I had visions and dreams of attending school in China since I was 11 years old. It became almost an obsession for me and I elevated in my mind how perfect this experience would be. As a sophomore in high school, I achieved my goal! However, the dream of a perfect experience collided with the reality of the situation. In fact, the culture shock, the distance of being away from home, and the initial language barrier set that year up to be not only the most challenging and difficult time for me, but also one of the most fulfilling and transformative times of my life.
I arrived in Beijing, China in the fall of 2016, to study Chinese for 9 months at Beijing High School #80 through a United States Department of State scholarship program called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y). I was just barely 16 years old and knew very little Mandarin. However, what I lacked in knowledge I knew I would make up for with my energy and excitement. At this point, I believed that my goal was merely just getting to China. What I did not yet realize was that the real goal was to learn Mandarin and the journey was overcoming the obstacles it would take to become fluent.
I first had to adapt to living in a dorm room with another international student. My roommate was from Serbia and I struggled communicating with him but we managed to have limited conversations through broken Mandarin and English. We did not have much time to spend with one another due to the rigors of the curriculum. The class schedule was long and demanding. I attended Chinese language classes from 7 am to 5 pm. I had mandatory study time from 7 pm to 9:30 pm each week night. Despite the number of hours in class and studying, I found myself struggling. There was no English spoken in class and I found myself feeling overwhelmed in keeping up. I was not even being able to express how I felt emotionally due to the language barrier. I began to wonder if I made the right decision going there and this doubt caused me to consider lowering the goals I had set for myself. I was at a place that was not familiar to me. I found myself feeling sad, lonely, depressed and doubting my ability to succeed.
I had set a goal when I left for China to become fluent in Mandarin. The general coursework from our classes was HSK focused. HSK is the national Chinese fluency test for foreigners. There are a total of 6 levels and my goal was to pass HSK5. Level 5 would mean that I went from knowing only a few words on my arrival to an advanced level with a vocabulary in the thousands. This was a big goal but one I initially felt I could achieve. Every day I was assigned an average of 70 words to learn how to write and memorize. The following day I would be tested with a dictation. I failed every dictation for the first semester and it felt hopeless. To make the situation worse, the Chinese teachers ridiculed me, laughed at me, and repeatedly called me ‘stupid’. I became their target. I kept being told by other students that this was a tactic to encourage me to do better, but it tore me down and took me to my lowest of lows. I poured into motivational videos and I worked on rebuilding myself. After several weeks, I emerged emotionally and mentally stronger. While going through this period, I had discovered a Chinese idiom that would become my battle cry. ‘Don’t fear slow, fear standing still’. This made a lasting impression on me and I would wake up each morning and repeat it to myself over and over again. It helped me to reshape my goal and I learned that the process of getting there would be much more important than the outcome. I now worked towards a daily goal of just increasing my knowledge of Mandarin. I knew that as long as I improved by even the smallest percent, then I would be moving forward! Going backwards was no longer an option to me. This shift in how I looked at my goal served as a light that steered me through these trials and tribulations.
I have applied this mindset to my life and I constantly strive to make those little improvements that make up a big difference over time. At the end of the nine months, I emerged with one of the highest scores on the HSK 5 and in the class. I found that through my journey in China, it was really the tough times that defined the type of person that I am. When I look back at all the pivotal moments in my school year there, I realize that I did not grow when I was feeling comfortable. Instead, it was always the struggles that I learned from and which created my successes. As I think about the struggles I had the first few months in not being able to understand the language, not being able to express myself to others, and getting lost in a city with over 22 million people, I take pride in what I was able to accomplish. After all of those moments had built up on each other, I remember climbing a mountain peak that looked over the bustling city of Beijing and thinking that not only am I navigating this country by myself but that I am navigating my life!
My travels through China impacted me in ways I never imagined. I came to understand that political, social and economic differences can be overcome by mutual respect for one another. I was welcomed in the home of a Chinese host family. I was able to experience a season of their lives and we got to know each other as people. I was immersed in their culture and this gave the time to have experiences that a traditional classroom setting will never provide. I had a twelve year old host brother and we learned from each other and created a great bond. In fact, we became brothers! My host father and mother showed me a surplus amount of love and opened up their lives to me. They were not only my parents but often served as mentors to me. They reinforced to me when I was at my lowest point that it is not intelligence that will bring success but consistent hard work and effort. I left feeling I made a lasting impact on those that I was around. I did this by creating relationships with them and valuing who they were as individuals and as a culture. I respected and learned my host countries traditions.
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