12:54 a.m. … 12:54 a.m. … Why was I still awake? Before this moment, I had barely traveled more than five hours outside of my hometown of Cartersville, Ga. Now I was five hours from waking up and embarking on a trip out of the United States for the first time. I was headed to the People’s Republic of China. I lay in my bed, emotions overwhelming my body and voices filling my head. What if no one is at the airport to greet me? What if I cannot understand the Chinese symbols? What if my host cannot understand my Southern accent? I was beginning to second-guess my decision to study abroad in China.
I found this summer opportunity through Maryville College’s Center for International Education. In the Tsinghua University Summer Service Learning Program promoted through the International Student Exchange Programs (ISEP), participants have the opportunity to teach English in rural Chinese schools while experiencing Chinese culture and visiting some of China’s most significant landmarks. Being an elementary education major, this particular program really sparked my interest. After verbally committing to apply for the program, I received a packet of information with an exhaustive list of documents to supply: passport application, visa application, insurance forms, recommendations, letters of intent, etc.
After 17 hours on an airplane, I landed in Beijing. As I sat on the plane, waiting to exit, the reality of being in a totally different country hit me. Coming from a small town in the mountains of North Georgia, it is often difficult to picture myself outside of that environment. In the back of my mind, I have always pictured myself going back to my comfort zone, my hometown, to spend the rest of my life.
With that being said, setting foot in China was a big deal for me. Everything that first day in China went smoothly: My team leader was at the airport to greet me, most signs in the airport had English subtitles, and the people actually understood my Southern accent!
During the first three days, the program required me to attend training sessions at the host institution, Tsinghua University, which is one of China’s premier universities. At these sessions, which included a spectacular opening ceremony, I was not only able to meet the team I would be working with but also several other people from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Beijing and the United States who were also in the program.
After the training sessions, I had a great deal of time to do some sightseeing with my new group of friends. One of the most memorable places I went the first few days was the Olympic Bird’s Nest. We were awestruck by the lights from the Olympic stadium that illuminated the sky with the Olympic colors. The area around the stadium had an amusement-park vibe with vendors everywhere selling food, toys and souvenirs.
After these incredible first three days, my team and I prepared to leave for the rural location we had been assigned. We would be teaching English in an elementary school in Xian County, about three hours south of Beijing. Our group consisted of six people, and the elementary school had three main classes of approximately 40 children. Consequently, our group split into three groups of two people. My partner and I were assigned a group of third graders who had received very basic English instruction prior to our arrival. For two weeks, we went to the school and taught the kids English, utilizing games and songs that emphasized common phrases and vocabulary.
The “Hokey-Pokey” and “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” were instant favorites. After we taught, our host occasionally took us around the county, showing us some historic landmarks Xian Country was known for. Two of my favorite places were the Christian church and the ancient Chiang Dynasty homes.
After two weeks of teaching, it was difficult to say goodbye, especially to the kids. I really wanted to bring every one of them back with me. They were so bright and so eager to learn. The little things I take for granted were things these children did without, yet they constantly found ways to enjoy life. Those kids had lived through things no kid should ever have to live through, but still managed to smile and find the good in life. I began to feel convicted about all of the trivial things I complained about on a regular basis.
My group and I arrived back in Beijing for some post-program ceremonies. During those last three days, my group and I decided to do some heavy-duty sightseeing, leading me to my favorite part of the trip, standing on the Great Wall of China. Seeing the Great Wall of China has always been something I wanted to do. What a surreal moment it was to stand on top of the Great Wall! As I looked around me, the Wall majestically ornamented the slightly hazed mountains in every direction. It is a sight that is difficult to put into words.
Soon my journey had come to a close. As I sat in the terminal waiting for my flight, I kept asking myself if I had really just experienced China. To this day, the trip is still in the forefront of my mind. Upon leaving for China, a good friend told me that this trip would change my life and who I was as a person. Wow, was she right.
I view so many things differently now, especially in regard to my personal talents and abilities. This trip really forced me to question if I was using my talents and abilities for personal fulfillment or was I using them to impact the world. This trip also taught me the gifts I was blessed with are absolutely nothing if not used for the greater good.
In Maryville College terms, I most definitely got my “mind stretched.” In essence, my experiences in China changed my life, and I hope to hold the truths and wisdom I gained as a result of the trip near and dear to my heart forever.