Pushing Limits: Achieving Greater Heights in China

Waves of nervous excitement coursed through me as I prepared to board my plane in the middle of June.

Waves of nervous excitement coursed through me as I prepared to board my plane in the middle of June. As a boarding student at Lawrenceville, I was no stranger to being away from home for months at a time. This time, however, would be different. My peers from Lawrenceville, students from other independent schools, and I would spend five weeks abroad in China with the School Year Abroad (SYA) program.

After arriving in China’s capital, Beijing, and spending several days in a hotel, my peers and I went home to our respective host families. Living with my host family allowed me to quickly immerse myself into Chinese culture. For one, familial relations are of utmost importance in China. I admired the sacrifices of my host grandparents, who lived at our home during the week to take care of my host sister, and my host parents treated me as if I was their own daughter. For example, my host mother wanted to ensure I was eating well and staying healthy, and my host father was always willing to help with my Chinese homework. From my younger sister helping me with pronunciation to my grandfather offering me instructions on how to use chopsticks, many of my favorite memories were made with my host family.

Additionally, for four weeks, I participated in rigorous Chinese classes. Every day I had a well-rounded schedule, which facilitated the development of my language skills. My schedule included Chinese class, reading class, oral presentations, and individual conversations with one of the Chinese teachers for 15 minutes. While I initially dreaded the oral presentations and individual talks, I grew to appreciate the intensive classes of SYA Summer and how they improved my Chinese fluency.

While some of my classmates were fortunate enough to be able to walk a few minutes to our school building, I had a 20-minute commute by bus every morning and afternoon. For the first couple of days, my host grandmother graciously took me to school and back so I could learn the route. Feeling confident, I told her she would not have to accompany me the next day. For some reason, I had forgotten how badly I struggle with my navigational skills.

The next morning, I got off several stops too late and under the intense Beijing heat, I arrived at school frazzled and exhausted after having walked nearly 20 minutes. Returning back home, not wanting to repeat the morning's mistakes, I got off the bus too early. My errors continued throughout the first week, but when I finally mastered my commute to school and back, I was relieved.

During my time in China, I constantly forced myself out of my comfort zone. Walking along the Great Wall, I quickly came to head to head with my fear of heights. But with the support of my peers and teachers, I was able to continue trekking and see the most breathtaking views I have ever seen in my life. Now, I reminisce about my experience at the Great Wall with laughter and memories, something I could not have done had I not pushed myself to fight my discomfort.

My favorite portion of my trip was the final week, which followed one month of intensive Chinese studies at the second high school affiliated with Beijing Normal University. My peers and I visited Xi’an, Lanzhou, and finally, Xiahe, which I learned was culturally Tibetan, but not geographically in Tibet. I enjoyed the limited time I spent in Xiahe because it presented a new culture, language, and cuisine. Even though I dealt with minor altitude sickness, I soaked in the peace and calmness of the area compared to the busy cities. Brightly colored jewelry and clothes encouraged me to go explore many local stores. Every person I met there seemed carefree and happy—it was contagious. Surrounded by picturesque mountains and hills, I could have easily spent another month in Xiahe.

Overall, I have returned with a greater appreciation for Chinese culture and improved Chinese skills, and I cannot wait for my next traveling experience.

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