Of Syracuse University’s undergraduate student body almost half study abroad at some point. Most go to large European programs like those in London, Florence, or Madrid. These larger cities sound great and they certainly are, but they overshadow some of the other amazing programs like the one in Santiago, or the now suspended Beijing program. Fortunately, in the fall of 2018, I had the amazing opportunity to study abroad in Beijing, China.
For context, this was the first time I had ever left the United States, I barely spoke any Mandarin, and also I am white.
I was extremely nervous leading up to the flight into Beijing from LAX. I was afraid that something would go wrong while I was in China. I was afraid of culture shock. And, I was afraid that I just might not like it.
But I knew that I still really wanted to experience China, so before the flight, I told myself to open my mind and to be ready to be adventurous. And I did, and I was– and it ended up becoming the trip of a lifetime.
Unfortunately perhaps, the best part of the program took place in the first two weeks we were in China. Fortunately, it was an experience I will never forget.
Most SU Abroad programs have a traveling seminar portion of the semester. For the Beijing program in the fall, we had an opportunity to travel to southwest China into the beautiful Yunnan Province, and then into Sichuan Province for a combined total of two incredible weeks.
We traveled to ancient cities like Dali and Lijiang, visited timeworn Buddhist temples, partook in traditional Naxi (an ethnic minority in China) dances with the local people, ate lots of yak meat, visited the Tibetan Plateau, and saw a huddle of pandas in the panda capital of the world, Chengdu.
My favorite adventure from the trip took place while we were in Lijiang. We met with a local tour guide named Lily who specializes in eco-tours. We each packed up a backpack with clothing, some food, and clean water and embarked on a six-hour hike up the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain.
At the beginning of the hike, I remember all of us complaining about how tired we were after only 15 minutes. But after about five or six hours we finally made it to a resting point at the top of the mountain, ten thousand feet above the beautiful valley below. Imagine two tall mountains covered in spectacular trees and shrubbery opening up into a vast valley far below covered in villages and farmland. It was one of the most memorable events of my life and by far the best view I had ever experienced.
After about another 30 minutes of walking, we made it to Wenhai village where we stayed in a lodge with a local family, ate some great food, and relaxed. The local people were so incredibly nice, Lily was such a great guide, and the views of the lake next to the village were stunning.
But this trip was about more than highland trekking. After another week of travel, we flew back to Beijing to begin our semester studying at one of China’s most prestigious universities, Tsinghua University.
That semester was filled with one new experience after another. We met so many cool people from all over the world. We road along a sea of bikes as we went to class each morning, saw so many historical landmarks, and much more.
I remember going to a club in downtown Beijing to see Steve Aoki play live, going to the Great Wall, traveling to suburbs to see how the migrant workers live, and going out with all my new friends to sing in karaoke bars. There is so much to Beijing. A city with over 3000 years of history, 5 million more people than NYC, and about 20 times the size of NYC geographically. Every single weekend, I would go out and explore a new part of the city and in the end, there was still so much I couldn’t see.
Even though I loved the challenge there was still a lot I had to get used to. It was really hard not being able to communicate with hardly anyone I met. The few words of Mandarin I did know, I mispronounced almost every time I said them. In addition, although Beijing is a massive city, foreigners are not very common. So almost everywhere I went, from subways, restaurants, and shopping malls, I would be stared at by almost everyone. In fact, people would take discrete pictures of me from a distance. Ultimately there was one person who found the courage to ask for a photo with me. Maybe he knew I’d be happy to do so.
It was the first time in my life I felt like such an outsider.
But, it was okay.
I had so many amazing experiences that I will remember for the rest of my life. One such experience took place when I was riding the subway to meet a friend. I gave up my seat for an elderly man’s grandson. At the next stop a seat opened up next to the grandson and the grandfather insisted I take it. The next three stops the grandson spent his time showing me his stuffed animal while playing with me, while his grandfather looked on with the world’s largest smile. It was the most heartwarming experience of my life and I still look back on it as an example of what humanity really is.
Humans are caring. Beijing was such an eye-opening experience. From my time being an outsider, I learned first hand what it must be like for people in the US who come here without knowing any of the language, who might look different, and who might have different cultural experiences. I learned how important it is to welcome them with open arms. In the end, we are all human. We are all in this world together. We need to learn to share it and get along.
It is really saddening that the Beijing program has since been suspended. It was such a great program with so many great opportunities. Thank you to Dr. Caroline Tong and Jane Xin, the two teachers, and advisors who organized our amazing seminar and who ran most of the program. I will always look back on it with such fond memories, as the smiles of the grandfather and his grandson will forever be embedded in my mind.