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The night I left for China, I burst into tears at a restaurant my parents took me to for a farewell dinner. I’m gonna be honest: I was pretty terrified by the idea that I was about to board an over-14 hour flight to China, where I would live for 8-weeks. Outside of college, this would be the longest span of time I’d ever spent away fro my family and the only time I went to live in a non-Western, largely non-English-speaking country. I was scared because I didn’t know what to expect. I’ve never taught English before, I’ve only ever assisted in teaching singing lessons, and I haven’t spoken a word of Chinese in over six months. I was more worried about the day-to-day issue of being so obviously foreign (I’m an All-American, Dutch-English-Italian girl and in no way, shape, or form was I about to pass as a local in China). I just felt like I was about to be flung head-long into the deep-end of the culturally immersive experience called DukeEngage.

When I first landed in Guangzhou I was exhausted and just wanted to somehow make it to the hotel so I could squeeze in a quick nap. I hoped in a cab with Raquel and we were on our way. Everything seemed fine when we got out of the cab, that is until the driver told us the charge and we gave him extra because we didn’t have change. When we gave him the extra money, he just started nodding his head, saying thank you in Chinese, and backing away. I’d read somewhere that tipping wasn’t customary here so I made a little bit of a fuss, but the money wasn’t the real issue. The real issue I had with the interaction was that when I tried to make a fuss, my limited Chinese vocabulary prevented me from expressing my concerns to the driver. That’s when it finally hit me that I wasn’t in the US anymore, this wasn’t my place, and that was scary. I was afraid that this would be my entire experience in China – being the obvious 外国人 who was either there to tour or whatever, but that I would never really feel welcome. This beginning is basically my long-winded way of saying how wrong my first impression was.

The truth is I almost immediately felt welcomed to China by the people we met in Guangzhou. Riley, Nigel, and I went “exploring” around the block near our hotel. We went into Lock Chuck Coffee expecting to just have a quick coffee break, little did we know that the shop was run by the world’s biggest Duke fan. The owner, Chuck, had applied to Duke for graduate school, but he wasn’t accepted himself. He did, however, teach a few students who he said would be joining the class of 2020 this coming fall! It was a small interaction, but it was just a very genuine, extraordinarily random run-in that made me think what a small world we really live in. Like, honestly, what were they chances we would run into Chuck in this big wide world. It may seem silly, but it made me reflect on how although China and the US are culturally different, people all over the world are still just people.

While in Guangzhou, we had to opportunity to meet and talk with students of all ages – middle schoolers, high schoolers, and college students who were our age. It was fascinating to hear the students’ motivations for studying English at each grade-level, and it was really wonderful to meet students of so many backgrounds and ages. At the high school, my tour guide Jerry was extraordinarily outgoing, very bright, and the best way I could describe her is as a firecracker. Example: in her own words she told me that she wanted to learn English so that she could be an educator in China because she wanted to make the opportunities afforded to her available to other students. I was impressed by her drive, her confidence, and especially with her language proficiency at such a young age. While Jerry spoke with fluency and was so willing to share her thoughts with me, when we arrived at the middle school, the students I was paired with were much more reserved. This may have been due to age or experience with the language, but it was difficult to draw them out of their shells. That is, it was difficult until we started playing games with them on the playground. We only spent three days in Guangzhou and as we left I thought about how I would’ve loved to spend the program there to better explore the city and get to know the students we met better. Even though we couldn’t spend more time in Guangzhou, our experience there made me even more excited to settle down in Zhuhai.
I almost forgot to mention my experience with my DukeEngage cohort. In the short while we’ve known each other, we’ve become extremely close. They’re some of the warmest, most open, most innovative, most engaged (pun not intended), and most adventurous people I’ve met and I couldn’t be more excited to spend the next seven weeks with them. We’ve spent enormous amounts of time together and I just can’t imagine getting tired of them. I think its either something to do with our mutual musicality, our culture shock, or maybe just something in the water but we basically skipped over the friend-comfort level and become like family.

My cohort was my support network when we arrived in Zhuhai and immediately were thrust into the role of teacher. We were given not one, but two royal welcomes from the Zhuhai No. 9 middle school. When I say “royal” I mean they literally rolled out the red carpet, lined with a seemingly endless row of students, for us, complete with balloons, shouting, and flowers. As soon as the welcome was complete, the teaching began.
We had only a few hours the night before to come up with a cohesive lesson plan for all the DukeEngagers to teach so that the students would all be on the same page. Because of spotty wifi, issues with outlets, and a few other technical difficulties with VPNs, we basically just conceptualized what our class would be. It wasn’t until the morning we started teaching that we finally put together our Powerpoints and other teaching materials. To ease into teaching, many of us paired off; I paired up with Riley to teach the first week of classes, the topic of which was introductions. Our classes consisted of introducing ourselves, having our students introduce themselves to a partner, having students introduce that partner to us, then finally having the students play the “shoe game” where they had to swap spots if they liked something in common with the student in the middle of the circle.

The classes consisted of mostly really engaged, really talented students – we were really lucky. However, teaching was not without its frustrations. We had some students use swear words in their English names, some students who refused to speak in English, and some students who refused to even respond. I kept telling myself it was all part of the process, but again being honest, it was really difficult not to get overly frustrated with the students. In those moments, I was really glad to have a co-teacher.
Part of this DukeEngage experience is the homestay aspect of the experience. Little did Riley and I know, we’d already met our host brothers before they’d been announced to us. We’d taught their seventh grade class on the very first day of classes. I was a little nervous when I found out I had a host brother rather than a host sister, but I couldn’t be more happy with my host family. On the very first day when they came to pick me up, my host brother ran up to me carrying a bouquet of flowers and his mother snapped about a thousand candid photos of me totally blown away. To quote a text to my mom that I sent the morning I was picked up by them from the hotel in Zhuhai, “I think I’ve been blessed by the host family Gods.” My host family is made up of six people and three generations. I’ve got a set of grandparents, parents, and two younger brothers. During the week, only my youngest host brother and grandparents live in Zhuhai with me, my parents and elder younger brother live in Guangzhou because of work and school respectively. My host grandparents and host parents speak little to no English, and my host brothers both understand English but have difficulty speaking. Their home is lovely and they’ve been nothing but extremely welcoming. On my first day with them, they took me out to lunch with the whole family (including a cousin), then to a movie, shopping, and to dinner. They even invited me to come with them to their hometown to meet extended family and vacation with another host family over our program’s free weekend. They have done nothing but make me feel welcomed into their home and I don’t know how I can express in words how grateful I am for that.

We were told during DukeEngage Academy that this experience would be a whirlwind and was not something we would ever be ready for. That’s true. But I think it’s better that was because I never had the chance to fully-develop preconceived notions – as soon as I began to, I was experiencing whatever I was trying to plan and just had to adapt. I’ve made friends with my fellow Duke students, I’ve gotten close to students at the No. 9 school, and even though its only day 2 living with them I feel that I’m already becoming closer to my host family. I may have been scared at first, but now I’m just excited for everything that has yet to come.