My STEP Signature project was to go to Chengdu, in Sichuan province of the People’s Republic of China, for a study abroad, which prepared me for my Peace Corps service in China. My main activities were having exchanges with minority groups, studying different languages, cultures, and customs in China, and teaching oral English in China.
The changes that took place exceeded my original thoughts. How was I to gauge what teaching college students and conversing with them for two years would do? I had a huge transformation within myself. I realized that I was stronger then most – I was able to live in China for the whole two years as a Peace Corps volunteer directly after my study abroad. I became more patient than I ever thought I could, capable of living alone and providing for myself, and a chameleon, trying to blend in with the local culture and my new community in China. I knew very little when I went to Chengdu, other then my average Mandarin skills, so I had no assumptions. During my study abroad I would come up with hypotheses about certain demographics and ethnicities, and then later was proven wrong by someone doing the opposite of what I assumed. I gave up trying and instead, started to study people’s behaviors and the way they spoke. I even was able to have meaningful conversations with them and compared their ideas to mine.
My view of the world also changed. There was so much that I had forgot and hadn’t retained from my previous experience in Shandong province. I realized that only until we, as a human race, can take away differences between cultures could we focus on what really brings us together can we find peace and solve problems. I also grew stronger in my passion for helping the poor people who lack justice overseas. I began to think that deep down, Chinese and American people hold similar views (wanting freedom, financial security, successful children, etc.) I also started to believe it is not shameful to help one group of people while seemingly ignoring another; trying to help and provide solutions to issues only creates a better world.
If it weren’t for a few people, I would never have had such an incredible and, honestly, life changing experience. My interactions with the Yi minority of Southwest China, including a week of volunteer teaching oral English in a very poor county, changed my research direction and goals. I started to think more about minorities in China and their lives, including but not limited to education, resources, and how they made a livelihood. By talking with people my age about some of the problems in a Yi autonomous region of south Sichuan province, I was inspired enough to return to that area the next two years to continue volunteer teaching in abysmal conditions. Through my relationship with a student in the same study abroad program, I came into contact with the leader of a cram course held in the summer and winter, made to raise minority students’ performance in the classroom.
The study abroad also let me formally meet a personal friend of one of the doctoral candidates in my department. I met with her twice that summer. She gave me a huge impression, for more than one reason. She, an American, is in advanced age, and living on her own in Chengdu. Her independence, self sufficiency, language proficiency in Mandarin, and interaction with a local restaurant owner and her neighbors made me believe that I could follow in her footsteps. It is my dream and she acted as an instigator to continue all of the hard work that will eventually lead to my Masters degree and future life dealing with China and American relations.
My experience with the poverty stricken students affected and has changed me the most. I saw first hand what their lives were like; living on less than minimum wage, in a village an hour or two away from the county seat, without clean water at times and proper facilities. While it is true that poor Americans also suffer, it is not to this extent. I became far more empathetic and resolve to find a solution to increasing the living standards and education standards in this Yi minority region.
This transformation I experienced in China is not only significant for me, but will be significant (and has been) for the people where I taught (Liangshan, Sichuan.) First, I was able to get college credit for my study abroad and it prompted me to pursue a Masters degree in Chinese. Spending all together 27 months in my target language environment, studying and speaking Chinese daily, is an unparalleled experience that the other students in my program do not have. My study abroad in Chengdu acted as the training partition, and was at times an overwhelming experience because I was immersed so fully in the languages and cultures of Liangshan and Chengdu. Due to my study abroad, I know have an interesting and unusual research topic that can be studied internationally.
Personally, I changed a great deal during my time in Sichuan and, later, Chongqing, Guizhou, Gansu, and Shaanxi. I matured almost overnight, was thrown into situations where I not only could not speak English, but was forced to behave in a culturally Chinese manor. I learned to think on my feet, be flexible, analyze what I heard and studied to get to the core of the matter at hand, and started to make better decisions for my future. I was offered an interview and position teaching English in a school in Liangshan, where I studied and taught for four weeks total, but declined. I can help more people in less amount of time if I figure out solutions across the whole autonomous region, not just in that one village. I had to make many decisions as tough as this, weigh the pros and cons, and choose the best scenario.
Professionally, this study abroad experience has given me a solid pathway I want to follow for years to come. Studying this specific minority group, the Yi, has made me want to become a cultural anthropologist. I also have an interest in psychology and the motives behind people’s choices. Due to this study abroad experience, I have decided to research the education in this Yi minority region and how to overcome poverty there. My future plans include finishing my master’s program in China, getting a job, which supports these kinds of people, and continuing to volunteer and engage with people from this minority group. Conditions in Liangshan are getting better, but my study abroad and volunteer teaching have only made a dent in far bigger issues. I resolve to never quit until I see substantial and reticent progress.