Christy Cooper, an agricultural education major from Waverly, Nebraska, studies abroad with a faculty-led College of Business program in Yangling, China, from May 5 to June 3. She chose this global immersion program because China plays a large role in Nebraska’s economy, especially in agriculture. As a senior this fall and a future high school agriculture teacher, Christy can’t wait to share her experiences abroad with her students. “I’ve never been to an Asian country, so I’m most looking forward to learning about and immersing myself in China’s culture.”
It’s a Cultural Experience – June 11, 2019
As l left the country, I thought about “The Greatest Part” of my study abroad experience. It’s so difficult to narrow an entire month into one moment. I thought through all the things I did. The best part wasn’t the food, the language, the scenic sites, the shops or the people. After a while, I determined the greatest part was the understanding of why things were different. It’s what I learned that I wouldn’t have known by reading a book. It’s the study of China.
Every country is its own beautiful mess. China, with its ancient history and immense landmass, is especially intricate. Following one thread of information takes you deeper into an entire ball of yarn. The connections I made from one sector to another built a large, entangled web of information.
My family came over one evening after I got back to hear about my experiences. It took a couple of hours to show them the hundreds of pictures I had picked out. After they left, I felt strangely unsatisfied. Sure, I loved telling them my stories, but I could tell they still had no concept of how important China has become to me. The things that were most important to me – the education system, the different religions, the governmental influence, the economic structure – were things I couldn’t capture with a camera.
It’s easy to sum up China with a few good photos of noodles, The Great Wall, terracotta warriors and lanterns, but it doesn’t tell the whole story (the same could be said for any place). Those things only touch the surface. You can share almost everything about a trip to another country, but there’s one thing that can’t be described – the essence of the culture. Only YOU were there making those observations. And, isn’t that what studying abroad is all about – getting a larger global perspective that goes deeper than the information we can get from media?
Satisfaction comes when you find a way to share what you learned in a meaningful way. You have to start using your newfound understanding to make any of it matter. For me, I’ll be applying what I learned as a teacher. Business and agriculture in China are so important for my students’ future success. The theories I learned from the Chinese education system can be applied in American schools. In my classroom, students will learn to be inclusive of cultures because their teacher has greater understanding gained from my experiences abroad. The value of your study abroad experience doesn’t end when you get on the plane home – it begins.
Make your experiences meaningful to your life. Study abroad!
Every Moment Counts – May 27, 2019
On every trip, there seems to come a time around the middle of the journey when you reach a lull. The place you traveled to no longer seems wildly exotic. You’ve grown accustomed to the everyday routine and you miss the little things from home.(Right now, I miss fast internet access, my cat and cheeseburgers.) By the time you reach “the lull,” you’ve probably made some friends, learned a bit of the local language, discovered which foods you like (and which ones you don’t), and explored the area. You’re exhausted from the long, busy days and you begin to remember all the responsibilities piling up in the States.
It’s around this time when it’s most important to seek new experiences. Before, the natural newness of the place pushed you out of your comfort zone. When I first arrived in China, I couldn’t do simple, everyday tasks without it becoming a whole experience. Meals took forever. I used my shaky chopstick skills to eat unfamiliar dishes. At night, I longed for a mattress as I tried falling asleep on my bamboo board bed. Even using the restroom was a challenge. Most places don’t have Western toilets and it’s expected you bring your own toilet paper!
By the time you reach “the lull,” you’ve grown accustomed to these differences and you face two choices: stick with the familiar or make every moment count. For me, the odds of ever coming back to China are slim, so I decided to take advantage of my time. This requires me to search for new experiences for myself. Reaching out can be intimidating, but it has proven to be one of the greatest parts of my study abroad experience. Nobody should leave a place thinking, “I wish I would have tried that.”
This past week, for every excuse I made, I gave myself a more valid reason. When I felt tired, I took a quick nap and then reminded myself of all the time I’ll have on the 13-hour plane ride home to sleep. When I felt hungry, I ordered something new. If I didn’t like it, I grabbed some snacks on the way back. When I was frustrated by the language barrier, I practiced all the words and phrases I did know. Every time I faced a new opportunity, I said “yes.” Despite the terrible smell of durian, I tasted it and decided it might be the first fruit in the world I didn’t like. I chalked that one up to be a cultural experience. But there are times when saying yes makes incredible memories. A group of Chinese students asked us to go to lunch with them. I said, “yes” even though it meant giving up my familiar lunch of sesame chicken and rice. They took us to a small shop across town where they ordered me the most delicious bowl of noodles I ever had.
You’ll know when you’ve reached “the lull” on a trip. Things begin to feel normal and fewer things surprise you. Minus the occasional rogue dumpling, I’ve mastered chopstick handling. After long days, I look forward to my bamboo bed and I learned how to ask where the bathroom is in Mandarin (and not to forget my own toilet paper). Every day takes me closer to going home to Nebraska, but it also means I have one less day to experience the magic of China, so I’ve been saying “yes” to trying new things.
Wherever you are, make every moment count!
Friends Around the World – May 15, 2019
When you set out on a study abroad trip, you expect the exotic food, unfamiliar language and learning experiences. What you don’t expect are the relationships you build. As I was packing for China, I thought, “Hopefully I can find at least one friend on this trip.” Thinking back to that now makes me laugh. One friend? It’s barely the second week and I’ve lost count of how many new friends I have!
