Major: Political Science and Asian Studies
Hometown: Highlands, North Carolina
Study Abroad Program: UNC Asian Studies Summer in Beijing
“I’m going to China. I’m going to China. I’m going to China.” That’s all I found myself saying over and over again as I packed my bags, as if the whole experience was not real and I had to convince myself that I was going to spend my summer studying Mandarin Chinese intensively for eight weeks in Beijing, China. Perhaps, however, I was just trying to stay focused as I looked at the wave of new experiences coming toward me quickly along the horizon. After all, this was not just my first study abroad experience, but it was my first time flying, first time visiting another country, and first time using another language exclusively. Although I had prepared diligently with six semesters of Mandarin, had a general idea of what to expect with my travel guide, and foundationally understood the challenges that lay ahead, I can honestly say that acquiring this kind of factual knowledge did not compare to the experiential knowledge that changed my life. I know it sounds cliché, and I know everyone says studying abroad “changed their life,” but it was not until I returned to the United States after my summer in China that I understood why; it was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.
The program I attended was CET’s “Asian Studies Summer in Beijing,” language intensive track. In this track, I completed two semesters of Chinese in one semesters’ time, and there was a strict language pledge in place 24/7. Because of the rigorous nature of my program, I did not have the opportunity to travel over China, but fortunately the program provided great weekend excursions, one of which was a three-day trip to Xi’an by train. However, I was not saddened by the fact that my experience was largely going to take place in Beijing as I slowly realized that eight weeks was not even enough time to fully explore that vast city. Furthermore, despite the daunting nature of the academics, I found my Chinese progressed very rapidly thanks in no small part to my excellent teachers, one-on-one sessions, and intense vocabulary absorption. In term of living however, from taking my first subway ride, riding my first taxi, eating at local restaurants, and touring countless historical monuments and structures, China slowly became a part of me in a way it never had before. Allow me to elaborate.
In summarizing my experience abroad several times to friends and family, I realized that studying in China changed me in three distinct ways, and further realized that these changes could have only come through this experience. The first was it made me more courageous. From flying for over twenty hours, hailing a taxi at the airport (for the first time as well), and day to day living, I did things out of necessity in China that I would not have otherwise done here which only served to broaden my sense of confidence in handling new situations. Of course, my courage was not only bolstered by necessary experiences; in several instances, I was faced with the opportunity to branch out of my comfort zone voluntarily, and I am glad I took advantage of these instances. I ate a fried starfish on a stick, I ate tasty street food, conversed with locals, participated in a city-wide Chinese speech competition, and even sang karaoke all in an attempt to branch out and “experience new things.” There is another cliché I now understand; in experiencing these new things and taking advantage of opportunities that otherwise would not present themselves, I have a sense of boldness and courage I did not have before. Funnily enough, I have even found myself mentally preparing for tests here at UNC by saying, “Chase, you competed in a Chinese speech competition in China. This test is nothing.”
Secondly, my time in China expanded my knowledge of a culture and people that I otherwise would not be able to know. Of course, one can read books, delve into nations’ histories, and analyze years of facts in an effort to understand a culture, but this knowledge simply does not compare to the type of knowledge living in China afforded me. I like to compare learning about a culture to learning a language: one can learn grammar, vocabulary, and sentence structure, but it is not until they are immersed in the language and required to speak it that they are able to become fluent. Similarly, as I rode the bus around the city, took the subway, shopped for groceries, and studied the language, I was immersing myself in the hustle and bustle of Beijing and experiencing a taste of what living in China is like, so much so that it became “normal” to me. I even was able to barter with merchants for various pieces of merchandise, something completely foreign to me, and it became so commonplace that I felt weird buying sunglasses in the U.S. without arguing with the woman behind the counter.
Furthermore, let me be the first to say that seeing the historical locations of China grants a whole new understanding that reading about the history simply cannot offer. When I stood on the Great Wall, in the Forbidden City, in front of the thousands of terra cotta soldiers in Xi’an, and on Xi’an’s ancient city wall (among other places) I glimpsed a part of what it meant to be Chinese and to have thousands of years of history and culture as part of one’s identity. Living in the United States, barely over 230 years old, I simply never experienced that before.
Lastly, my study abroad experience gave me a new lens through which I view the world. Before I went to China, it and every other country of the world seemed to be merely ideas and not so much entire cultures and people. I know this sounds strange, but because I had never been abroad before, I had never really understood the size and diversity of our planet. However, studying and living in China afforded me the chance to connect with a people in another country, make lasting friendships, take many pictures, and engage with a culture different from my own from an outsider’s perspective in an insider’s position. I now find myself considering world news events from a Chinese perspective, and have grown more sympathetic to their country’s needs and concerns. Seeing the rapid industrialization before my eyes, the juxtaposition of old and new, the growing economy, and an innovative people tackling problems that accompany a developing nation allowed me to step out of my box as an American and step into the Chinese world.
While academically I acquired great language abilities, an adequate knowledge of the history and political atmosphere, and even how to make good Kung Pao chicken, it was the friendships I built with my teachers, classmates, and even taxi drivers that I remembered on the long flight home which allowed me to feel as though China had become a little smaller during my time there.