It’s been a hot minute since I studied abroad. I did my semester abroad in the fall of my sophomore year, and now I’m almost a 5th year senior (does anyone actually manage to graduate in four years?). I did go to Uganda fairly recently, but that was a year ago at this point too. The experience isn’t still fresh in my mind, but it’s definitely still a really important part of my life. Looking back on what has happened since then, and everything leading up to that semester, it’s clear not that that semester was really a turning point for me. I’ve definitely always been a pretty hard worker, but that semester was different. That semester I didn’t do it just because I didn’t want to let my parents down, or because that’s what was expected of me, or because I needed a certain GPA to keep my scholarship. That semester abroad it was just me (and Sarah), and there were no expectations. It was a totally fresh start. It was the first time everything was truly up to me. That semester was the hardest I had ever worked up to that point. I spent four hours a day memorizing characters, I did 400 meter sprints in the rain, I ran the same 5 mile loop at 9 pm every night. In some ways, it wasn’t different than my life had been up to that point, I was still running and studying. But looking back on it, it was totally different. There was no immediate goal for any of those things, I didn’t run to train for something, I didn’t study to pass any AP exams, or get a scholarship or keep a scholarship. I did everything because I wanted to. I wanted to know more, be faster, and get stronger. It was a subtle shift, and I haven’t done a good job of explaining it here, but it was definitely a shift that changed the way I approach things. When I got home, that stayed with me. I was back in the same environment, but I wanted more. That shift is what led me to walk on to the rowing team, stay motivated to not just pass my classes, but truly learn the substance, and give 100% to my relationships with friends and family. It wasn’t obvious then, but 3 years late I think I definitely can say that my experience abroad changed me as a person.
Something I’ve never really been good at is putting myself out there. Especially in the context of my Chinese language skills. Except for while I was in China, and had to do it, I’ve never really been able to be that person who can start up a conversation in Chinese with the waiter at a Chinese restaurant, or even try to order in Chinese. Even when I know how to say the words, I get scared that I’ll do it wrong, or that I’ll start trying to talk to someone, and they’ll be like “Dude… I’m from Oklahoma, what makes you think I can speak Chinese”.
This semester I actually did make an effort to put myself out there a little more. I actually ordered some bubble tea in Chinese, and it wasn’t hard. It even sparked a conversation between myself and the guy working at the shop, because I’m sure they don’t encounter very many non-Chinese people who can speak Chinese. I know most of the people I’m studying Chinese with have been doing this since they first started, so it’s not really impressive in any way, but I’m really proud that I’m at least making progress.
I also put myself out there a little bit and went to a Chinese New Year event that wasn’t put on by CLC. Or I guess I should say I tried to go. There were performances and dumplings hosted by the Asian student association. When I showed up to the event, there was a line out the door, and it seemed like just about every person in Norman with any connection whatsoever to China was there. I said earlier that I tried to go, because when I got to the front of the line, it was for a raffle, not food or tickets to the performances. I tried to find the correct line for a bit, until I eventually admitted defeat and just went to campus corner. It definitely was disappointing not to actually go to the event, but I am determined to be more determined next year, and not get scared and back out.
Overall, it’s still really hard to put yourself out there. Some people are just good at it, but I am not one of those people. I know it’s theoretically not that hard. Just talk to someone, or ask someone where the correct line is, or say the same order in a restaurant that you ordered a million times at restaurants in China. But it’s still really hard for me to actually do those things. I’m proud that I at least tried, but definitely want to keep improving.
Chinese New Year this year was a little bit different than previous years. I managed to have class right in the middle of this year’s celebration, so I only got to experience the frantic rush to get everything set up, and the end after everyone has finished eating, and we’re all just slowly talking and trying to pick up all the tables. I actually didn’t really mind, because the beginning and the end are the best times to talk to people anyway. Plus there was still a little bit of food left, and I didn’t even have to stand in line to get it. This year in addition to eating food, there was also a dumpling making class, taught by Qi Laoshi, before we ate. I’m definitely disappointed to have missed that. Qi Laoshi has taught me how to make dumplings before, but it’s still just a lot of fun to do with friends. It’s a good bonding experience. I’m also a little sad that I missed the presentation. There’s always a fairly simple presentation to just tell people about the holiday, and talk about some of the major traditions. I’ve given the presentation in the past, and I always like to see what new things people talk about that I didn’t know, or didn’t think to include.
Even though I missed a good bit of it, I still got to see all the people I wanted to see, meet some new people, and eat some good food. I think it’s really important and really cool that we have a Chinese New Year celebration at OU (several actually) to give people a chance to experience a culture they normally wouldn’t.
This year I had the privilege of being a panelist for a discussion at Global Engagement Day on the topic of “Women, LGBTQ persons, and Minorities abroad”. The panel was a good chance to think about my experiences abroad in a context I hadn’t really thought about them before. I never really defined my experiences by the fact that I am a woman, or looked at how those experiences may have been different if I weren’t.
To be totally honest, I couldn’t think of many ways that my experiences in China were defined or limited by my gender. I did take some risks that I probably shouldn’t have, like staying with a stranger my first night in China, or running alone fairly often, usually at 9 pm. The thing is though, I felt completely safe doing those things.
My experience in Uganda was much more relevant to the topic, since the culture there is still one that very obviously oppresses women. The school we were staying at was originally built for women who had been assaulted and subsequently rejected by their communities. Women there have been disproportionately affected by conflicts in the area, and many have been assaulted, and left to take care of children without the support of their family or a husband. They are expected to wear very modest clothing, and work making clothes, growing food, or selling goods in addition to taking care of children and the home. My experience in Uganda was obviously nowhere near what women there experience on a daily basis, but it was a very different environment, in which I was very aware of the fact that I was a woman and the limitations that came with that. I really only had to worry about what I could wear, and when, where, and how I could run, but still found it difficult to adjust to living in that environment. Other panelists for the talk had more extreme experiences, or had to hide who they were while they were abroad. The overarching conclusion of the discussion was that sometimes, you have to put your own opinions and self-expression aside when you are abroad, in order to respect and adhere to the culture you are in.
This year I haven’t been able to participate in a lot of Chinese Language Club events thanks to many of my classes being at night. The one thing I was able to participate in was the CLC fundraiser, which was a book and bake sale. I definitely miss seeing all the Chinese professors and keeping in touch with the other Chinese students, since I’m not in any Chinese classes this semester. The bake sale was a good way to stay in contact a little bit, and spend some time practicing my Chinese and reconnecting with the language.
I quickly realized that my Chinese is definitely not what it used to be, and not taking Chinese consistently the past few years has definitely taken a toll on my language abilities, especially my ability to listen and comprehend quickly, or remember how to write characters. It definitely was a wakeup call to me that I need to be studying on my own in some way. I spent so much time and effort learning the language, and I’m disappointed in myself for not keeping up with it and letting so much of that work go to waste. I hope to be able to keep up with the language a little more moving forward, even if it’s just in some small way like watching a Chinese TV show occasionally.
Next year, I will be in at least one Chinese class each semester, so will have an opportunity to sharpen up my Chinese skills before I graduate. I’m excited to start improving my Chinese again, it’s been pretty static since I came home from China, and I’m excited to hopefully be able to participate in more CLC events since I will have a more open schedule.