Jeanna Smialek

Major: Journalism and Mass Communication and International and Area Studies

Hometown: Valencia, Pennsylvania

Study Abroad Program: UNC Semester in China

A few days ago, I was walking down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill and feeling completely normal. With chestnut hair, pale skin, hazel eyes, and a pretty standard closet, I do not noticeably stand out from any other collegiate American teenager on a stroll through the streets near UNC with her friends. Going off of appearances, I am essentially the same person that walked these streets last year as a freshman, albeit a little bit thinner after living in Xiamen, China and eating healthy tofu and veggies for the past semester. Suddenly, though, I caught the smell of ginger and a wave of experiences and memories rushed into my mind, reminding me that my experiences in China have altered my life and worldview in a million subtle ways since just last year.

Although that small waft of ginger probably seemed insignificant to my fellow pedestrians, for me it brought an onslaught of memories. Triggered by the familiar scent, flashes of the Xiamen shoreline  crowded with vacationing Chinese and memories of the many cultural experiences that I was privileged enough to live everyday ran through my head.  I could practically taste the salty, spicy flavors of Fujian cuisine lingering in my mouth. As my sister the friend we were walking with continued to unaffectedly discuss the various merits of Harris Teeter over Food Lion, it truly hit me for the first time- I have been fortunate enough to have a privilege that few Americans will ever get the chance to experience. My four months in China taught me things about Asia, America, the world, and myself that I could not have learned anywhere else. I am no longer the “typical” girl that I imagined myself, if only because I have been privileged with an extraordinary experience that opened my eyes to a whole new culture and way of thinking.

While I could never adequately explain the magnitude or depth of my learning in China, certain lessons that I learned in Xiamen stand out as if highlighted in my mind. For one thing, my time in China taught me to be more tolerant and genuinely understanding of other cultures. While I previously thought that I understood cultural sensitivity, experiences like sleeping on wooden planks in a Tulou (a traditional earthen house of the Hakka people) and growing used to China’s different standards for sanitation truly tested and expanded the limits of my open-mindedness. Beyond this, my Chinese friends’ dedication to their friends and especially families (the vestiges of Confucianism remain strong in Xiamen) reminded me that while I pursue my education and career partly for my own benefit, my ultimate goal should always be to serve my family and the people around me. Beyond this, living in Xiamen allowed me an up- close- and personal view of China’s rich culture- ranging from learning the complexities of tea culture (and it is intricate) to researching the Chinese standards for feminine success, every day I spent in Xiamen held some lesson.

Surprisingly, I did not realize perhaps the most important lesson that I learned in Xiamen until my ginger- struck moment on Franklin Street. As my experiences played through my head like a brief but beautiful film summary, I realized that my life in Xiamen ingrained in me not just an understanding of but a deep appreciation for cultural learning. My time in China as a Phillips Ambassador changed and enriched my life, and taught me that a large part of our global future lies in Asia; not everyone gets such a comprehensive chance to learn this essential lesson. My newfound interest in and  awareness of other cultures and Asia’s importance also makes me realize that when the Phillips Ambassador scholarship and UNC’s study abroad office allowed me the chance to study abroad, they afforded me both an enormous opportunity and a great responsibility.  Now that I realize how enriching and important an understanding of Asia can be, I realize that in the future I must serve as a sort of advocate for cultural learning among my friends and acquaintances at Carolina and at my home in Pennsylvania. In short, my time in China and my experience with the Phillips program has truly inspired me to become a sort of unofficial, everyday ambassador between China and the United States. I am still the normal- looking girl walking through Chapel Hill, but because of the experiences I have gained through the Phillips program I now have a heightened ability to make a real difference in the global understanding of those around me.