Adventures in China: A Retrospective

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I just returned from 16 days in China as part of the Husky Presidential Ambassadors pilot program. This was my first time in Asia so everything was new to me, and my only expectations were based on previous trips to Europe (which, let me tell you, is a whole world away from China).

Before I left, everyone told me that the pollution would be bad (it was), that I should bring granola bars because I wouldn’t want to eat any of the food (au contraire, the food was excellent), and that Chinese people would want to take their picture with me (they did).

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What I wasn’t expecting, though, was that lakes and rivers are consistently a weird shade of green—not sea green or bluish green, but the shade of green that belongs in a Florida marsh. I wasn’t expecting the spread of wealth in Shanghai to be so apparent that you can walk five minutes from a luxurious mall and be surrounded by people surviving off of selling bracelets made of dandelion flowers on a string. I wasn’t expecting to literally be risking my life every time I crossed the street because cars and motorcyclists have the right of way. I wasn’t expecting to feel so at home in a culture that is so far from my own.

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As a part of the Husky Presidential Ambassadors program, I spent one week in Beijing and one week in Shanghai with 19 other incredible UW students, where we met Chinese students (who will be freshmen at UW in the fall) and their parents. Before we left for China, we spent a week in Seattle preparing for the program. We listened to presentations by UW faculty and staff on Chinese culture, on topics ranging from Confucianism vs Taoism to the one-child policy’s implications on modern-day society. We were also taught some choice Chinese phrases that proved to be incredibly valuable once we got to China (especially the ever-important 太贵了“Tai gui le!” – That’s too expensive!).  Our pre-departure preparations helped us understand the culture of the country we were visiting and made the experience all the more meaningful.

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After spending the first few days in each city exploring the major touristy sites, we finally met our students. The student days were always the most fun for the Ambassadors because we got to see things from a local’s perspective (and the fact that they could interpret for us was a huge bonus).  We were split into groups of 3-4 Ambassadors to 2-3 Chinese students and then we were sent away to find a historical but less touristy site in the city. We had the whole day to get to know each other better and it proved to be incredibly successful—by the end of the day, we were all friends on WeChat and were singling loudly (and poorly) together to Taylor Swift.

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The majority of the Chinese students we met had never left China. For many of them, we were the first foreign people their age that they had ever met. This really put things into perspective for me, and since returning to Seattle I’ve become a lot more aware of the way I’ve thought about international students in the past—how I’ve never considered the challenges they must face in a new culture with a second language, a world away from their parents and friends, facing the pressure of succeeding from their parents and families (who are spending a fortune for them to be here), and all the while feeling like they don’t fit in with other students. I think UW students see groups of Chinese students talking in Chinese together and think they aren’t approachable—that they would prefer to be among people that they can relate to—and thus don’t make the effort to converse with them. And from what I’ve heard from Chinese and other international students, they feel the unease about approaching domestic students.

This experience taught me that domestic students and international students are not very different at all—we all have passions, face pressures to do well in school, and ultimately just want to fit in and feel comfortable in our environment. I am beyond excited to show our new students around Seattle and UW, and I feel honored to have been able to make them feel more comfortable and excited about their new adventure in America, just as they did for me when I was in China.

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