Great Wall, great summer

Published 12:05 am Saturday, August 16, 2014

0816 hunter on ruins of great wall

Hunter Albritton stands atop the ruins of the Great Wall of China. | Courtesy photo

Summer study, work in China challenging

Editor’s note: Andalusia High School graduate Hunter Albritton studied in Beijing, China, this summer, as a recipient of the Class of 1948 Foundation’s Claire and Murray Findley International Study Scholarship. The scholarship requires recipients to write an essay about their experiences.

It didn’t truly hit me that I would be studying abroad in China until I was staring out of my airborne plane window at a tiny, toy Beijing on the ground. I panicked a little. Though I had studied Chinese for two years in college and a summer in high school, I felt ill prepared to speak the language and for the culture shock that I knew was bound to ensue. The minute I got off the plane, my fears were confirmed, and I spent 10 minutes trying to ask (in Chinese) the information desk where I could find terminal 3. Eventually I deciphered their directions, found the bus to the terminal, and wiped the sweat off my eyebrows. I kept wiping the sweat off my eyebrows for the next two months due both to the sweltering Beijing heat and to the constant pressure to perform linguistically.

In high school, I studied German and spent the summer after my sophomore year in Germany for practice. In a way, it prepared me for my college study abroad experience. There’s an art to learning how to accept the loneliness of being in another country without the comfort of your friends and family; it drives you to learn how to relate to others in the cultural setting of that country. But, China is not Germany. China is, in my opinion, one of the more challenging places to study abroad because of the language barrier, the tense relationship between the U.S. and China, and the striking cultural differences between the two countries. The support of my CET program staff and the rigidness of the CET program, however, helped me quickly adjust to and thrive in China.

One of the best things about the CET program in China is that they pair you with a Chinese roommate. I was overwhelmed by my roommate, Yuan Yuan’s, hospitality the first night when she treated me to Chinese dinner at a popular student restaurant. Yuan Yuan was always effortlessly cool in her skateboard shoes and crop top soccer jerseys. She embodied the modern, progressive Chinese college student, and she gave me a window into not only the college social scene in China but lots of much needed homework help and motivation. One day, after watching me sit on Netflix for an hour, she told me that procrastination is an American thing, and I should be like a Chinese person while I’m here and get my work out of the way so I can go out and have fun. Near the end of the trip, Yuan Yuan invited me to visit her home in the Shandong province. Her parents didn’t speak a word of English, except “hello,” but they were the sweetest people. They took me out to eat with her extended family, and I chatted with them in Chinese and looked at cell phone pictures of Yuan Yuan’s cousins.

During my time in China, I got to visit Shanghai, Xi’an, Jinan, Tianjin, and a remote village. I hiked Great Wall ruins at 4 a.m., bought popsicles from a village shack, saw the Terracotta warriors, ate full meals at delicious restaurants for the equivalent of three U.S. dollars, saw the Bund from a 12th story rooftop bar, and ate famous dough twists after I watched them be prepared. Trips like these made me thankful for my Chinese knowledge and eager to learn more. Not everyone in my program had taken Chinese classes, and it felt great to sometimes be the one coordinating taxis and asking for directions on behalf of the whole group.

I practiced my Chinese a lot, and it served me well. In fact, every day from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., I usually only spoke Chinese because my morning class was conducted solely in Chinese and I had to use Chinese at my afternoon internship. The Chinese classes and internship solidified the cultural immersion for me. Although the vocabulary topics in my pre-advanced level Chinese class were often a bit difficult to work into daily speech, studying and speaking in class every day kept my language skills sharp. Using Chinese in an office setting, however, was probably most beneficial to my improvement. I worked at Women’s Watch-China, a legal advocacy group that promotes awareness of women’s rights and discrimination in China. I found English language articles for the English version of their website and did a little research and translation work. My phone became an extension of my hand as I constantly used apps to search for words like “sexual harassment” and “feminism.” Every day, we were served a delicious, fresh healthy lunch, and I got to practice my conversational Chinese with the staff there.

Everything in China was a learning experience, from seeing beggars on the subway to trying to get takeout from restaurants. My Chinese education at the University of Texas up to this point was put in context and allowed me to form my own opinions about China aside from the stereotypes and broad generalizations that American media often perpetuates.

For example, the notion that Chinese college students are all work and no play is, by my observation, false. Many Chinese students like to get crazy at bars and clubs just as much as their American counterparts. On the other hand, the wide poverty gap that China left in the wake of its rapid economic development is very real and very obvious. Also, because of China’s culture and unique religious environment, physical disabilities have an awful stigma, and the government is doing close to nothing to create resources for people with disabilities. I could go on and on about high sky rises, empty malls, and inadequate sewage systems. But, I don’t think China’s problems and progress define China; at least they don’t for me. In a lot of ways, they add to America’s nervous fascination with China. When I lived in China, walked down the streets, and ate dinner with the people, I saw China as more than its political caricature. I experienced a people that put hospitality in high regard, valued sharing more than individual happiness, and yearned for equality and progression even in the face of restrictions of political choice and free speech with communism.

This summer solidified my decision to pursue learning Chinese. Being immersed in study culture and office culture in China gave me motivation for continuing with the language despite its challenges. After my undergraduate education, I hope to attend law school and keep improving my Chinese so I can practice international law and travel back to China frequently. I’m looking forward to another year of Chinese study at UT, and hopefully returning to China next summer for more opportunities to practice and learn about the country.

I am endlessly thankful for the help that the Class of 1948 Foundation Scholarship provided in my study abroad experience. Because of the scholarship, I was able to travel to many interesting Chinese cities, immerse myself in Chinese culture, and further my knowledge of the language.