By Ben Hayes
Before going to China, I had been studying Mandarin Chinese for two and a half years at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. I would not have been at Trinity, studying something that I had come to enjoy, without my parents’ foresight in making me take Chinese in high school. In high school I saw my studies as a nuisance which garnered an intense dislike of the language, except I was good at it. In my senior year of high school, I stopped taking Chinese. The break from learning made me realize that Chinese was, in fact, something that I enjoyed and something that I wanted to continue studying at a higher level.
Trinity University became the place for me. Along with studying the Chinese language, I took several classes on the history, religion, and art of China. I figured I was more than prepared for what China was going to throw at me, and I was right…for the most part. Going from Minneapolis, to Seattle, to Tokyo, and after nearly twenty-four hours spent in either an airport or airplane, I finally arrived in Beijing. I was studying at the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) Jingmao Daxue with a program based out of Chicago called The Beijing Center for Chinese Studies (TBC).
Studying abroad for five months requires a lot of packing, but I did a bit too much before my flight. What I should have done was just take fewer things and purchased more in China because now you can find your basic essential items, with few exceptions, rather than having to purchase them in the U.S. and then burden yourself taking them over. Regardless of how packed my bags were, I was going to China--something that I had been planning on doing since my freshman year in college. The application process took several months, but eventually all the red tape had been cut away. Something that seemed like a dream two years ago was finally here. I was cleared for takeoff; I was finally going.
Ben Hayes at Tianamen Square
TBC had a very diverse group of students coming to study in China. There were many students who had never learned any Chinese before, which takes courage because learning the language is not an easy task. These were the students who were very ready to embrace everything that they saw. Additionally, there were people who had already studied with TBC for a semester and had fantastic language skills. We had a wide group of people, with different language skill levels, and we were able to connect. China gave us this initial relationship which established everyone’s friendship.
Being on a study abroad program, like TBC, is extremely different than being at a university in the U.S. Because there were only 96 of us, we were only there for one, or in some cases two, semesters and we were not Chinese. Since there were so few of us, everyone knew everybody's name. My friendships abroad progressed at a rapid pace because I was there for such a short period of time, when compared with my friendships at my home university which have been established over the course the past few years. Finally, because I am not Asian people on the street would stare at me, especially when I would go to a place that would be unexpected, for example the bank.
One of the highlights of my trip was going to the Olympic Stadiums in Beijing like the Water Cube and the Birds Nest. I went by myself and spent almost half a day walking around, taking pictures of the architecture, and also taking pictures with many Chinese people. I probably had my picture taken with over 40 different people, the reason this was so unique to me is because all the people that I met were not typically from Beijing but from other parts of the country. This was, for many of them, their first time to Beijing and they wanted to see the buildings that were on display for the whole world during the Olympics. Native Beijing people don't really think too much about the National Stadium, to them it is just another place on the map but to others they are symbol of national pride and seeing a foreigner, probably for the first time, was icing on the cake.
My language skills progressed very rapidly while I was in China, for obvious reasons. Besides my language progression I also had a hands-on experience with the culture that has held my curiosity for many years. A thought that still perplexes me is what it must have been like to be one of the first foreigners let in after the death of Mao Zedong and to have witnessed the progress that has been achieved from then until now. The progress, to me, is just astounding. I get stares in this day. What was it like back then? Beijing is an immensely large city that is continuing to grow. What was striking to me was how "modern" the people are and how progressive the city looks. I was expecting it to be much less so. We always talk about China as a rising power but in Beijing, the seat of the CCP, there is no such thing as rising any longer. I hope to go back to China in the future and see how much it has changed yet again.
Editor’s Note: Ben Hayes is a senior attending Trinity University. He began his study of Mandarin Chinese at Minnetonka High School as a freshman in 2003 and continued his study of Mandarin while he attended Trinity before he took his first trip to China from January until May 2009. Look for additional articles in future issues of China Insight about his experiences with Chinese language and culture.