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It had always been a dream of mine to see the Great Wall of China in person. Growing up, I always looked at the pictures of my parents at the Great Wall from when they visited China before I was born. I saw countless images of the Great Wall in paintings and textbooks. For me, the Great Wall represented something spectacular but unattainable. I never thought I would actually be able to see it, but I always felt drawn to it as a piece of my heritage in a land far from home.

This weekend, I visited Beijing with half of my DukeEngage-Zhuhai team because we were given a free weekend, and we wanted to see the capital of China. While I was there, I did what I never thought I’d have the chance to do. I climbed the Great Wall of China. One of my lifelong dreams was finally obtained. My feelings at the top of the Wall were indescribable but they included a mixture of exhaustion from all of the walking and elation for having made it there. Even now, I still can’t believe that I climbed the Great Wall, but, looking back, I realize that I have climbed many walls on this trip, doing things I never thought I could do, even if they may only appear small. For example, this past week was the first time I talked to someone not related to DukeEngage in Chinese. I was too afraid to try speaking Chinese for fear of judgment, especially because I look Chinese but don’t know the language, and I didn’t begin actively learning from my DukeEngage team members until several weeks in to the program. Others who didn’t previously know Chinese picked up Chinese quickly and were unafraid to try out their new skills with students and community members, but I remained silent and shy. “There’s no way I’ll be able to speak Chinese to anyone here”, I said to myself, “I’m always going to be judged and look stupid”. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s putting myself down. I had been told since I was little that I should learn Chinese, but I didn’t; then, I had been in China for 5 weeks, and I was still too scared to try. However, one day we were ordering food at a restaurant, and Irene, who had just taught me how to order food in Chinese, encouraged me to speak. After a few minutes of hesitation, I finally said my first words in Chinese to someone in Zhuhai. On the outside, it looked like a small thing. I only spoke one sentence. But inside my mind, I spent 5 weeks preparing myself for that moment and trying to surpass the mental barrier I had created. Since then, I’ve used Chinese to tell a taxi driver where to take me and to introduce myself to a group of students. Each time, I’ve spoken very few words, and I am still afraid to speak most of the time, but now that I’ve climbed the initial wall, daring to communicate in Chinese has become a little bit easier.

In Beijing, I also saw the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square. Each of those famous landmarks was breathtaking, and I felt that I had never fully experienced Chinese culture until I had stood in those places and seen the sights I’d heard about from history lessons. Although the main tourist attractions were amazing, even the smaller moments in Beijing were ones I’ll never forget. While we were leaving the Temple of Heaven, we came across a group of elderly Chinese citizens who had gathered to sing. We heard their voices from far away and stopped to listen for a while. I didn’t understand a word they were singing, but I was so moved by their music, I felt a newfound pride in my heritage. They portrayed a sense of joy and community that I’d never come across before while walking the public streets in America. I could have watched them all day, at peace and content, but we had a busy schedule, so too soon, we had to leave.

For most of the rest of the week, we did not have our normal classes at Zhuhai No. 9 Middle School because the 9th graders were taking the jong kao, the high school entrance examination. In China, middle schoolers need to take the jong kao in order to be placed in a high school. The students who do the best on the exam go to the No. 1 high school while the others go to lower ranked high schools. Then, at the end of high school, students must take the gao kao, their college entrance examination. Students in the higher ranked high schools tend to do better on the gao kao, so doing well on the jong kao and getting into the top high school is important for many students.

On Tuesday we went to a school for special needs children, on Wednesday we went to a vocational high school, and on Thursday we went to Jilin University. After getting used to the daily routine of teaching each week, it felt odd not spending all day at No. 9 with the middle schoolers. However, it was interesting to see other types of schools in China and to talk to students closer to my age. At Jilin University, I met a girl named Suki who was a tourism management major. She stayed with me all day as we toured her school, and she talked to me about her life at university and the time she visited America to work in a hotel. She even taught me how to swing a golf club when we were at the school’s golf course. I enjoyed talking with her and hearing about university life in China. I was also touched by how kind she was to me all day, trying make sure I was having fun and doing little things like saving me seats near air conditioning for each activity. As I left, we shared our WeChat information and continued messaging each other that night. Although I only knew her for a day, I’m glad I had the chance to meet her.

On Friday, we had our last day of teaching English at Zhuhai No. 9 Middle School. The end of my last class felt surreal because I knew I was finished teaching English classes, but it was hard to believe that something I had spent so much time doing here was now over. I still would not say that I’m good at teaching; working with kids and keeping students interested in lessons is not my strong suit. However, looking back, I can see that I have changed and improved from the first time I stood in front of a group of Chinese 7th Graders, waving my arms and attempting to teach them. It pushed me way out of my introverted comfort zone, just like speaking Chinese did, and I can’t say that I’m suddenly significantly more outgoing than before the trip, but I’m now a little less afraid to put myself out there even though I know I will make mistakes in front of people. This program challenged me to take the first few steps forward, and as a result, I’ve been able to breach these walls that once seemed insurmountable.