I was born and raised in China until the age of eleven, then I immigrated to the United States with my family. So why did I go back to China when the McDermott program virtually gave me the resources to study in any place in the world? Even though I grew up in China until the sixth grade, the only things that remained with me were the Chinese language and the memories of childhood. I can only read about China as a foreigner–I have no empirical idea of how China has changed within the past decade. Since I would like to work in both the U.S. and China, I should see China through my own eyes and not just imagine based on other people’s words. Given my background in Chinese, I am not just a student trying to learn the language and observe the culture–I can very well blend into the Chinese crowd, and I will be able to see more deeply into the society.
I decided to study in Beijing at Tsinghua University, the most prestigious school in China. I fell in love with Tsinghua University. I loved the school’s rigorous academic atmosphere and the lively student activities. The students are so diligent—I remember going to the library at 8 AM on a Sunday, and it was already half-full. Unlike my preconceived notions, students here are not only hardworking in academics, but they are also active in extracurricular activities and leadership-building programs. Each student on average is involved in two student organizations, and many student organizations frequently host events (such as lectures, fun athletic meets, student concerts, etc.) on campus or lead volunteer trips to teach in underprivileged areas on weekends.
Outside of class, I was selected to become a member of Tsinghua’s Student Government and International Volunteering Association. Working alongside the Tsinghua students gave me another medium to see their enthusiasm and work ethic. I worked in Student Government’s Public Relations department, and we were responsible to solicit sponsorships for student-led events on campus. It is common and legal for Chinese public universities to receive corporate sponsorships. Every year, Tsinghua’s Student Government acquires millions of dollars to host high-quality events. For example, the annual campus-wide singing competition invites celebrity judges and draws millions of viewers online. While I was in Tsinghua, we also hosted an NBA All Star-like game, and we invited the Beijing Basketball Team who recently won the Chinese version of the NBA.
I also signed up to take a Spanish class at the nearby Beijing Language and Culture University to keep up with the language. I took a traditional Chinese dance class on the weekends, and I finally took a translation/interpretation course (Chinese-English) in which I had always been interested. Beijing is a global city offering countless opportunities—I was able to complete all of the things that I had hoped to in Beijing.
In April, I volunteered at the Beijing International Film Festival, where I got to see many Chinese and internationally well-known actors and actresses (what a shame I did not get to see Arnold Schwarzenegger, who gave remarks at the opening ceremony!). Meeting them in person made me realize that celebrities are really just normal human beings. It was sad, actually, to see the celebrities being told to act a certain way. The reality behind glamor was disheartening.
In the summer, I wanted to do something more meaningful than just traveling. Therefore, I signed up for Tsinghua University’s Summer Service and Learning Program, where I taught English at a high school in rural China’s Gansu Province. I taught 3 classes every day with a total of 160 high school freshmen. On the last day of class, I told my students that I had learned more from them than what I could’ve taught. Voluntary teaching at an underprivileged area made me realize that the volunteer teachers should not go in with a “savior” mentality, because that would blind us from seeing that the kids were just as smart and talented as we were. Instead, I went in with a mindset to learn, from the kids and from the experience.
The teaching experience was full of drama—we went in as a charity program, but the school collected tuition from the students without us knowing beforehand. Furthermore, the parents of the students expected us to teach according to the College Entrance Exam, the one test that would determine which college the students would attend. Yet, half of our group of nine volunteers did not come from mainland China; we did not know how to teach to the exam which we never took. Representing the volunteers, I spoke with the school officials and communicated our purposes and goals. I also spoke to the students regarding the aim of our classes, hoping they would explain to their parents. The feedback from the end of the semester was generally positive, with some students exclaiming that although the classes differed from what they had expected, they still learned many things that they could not have learned from the textbook or their regular teachers. The high school at where we taught also sent a plaque to Tsinghua University honoring our work. It was a meaningful experience for both the volunteers and the students.
My study abroad experience in China was extremely rewarding in terms of enhancing my intellectual persona, creating social connections in China, and observing first-hand the growth of Chinese society. Going back to China as an adult, I saw so much more. It was a semester of nostalgia, back to a country where I grew up; it was a semester of prospect, paving the way for embarking on a career to work between the United States and China.