Major: Asian Studies and Linguistics
Hometown: Rutland, Vermont
Study Abroad Program: UNC Semester in China
When I was standing in the airport in June saying good-by to my mom and dad, six months sure sounded like a long time. It sounded even longer when thirty or more hours later I found myself quarantined in a hotel on the outskirts of Shanghai, waiting for someone in what looked like a white hazmat suit to come and take my temperature. It seemed like forever since I had left my parents, and I wasn’t really even there yet. Instead I was waiting in what a brochure had assured me was the “safe care of the Chinese government” until it could be determined that my fellow travelers and I were not swine flu risks.
For a while, my night in quarantine was just a good story; only later did I realize that that was when my learning truly began. In quarantine was when I started to learn about the people—several Chinese high school students who helped me to translate—and the government—one that could take my passport and my luggage, plop me on a bus and send me to a location of it’s choosing in its attempt to avoid another epidemic like SARS. This part of my trip was unplanned, but it was far from lacking in educational value.
When I was released, I spent a week travelling with fellow UNC students and our tour guide Jade before getting to my final destination of Beijing, where for two months I would speak Chinese, and Chinese only. In Beijing I studied for hours until I couldn’t determine if my headache was from the smog or the hundreds of characters I was trying to cram into my memory bank. It was one of the most exhausting academic periods of my life but it was also one of the most profitable.
After Beijing, I headed south to spend my fall semester in Xiamen. In the airport I met a new group of UNC students. I would describe them as “fresh of the plane,” but to be fair, no one feels “fresh” after that many hours of travel to get to China. They looked nervous and hungry and unlike myself, they were not on the right time zone. I am told that my lively and China-confident behavior rubbed many the wrong way at the time, but I worked to redeem myself by becoming the go-to restaurant orderer for our first week together in Xiamen while everyone else acclimated as I had in Beijing.
Now that I’m back, my brain is filled with six months of memories from all the studying to all the travel. You sure can do a lot in six months, far too much to summarize, but what I miss most is not the highlights to which I could point, like climbing the Great Wall or visiting Taiwan. Rather, what I miss are facets of my daily routine. It’s not that those experiences weren’t amazing; it’s just that what I loved about my six months in China is that I really got to live there and therefore got to have a routine.
In Beijing, for example, I ate breakfast at the same stall every day across the gate from campus. In the beginning, I could not understand a word of the owner’s thickly accented Beijing speech. On my last week, however, we had a short discussion concerning President Obama and his heritage. Odd for 8:00 am, perhaps, but that’s when I really knew I was starting to get the hang of things.
In Xiamen, most every evening we would walk to one of the restaurants we frequented. I truly miss those walks across the beautiful campus when they day was perhaps starting to cool off from the heat. I miss that walk to West Gate almost as much as I miss my favorite chicken dish from the Xueyou Restaurant where the owner gave us high fives. And I miss the bus rides I took in Xiamen to get to the apartment of the family for whom I tutored. I never felt so independent as when I was riding that bus alone, feeling the stares of those around me or enjoying trying to hear bits of conversation or just watching the world go by outside the window. I saw a lot of the city and its inhabitants from window that way.
It’s hard to shrink six months down into a summary. For that matter, it might even be hard to shrink a single day. I learned a lot of Chinese language. I learned a lot of Chinese culture. I met a lot of people who became fast friends, both from UNC and from China. I was asked a lot of bizarre questions, often by taxi drivers. At times I felt completely alone and terrified while at other times I felt wonderfully independent and proud.
Now that I’m back people ask me what I did there and I find it hard to tell them. “I went to school,” I say, and then I draw a bit of a blank. “And I travelled some.” People don’t always seem satisfied by this answer, but it’s the truth. What I did when I studied abroad was live day to day in another country. I will always be thankful that I had the opportunity to do that, because right now I would love nothing more than to step out into the warm Xiamen night and walk to dinner with some friends.