McKay Roozen

Major: International and Area Studies and Political Science

Hometown: Lexington, Kentucky

Study Abroad Program: UNC Asian Studies Summer in Beijing

Before I left for my trip to Beijing, China, undoubtedly, I was excited and thrilled to return to China for the second time. While the first had been merely for pleasure, this trip was for the purpose of studying, and living, abroad. Before leaving, I had yet to process how different this trip was going to be from any other I had already taken. This was the first time I would be travelling to a non-English speaking place where I could speak the language (or at least try). I had never really considered the importance of this difference until I got to Beijing. I soon found out what a difficult and exciting difference it was.

I had enrolled in a summer study abroad program that solely focused on Chinese language. The intensity of the program and its language courses were some of the biggest factors I weighed before choosing to study at CET’s Summer Language Program in Beijing. Before arriving in Beijing, I had already heard about the infamous language pledge, mandating that students speak Chinese at all times throughout the 8 weeks of the program.

With much anticipation and excitement, I landed in China and quickly realized how limited my Chinese was, even after two years of study. And while my listening skills sharpened after just a few days, my charade-ing ability also greatly improved. After a while, I realized that it was the simplest things with which I struggled the most. For example, I still had trouble ordering food and giving directions. Even with the gaps in my language skills, I still managed to communicate, as did everyone else. However, I soon realized that this sort of communication was different than if we had been allowed to speak in English. The thoughts we were sharing would have been deeper, less superficial, more in-depth had they been in English. Not being able to communicate and share my emotions and thoughts outside of the classroom was by far, the hardest part of the transition; it was like being trapped in my own head. While this was frustrating for me at first, my Chinese-speaking ability soon began to improve rapidly and I was able to develop real relationships with Chinese and Americans around me, all via my Chinese.

Now that I have returned from my summer in China, I can look back on my experience and fully appreciate the gift and the opportunity to study abroad. While my main focus in China was to learn Chinese, I came away from the experience with much more than just knowledge of the language: I learned about people, about culture and about myself. Perhaps my most important recollection is that language is the key and the portal to the soul and the window through which you must look to see a culture.

While I have traveled before, this was the first time I was in a situation where I could build relationships with people in their terms, on their turf and in their language. And this makes all the difference. Listening to how people express themselves, converse and interact with others in their native tongue bridges the gap between learning about a culture and understanding it. I’m so thankful that the Phillips Ambassador Scholarship program has given me the opportunity to start on my journey down the path of understanding Chinese people and the Chinese way of life.