Fearless

Okay, it's been so long and I have so much to say that I think I'm going to have to separate my thoughts into three different posts. I've written only twice this year which is ridiculous, but I'm hoping to start doing it again because I've thought about doing it every week but something else has occupied my time. First it was China, then it was MCAT and now it's adjusting into life as a senior in college.

This one's going to be about China.

Going to Zhuhai for DukeEngage was one of the most incredible experiences I've had in my life, and the reasons are threefold. First, it was my first time out of the country on my own without my parents and it gave me a chance to explore and discover a place in my own way, at my own pace. I wasn't touring, taking photos constantly (though some of us were heh), or seeing what everyone else sees. I got a chance to understand the day in the life of a resident of Zhuhai (体验中国人的生活). I had a sense of independence and freedom to do what I liked and nothing to hold me back but my own fears, which I tried my best not to get in the way.

Second, I was able to practice my Chinese everywhere that I went, and it felt like my two years of learning the language actually meant something. When I was able to have meaningful conversations about religion, US vs Chinese economics (sort of), food, college life, and Chinese philosophy (though this was mostly me listening) with my host family, shopowners, and my students, I felt so incredibly happy. Speaking and understanding a language that you didn't pick up as a child subconsciously but rather spent hours of effort in practicing in class is so much more satisfying. While it was frustrating at times when my host mom spewed out sentences of Chinese that I did not understand at all (简直外星人的说话!), it was those moments that I learned the most from. If Chinese was just a class I enjoyed before going to China, it truly became a part of me once I went to China. I've had dreams in Chinese, thought of words in Chinese before I could think of the English translation, and accidentally spoken Chinese words in a completely non-Chinese conversation. You could say I've really embodied the 中国话 hehe.

Third, I was able to interact with people across the world from me and make my world feel just a little more connected. I mentioned this last time, but putting names and faces to at least some of the nameless, faceless population of Asians across the world made me feel a little more worldly. My host mom is someone I will never forget because she believed in my Chinese even when I hardly understood what she was saying and she treated me like a part of the family and gave me all of the comforts she could in her home. Our students were so great, especially one class that I had on Tuesday afternoons that was always excited to see me. My English classes were fun, but more than anything I loved dance classes in the evenings. We started with 40 students and trickled down to 15, but those 15 were so committed, enthusiastic, and they really worked hard for our final performance. I remember how nervous some of them were just as we were about to go on, and how energized they were once they had performed. It made me so incredibly proud. It reminded me of how I feel after every dance performance that I do and while it's a stressful feeling, it also feels like you're ready to prove yourself to the world. It was amazing to be able to bring that feeling to our students. More on this and my experience in Zhuhai you can read on the blog I wrote over the summer for DukeEngage here: https://sites.duke.edu/dezhuhai2015/author/sg220duke-edu/. The one on the final performance is probably the most meaningful to me so I'm going to be weird and quote myself.
"People often don’t realize how much work and effort goes into making a performance happen, not just a task list, but also emotional investment. We were all stressed and nervous because we wanted our students to succeed and for an audience to see them at their best. When you put the label “final” on the performance, signaling that something wonderful was coming to an end, it adds a whole new layer of emotions like longing and despair and sadness. I want to remember this final performance not only for all of the confidence and talent it showcased from the students, but also for this bittersweet feeling that makes me want to cry, but also smile. I don’t think this performance is an end, but rather a means for our students to be motivated to push themselves more out of their comfort zones. There is so much about this program that is not “final” in the most literal sense. Inspiration is like a drop of acid in water — once it’s there, you can’t take it away."
My whole experience made me really reflect on DukeEngage's tagline of "Challenge yourself. Change your world." They say that the reason they chose to make it "change your world" rather than "change the world" is because we have to change ours before we impact anyone else's. While I'm under no impression that a group of Duke students going to a foreign country will change the way that the world turns, it gives us an experience that, in some cases, leads us to think further about world issues and perhaps pursue them in the future. It still bothers me a bit though that a program that is meant to provide service focuses so heavily on personal growth. That is actually one of the biggest things I got out of my program, in fact, but the Thanks a Million reception DukeEngage held this week for celebrating a million hours of service left a bit of a bitter taste in my mouth, and it wasn't because of the food because that was actually quite delicious. It's great that we're celebrating the service that Duke students have done since 2007, but something seems incongruent in celebrating what we give others while stressing what we do for ourselves. It comes back to the uneasiness of having privilege, and I'm not really sure where to go with that.

Switching gears a bit, I didn't mention this as one of my reasons, but the biggest impact I brought back with me from China was probably Chinese tea culture (中国茶文化). It sounds kind of silly, maybe, but I became totally obsessed with tea in China. Before, I would drink chai on occasion with my mom, in which she adds both milk and sugar. My host mom drank tea with me almost every evening and it was something I looked forward to from the moment that I got home after a long day at No. 9 Middle School. As I've told friends time and time again, it's not just the warm, soothing essence of the tea that makes the experience so incredible and comfortable, but also the way that it is drank. A host prepares the tea(泡茶)and constantly pours and refills it into the small cups (杯子) that each person has. Not only does your tea not get cold because it's constantly being reprepared with hot water, but there's also something so personal about needing to engage with another to have more. It's a comfortable way to have discussions and catch up and you're not just sitting on opposite sides of a table sipping from your own cup with a tea bag in it. Fresh loose-leaf tea, 特别是红茶, makes me feel like I can take a deep breath and relax from everything that is stressing me out. It's like meditation almost, hard to describe in words, but something that if you really try to feel it, I think you definitely can. Tea has had such an influence on my life since this summer, both at home where my parents love and miss drinking tea with me everyday and at school where I've already had some really wonderful conversations with my roommate and others over tea. I definitely invite anyone to come over sometime to have tea with me, because I would really love to do that!

I think I've gone on for long enough, so I'll end here by saying that this post by no means describes all the things that I've felt before, during and after my trip to China. People will ask me how my DukeEngage experience was and I usually say incredible and a couple of lines on what I did, but it's so hard not to go out into a full fledged explanation of everything it has meant to me. I especially thank Hsiao-mei for organizing such an incredible program that stretched all of us past our limits and pushing us to learn things about ourselves that we wouldn't have otherwise. She had me run a group discussion and MC for a performance that we had which were both nerve-wracking, but very rewarding in the end. I really also thank all of my team members, who all played such a vital role at Zhuhai and had an impact on me as well. I have so much to learn from every one of them because we all come from different social backgrounds but were able to come together toward a common goal. I recommend DukeEngage Zhuhai to everyone, no matter what your major is or what your plans are for the future, because I'm positive you'll learn something about yourself and about the world you're in on the way.

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