Bowdoin truly has a strong Asian Studies Department that offers amazing courses and encourages students to take advantage of wonderful study abroad opportunities. Not only do you explore and solidify materials learned in the classroom, but you are also given the chance to immerse yourself in a fascinating and completely foreign culture. Though I was a little hesitant beforehand, studying abroad has truly changed my life and I strongly encourage others to consider the benefits of such a remarkable experience.
Personally, I have always been interested in China with its rich history, diverse population and impressive economic growth. Before I flew to Beijing for CET's intensive language program, I had taken several Asian Studies courses and four semesters of Chinese. It was certainly good preparation, but there is nothing like the real thing. When you successfully arrive at a destination via public bus, when you read your first restaurant sign and order your first non-chicken-kungpow-dish, when you are actually able to have a good conversation with your roommate or purchase a couple fresh peaches from a local vendor, you realize that everything you have learned is quite useful and valuable. You might think that learning vocabulary like "post office" or "male/female inequality" is only important for a quiz, but when you are in China, anything can come up. Simply being immersed in the culture and doing what seems like very normal, everyday tasks will increase your vocabulary two-fold.
Food is an essential element of Chinese culture and the people not only enjoy eating but believe that sharing good meals can bring harmony and closeness to the family and relationships. American students are used to having preset portions, their own plate and their own private dining bubble. When you are in China, that is not exactly the case. Everyone sits together (usually in a circle) and various dishes are placed in the middle of the table from which anyone with even mediocre chopstick skills can help themselves to. (Pictures at top) You eventually learn that it is polite to serve others (yes, using your own chopsticks) before yourself. I remember that our very own Professor Cui, who served as the program's academic advisor, was especially happy to discover that we had adopted Chinese table manners. While CET was academically rigorous, there was definitely importance placed on cultural education through such activities as tea ceremonies and hands-on noodle-making. (Pictures above) In addition, the program encouraged students to step outside the city boundaries and explore other parts of China. For a long weekend, I joined a group that went to Inner Mongolia with a generous roommate who volunteered to be our guide. We tested our Chinese on local residents, hiked grassy mountains, watched traditional Mongolian dancing, rode camels with squishy humps and even found a way to save our bus after it sank a foot into the soil of a questionable rural road. (Pictures below)
After CET, I continued my language studies in Beijing through IES with the addition of two electives. Spending another semester in China allowed me to explore Beijing at a higher level due to an improved vocabulary and increased confidence. I will never forget the day I made friends with a group of local fruit vendors who enthusiastically shared information about their daily lives, their hometown and their children. Every time I saw them afterwards, they would tell another story or ask me questions about life in America. (Pictures below) This is what cultural exchange is all about.
One of the highlights of the program was a two-week trip to Tibet. There, we studied everything from religion, to economic development to traditional arts and crafts. We even learned a few Tibetan phrases and truly enjoyed interacting with the locals with the help of our tour guides. While we did spend some time in Lhasa, the majority of our time was spent camping outdoors surrounded by snow-capped mountains and beautiful turquoise rivers. (Pictures below) However, contrasting different sites helped us realize the damages that have been done to the environment and to all parts of the world. We also became aware of the tense political relationship between Tibet and China. While some might group the Tibetans and the Chinese together, we became acquainted with two completely different ethnicities with their own political systems, cultures and beliefs. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to witness these internal relationships and conflicts first-hand. Though we often dwelled on these issues, the program also reminded us that the hope for peace lies in future generations. We visited two Tibetan schools that had never been seen by foreigners before. We donated school supplies and money, but most importantly, we encouraged them to use education as a way to improve their lives and as a means to strengthen Tibet. Their enthusiasm was as much of an inspiration to us as our message of hope to them.
In the end, studying abroad turned a whole country into a classroom. Not only do you learn how to survive using your language skills, but you learn how to become a part of that culture. You also walk away with so many new friends, both Chinese and American, and the many experiences you share will stay with you for a lifetime. So go, breach the Bowdoin bubble. I promise you won't regret it.