In 2005, I spent the summer between my third and fourth years of college in China and Mongolia. VSET brings American college students to teach conversational English to high school and college students in several Asian countries. Much of the focus is on building relationships that last beyond the two months of the program. My team of eight had two teaching sessions in addition to a week of training and a week of debriefing with the other teams.
Our first session was spent in Mongolia’s capital city of Ulaan Bataar. Other than some basic language and culture lessons, I knew nothing about the isolated land we were flying into. Adjusting was difficult at first, but I quickly fell in love with my students. Their strong cultural identity and warmth as a people was inspiring. I spent almost every waking hour with my students, doing what they enjoyed doing, eating what they ate, and even seeing some of their homes and meeting their families. A tearful goodbye at the train station sent us to Bejing.
I am ethnically Chinese though I was born and raised in California. This was my first time in China, but I expected the culture shock to be less jarring. In many ways it was more comfortable, but I felt no connection to the people. I had assumed that because I understood the culture, I would be able to integrate easily and connect naturally. But I realized that I identified more with the American side of my upbringing than I did with the Chinese side. I felt superior.
One afternoon, we struck up a conversation with a graduate student who had spent a semester studying abroad in Ohio. After talking for a while, he started opening up about his battle with loneliness. He complained about having incessant pain in his hand and would clench his forearm constantly. At one point in the conversation he removed his watch and revealed four lines across his wrist that had been hidden by the wristband. My expression must have betrayed my confusion because my teammate leaned over to me and whispered, “He tried to kill himself.” At that moment, my pride melted. I had never met anyone who attempted suicide. All of a sudden, it was no longer about me. I wished that I had some magical solution for him, but I could do nothing but be a friend. We met a few more times before we had to leave Beijing and I haven’t heard from him since. I will never forget him.
The remainder of the Beijing session was much easier. I was no longer hindered by my identity crisis and I was able to see the students for who they were on the inside. I left the States thinking I would see how different the rest of the world was. I returned realizing that walls of culture and language and wealth divide hearts that have the same fears, struggles, ambitions, and joys. We are one world.
Friday, September 11, 2009
I had to write an essay for an application, describing a cross-cultural experience. I hope it's alright to post it...