Most of my high school experience was spent studying Chinese on my own and working toward my ultimate goal of mastering a language and through this learn more about my own and others as well. First, it is important to understand a background of my senior year in high school when I went abroad to China.
I arrived in Chengdu, capital city of southwest China's Sichuan Province, at the beginning of my senior year for a semester abroad—to learn, see, smell, taste and absorb all the knowledge I could. The city was hot and humid, full of open-air markets steeped in the aromas of spices, pork carcasses, fresh fruits and live fish. Chengdu is filled with cars, buses, bikes and over 10 million people mingling in a hypnotic dance set in time with the traffic lights. It felt like a great place for me to see new things, experience a different culture and help me with finding out what I want to become in life.
My host family lived in a three-room apartment on the third floor overlooking a small street below. On my first night, it was like living above a freeway. Noise carried into my room, a constant murmur and variety of new and different sounds. I got up from bed and peered down to the street below to see a group of people crowded around a tiny wooden table full of game pieces. They were playing mahjong, at midnight, whooping and hollering, enjoying themselves immensely. It took me almost two weeks to get used to the noise. Now back at home, it feels eerily silent at times.
The feeling of normalcy and comfort came slowly, especially at school. I started at Chengdu's No. 20 Middle School my second week. I met the teachers and principal, and then I was thrown into class No.7. I introduced myself in Chinese to a class of 50- plus students, and nervously sat down in the back of the classroom, next to a boy who wouldn't stop laughing. He was as nervous as I was, but showed it in a different way. I was not feeling too great about school; the kids were loud, the classroom was hot, I was having lots of difficulty understanding. Not to mention being the only foreigner in an all-Chinese school.
The first week went by and my impression changed. Shyness with my classmates went away. I was making friends. My classes, however, were proving to be very difficult. The teachers spoke very fast and in the local dialect—way beyond what I could understand at that point. Soon I got a tutor to help me study and the first month things were becoming easier. Three months later, I was able to understand most of what was being taught in class and turn in most of my homework. My Chinese had reached a comfortable level. My head teacher would say, "You sound like a local when you speak Chinese!" This isn't exactly great, however, because it means that I've picked up too much of the local dialect, so my Mandarin would sound funny to someone outside of Sichuan.
I came to China to study Chinese. I had no idea that I would end up learning as much about China as I would about myself. The first impressions are always the strongest, and it's amazing to think where I have been since that first time in Chengdu. Now, six years later, I am done with college and about to re-embark on my fourth visit to China. I will be teaching English and trying to give back through education. I feel that I was given so much from my classmates and teachers during my year abroad. Hopefully I will be able to positively impact some students' lives while I am over there. Because I know that my own life was impacted greatly from my high school exchange in Chengdu.
The author is an American who has visited China