country. We came from Alaska, Hawaii, Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, South Virginia, Georgia, Massachusetts, Vermont, California, New York, and Ohio, and we all went to school in just as diverse of places. We all had different interests and different ways of thinking that showed me what else was out there. Together, we went outside of our comfort zones and learned from our wonderful experiences with SIT together. It was from these eighteen other people, who I now call great friends, that I changed the greatest. I was introduced to how diverse the United States is itself through these people. But because of how we lived and worked together for four months, we were all able to support each other and form ties that I don’t think can ever be broken. Because of these people I love with all my heart, I have learned to trust easily again. I have learned how I can be a better person because of their example, and I hope I have set the same example for them. My experience in China would not have been the same if even one of these people were not on the same adventure that I was. We have learned to love, to trust, to speak Chinese, to dance, to sing, and to live life to its fullest.
Through my experiences in China, I know one thing for sure… China is now a part of me. I will always love its people and the beauty that I have seen while studying abroad. I know that, one day, I WILL come back to learn and experience even more of Chinese culture and history.
For my study abroad experience as a whole and what SIT taught me, I feel that one quote I saw in the Qatar Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo sums it up perfectly:
“Our goal is to do as our ancestors did before us, who believed in the urgency of meeting other civilizations, but not melting into them. An this is why we believe in the power of education to guide us toward this goal.”
-HH Sheikha Mozah binti Nasser Al Missned
On my final day in China, I went to the 2010 Shanghai Expo, and all I could think as I walked around the different countries is how this was the perfect way to end my study abroad experience. The Expo was the perfect way for me and millions of other people to get glimpses of parts of the world that they will never be able to visit or interact with. How great of a way to create a better understanding across the world than to show your countries culture, language, geography, and history to the entire world. How special it was to end my Big Trip by creating a Better World.
“We must use time wisely and forever realize that time is always ripe to do right.”