A Personal Reflection on my Study Abroad Experience in Beijing

This past school year, I was blessed with an opportunity to intensively learn Mandarin, widely travel, celebrate the Lunar New Year, and take majors courses alongside Chinese students in Beijing. As a Chinese-American midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, I aspire to enter the Navy’s Intelligence Community and play a part in US-China relations. I was extremely fortunate to have received the support of the Stamps Family Charitable Foundation in undertaking this adventure of cultural exchange, professional learning, and personal growth.

I spent my first month in a four-week intensive Chinese language program at Capitol Normal University in Beijing. During this language immersion program, I downloaded dissertations and publications from Chinese academic databases in order to research the effects of informatization on domestic political participation. I had always been harboring a budding interest in the complex intersection of information technology and the wide-open political space it engenders. My teachers, both at CNU and USNA, enthusiastically encouraged me to explore this topic in Chinese. At the conclusion of the program, I had written an essay and compiled a presentation on my findings, almost wholly derived from Chinese sources. This exciting dive into research continually drives me to read and discuss academic and professional topics in Mandarin today.

Pausing in my studies for the Lunar New Year, I took a break to travel to Xi’an, the ancient capital of Chinese civilization. I walked among the Terracotta Warriors and visited the powerful monument to QinShiHuang, the first emperor and unifier of China. I spent the days of the Lunar New Year, the most important holiday of family reunion in Chinese culture, in Chongqing. Here, I participated in my first ever family reunion. Over boisterous dinners and a trip to my ancestral burial places, these newfound family networks and interactions deeply impressed upon me the centrality of family in the Chinese value set. I topped off my Lunar New Year escapade with a trip to the highest place on Earth, the Tibetan Plateau. My time spent by Yamdrok Lake best captured my transcendental experience in Tibet. As I sat beside the pristine blue lake, buffeted by a background of the snowcapped Himalayas, I felt freshly renewed as the waters lapped at my feet. I saw and meditated there, just as the Tibetan monks had taught me at their monasteries.

My last four months added a different dimension to my previous cultural immersion with a semester directly enrolled in Peking University’s School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Instead of taking language or culture courses normally oriented towards international students, I took algorithms, operating systems, and database courses alongside PKU undergraduates. This challenge was colorfully multi-dimensional. I came out of the first week understanding none of the computer science concepts presented, arriving at the sober conclusion that I would have to engage and learn in Mandarin. To that end, I ultimately had to pour through my Chinese textbooks, simultaneously learning Chinese and linear algebra. I scored a failing grade on my first midterm.To prepare for class, I would have to furiously supplement my mathematical foundations to the level of my Chinese peers. I went into lectures without the necessary pre-requisite mathematical knowledge, and consequently would emerge from the classroom in a dazed shell-shock. To prepare for finals, I learned how to 刷题, which quite literally means to brush through practice sets. While I encountered immense difficulty and seemingly unsurpassable cultural barriers, I steadily adjusted to the pace and expectations of Peking University and its students: their daily schedules, their preparation for exams, the nights spent at KFC discussing publications, and the few minutes of sheer terror before examinations. Moreover, I carved out a niche in the campus scene – whether that was going swimming with my peers after a tough class session, taking a walk among the historical imperial gardens on campus, or even visiting the dorms of my classmates to physically experience their everyday lives.

vsignrsMy six months in China presented a smorgasbord of challenges. However, with this trip, I took a crucial step to understanding and exploring China underneath the surface level of conversational Mandarin, delicious cuisine, and exotic culture. I made personal connections with people through my travels to all corners of the country and held myself to the same standards as my peers. I learned to engage China on its own terms rather than mine.