Hannah Thurman

Major: Journalism and Mass Communication

Hometown: Raleigh, NC

Study Abroad Program: UNC Asian Studies Summer in Beijing

Before I became a Phillips Ambassador, I had never traveled outside of the United States before. And although I had taken four semesters of Mandarin Chinese at UNC, going into a language intensive program for ten weeks was something else entirely new to me.  But despite the challenges of living in a foreign country and speaking a second language, the summer I spent in Beijing was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. 

Before arriving in Beijing, the group of UNC students participating in CET traveled in the Shanghai, Suzhou, and Hangzhou areas.  I found Shanghai especially interesting: the city was undergoing a period of rapid industrialization in preparation for the 2010 World Expo.  Construction was everywhere.  When I went back to Shanghai mid-summer for the dinner with Ambassador Phillips, I was again struck by the urbanization: traditional “dragon mouth” homes were being knocked down to build gigantic skyscrapers, and the pollution was rampant. 

This theme of the old juxtaposed with the new followed me to Beijing, where industrialization had slowed only slightly after the 2008 Olympic Games.  When I went to go see the Bird’s Nest and Water Cube where all of my favorite athletes had competed the year before, I was awed by the modern construction and fancy architecture. . . . Half an hour later, our subway passed the traditional, narrow streets of the “hutong” villages smack-dab in the center of Beijing.

However, there wasn’t much time for sight-seeing during my program. There were weekend visits to Tian’an’men and The Great Wall of course, but for the most part, I was tied up in work.  I had heard that my program was very academic in nature, but I was still a little taken aback by the amount of instruction we received in an eight-week span.  Every day, we had four hours of class based on a ten-page chapter we had learned the night before; as soon as we had finished lunch and a one-on-one session with a teacher, it was back to studying for the next day.  I made over two thousand vocabulary flashcards during the semester.  And with the strict language pledge in effect, it was all Chinese, 24/7. 

Although at times I felt daunted by the amount of work required of me, I was amazed to see how fast my Chinese progressed. When I arrived in China, I was barely able to order food at a restaurant; by the last week there, I was chatting up anyone and everyone, able to understand and express myself almost as clearly as I can in English.  This was due in large part to the great CET curriculum and teachers, but also to my Chinese roommate, Sunny, with whom I became very close.  Although she and I had grown up in very different circumstances, we were able to discuss and share our cultural differences and, I think, learn a lot from them.  One of my favorite nights of the summer, she invited me to her house for dumplings. Her family asked me question after question about American life, and were all extremely hospitable.  When we got on the subway to go back to our dorm, her mother told me to think of her as my “zai zhongguo de mama”—my mother in China.

During my stay, I also took flute lessons and fencing lessons in Beijing.  Both of those experiences were very interesting, and very different than I had ever had in the US.  It took me three subway changes to get to my flute teacher’s place, an apartment at the top of a 10-story building.  Although my music vocabulary was very limited, I was still able to learn a lot from her instruction. 

The coach at the Beijing Fencing Club, with whom I took weekly lessons, gave me a different language barrier issue to work out.  He wanted to practice his French fencing terms during our lessons, with sometimes hilarious results.  I’ll never forget advancing down a fencing strip to the sound of a Beijing accent shouting, “Bu hao! Bu hao! Parry, ranhou, riposte!”  All of the other fencers also smoked like chimneys in between bouts, which was definitely a cultural difference!

I came back from China with a suitcase full of flashcards and stuffed pandas, but the memories I made there and the things I learned were far more important.