The first friends you find on a study abroad trip is the group of Nebraska students you travel with. It doesn’t take long before you become a family. You eat together, travel together and explore the town together. We have so many inside jokes and stories. You feel like you’ve known them your entire life, not just one week. Spending every hour with the same group means sometimes you face conflict, but you always end the day knowing you have each other’s backs.
In Xi’an, I met JoJo. She was working the overnight shift at the front desk of the hostel we stayed in. We sat up talking and laughing all night long. JoJo told me about her favorite parts of China and her dreams and career goals. I told her about my life back in America and our plans for our study abroad trip. When I asked what her favorite part of the hostel was she said, “I get to meet many people from all over the world. They leave, which makes me sad, but then someone new always comes.” JoJo’s determination to make friends inspired me to make the most of my time with people in China.
The past few days, we spent time chatting with a group of freshmen students in an English class at Northwest Agriculture & Forestry University. When we walked into the first classroom, they started clapping. We were shocked! They didn’t even know us yet, but they were excited. The first few minutes were awkward. Neither group knew what to say and the language barrier was challenging. Quicklythough, we began to find similarities and added each other on WeChat (a Chinese texting app). By the end of the second day, we were all walking around Yangling together looking for the best noodles.
Sometimes it can be hard to convince yourself to reach out when you know you may never see the person again, but it is so worth it. Every relationship matters – from the random person you smile at on the street to the lifelong friends you make. The moments I’ve created with these people are the ones I will remember forever. The world really is a small place. You can create a community around you in any country if you are willing to take a chance.
I was so confused – May 7, 2019
“I was so confused.” It seems like I think that phrase to myself 100 times a day. In a foreign country, there are so many new things. It starts when you’re on the plane. The flight attendants ask everyone to shut their window blinds and turn down the lights so it feels like nighttime, even though it’s three in the afternoon. You aren’t sure what time it is, where you came from or where you’re going. On the plane, you can’t tell where in the world you are either. You feel like you’re in a bubble. Every so often, I turned on the flight map. It showed a picture of the plane flying over the globe. It also showed the time in Chicago and in Beijing. Knowing that information helped ease my confusion.
But then we arrived in Beijing…
Airports are all pretty much the same, but when all the directional signs contain Chinese characters, it adds a level of confusion. We followed the pictures to the next check-in location. There was a problem getting our tickets printed. Communicating with the ticket agent was a challenge, but we figured out the problem by staying calm.
We were on our way again…
By the time we landed in Xi’an, we traveled for more than 24 hours. It was 9 p.m. local time and raining. We loaded up on a bus and made the hour-long journey to the university where we will stay. Physically, I was confused. We all had jet lag. I was constantly hungry and completely exhausted.
The next morning…
We broke into the bags of breakfast our Chinese leaders gave us the night before. At first, we were so confused. Nothing looked familiar and the labels weren’t in English. Slowly, we tasted everything and figured out what they might be: milk, sausage, an egg. These were all things we knew, but the packaging made them seem different. Then, we went down to the market and ate dumplings. They were so unfamiliar, we thought, but then I mentioned they tasted a little like Runzas. Everyone laughed and agreed. It was crazy how good they tasted after that. All my body needed was for my mind to make a connection from the unknown to the known.
These first couple of days in China, I learned it’s okay to be confused. Culture shock and jet lag are inevitable. You will think and say “I was confused” a lot. However, the key word in all these scenarios is “was.” I WAS confused, but now I’m not. Stay calm and figure it out. Use context clues and make connections to things you know, no matter how small. It will help you feel more at home. I still have jet lag (it’s 4 a.m. and I’m writing this), but everything is becoming a little less confusing. I found a quote by the author Bill Bryson that sums up this feeling well. He said, “I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything.” Being confused gives us the greatest opportunity. Embrace the confusion for a while, but then overcome it with amazement.
Ready or Not! – May 1, 2019
Hey there! I’m Christy, and I am nervous because my flight for China leaves in four days. FOUR DAYS! Only 96 hours to get everything packed and ready to go. An hour ago, I finished my last final for the semester, and now I’m switching gears. My to-do list is growing longer by the minute. It looks something like this:
Pick up passport from Study Abroad office
Check weather in Xi’an
Locate suitcase in closet
Study tea culture
Master the geography of China
Become fluent in Chinese
I wonder: Will I have everything I need in time? What challenges will I face in the country? What if I can’t understand the language? How will the 13-hour flight be? Is the high-speed train confusing to ride? Will I find friends on the trip? With every question that pops into my mind, I take a moment to BREATHE.
I realize my ideal list doesn’t match my reality. It’s not practical to expect myself to know everything about China, especially the language. However, everything will work out. I’m studying abroad with a fun group of students from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, the faculty coming with us are experienced and knowledgeable about our destination, and I am excited! As I cross off items on my updated, more reasonable to-do list, I remember we will never be fully ready for the next step in our lives. Sometimes we have to jump and trust in what comes next.
The time will never “be right.” It won’t be the “right time” to talk to the student sitting next to you in class. It won’t be the “right time” to join a new organization on campus. It won’t be the “right time” to study abroad. My advice? Do it anyway! Some things are better figured out along the way. Embrace the adventures of life.
By the time you’re reading this, I’ll already be settled into my temporary home on the campus of the Northwest Agriculture & Forest University in Yangling enjoying this crazy journey.