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There have been many challenges that I have encountered during my time in Zhuhai. From eating new food that I have never heard of before to crossing the street without getting hit by a car, this city is full of them! However, what I have found to be most challenging, and I am certainly not surprised, is communication.

I do not speak Chinese whatsoever, except for the few words that I learned on an app on my phone. I can say “nihao” or “zhenzhunaicha”, but if I am not ordering milk bubble tea then I’m a little out of luck.

I’ve been told that it’s fine that I don’t speak Chinese, I’m supposed to be teaching English to the students anyways! But what has been really hard for me is that I can’t have a meaningful conversation with the students unless their English is strong. I find myself only scratching the surface in conversations by only saying “Hi, what is your name?” and leaving it there because the both of us cannot speak the other language.

Just about every weekend Duke and Zhuhai No.9 students engage in some sort of activity together. This allows us to interact with the students in a less formal setting. These students are thrilled to do these activities with us. The minute the sign up sheet is available, the spots are filled. All of their eyes light up in excitement as Duke students step onto the bus and choose their seats. They leave open seats next to them hoping that a Duke student will sit and talk with them. So yesterday, I made my way to the back of the bus and sat with the boy who was waving his arms and pointing at the seat next to him. He looked at me with a huge smile and took in a deep breath. I had never seen someone so excited to sit with me, it was endearing. But then he started speaking in Chinese. I told him that I didn’t speak Chinese, and asked if he knew any English. And then I saw the light in his eyes disappear. He chest lowered and he sunk back in his chair. This is what hurts. Sure, I could try to use my phone to translate one word at a time or play app games, but I could never have an actual conversation with him.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and it leaves me with an overall feeling of guilt. I feel guilty for not learning the language before going to China for two months.

My host brother speaks English pretty well; however, my parents do not. I feel so guilty that they have taken me in and do so much for me…but yet I can only tell them simply things like “yes, I love the food”. I feel like I owe them more than that. When the family goes out with friends to dinner, I feel like I am more of an observer. I can’t really interact or communicate with anyone but just exchange smiles. My host parents’ friends always ask, “Can’t you speak it just a little bit?”. They really want to get to know me, and I really want to talk to them to, but my host dad just speaks for me. Times when my friend Quinn, who is Duke student that can speak Chinese, tells them things that I want say definitely makes the dinners more enjoyable.

But watching her speak with our families makes me think about just how different our experiences have been here in Zhuhai. Quinn is able to talk to my parents and their friends and ask and answer questions. But me, I am just an observer. I am just a person who just sits at the table and watches everyone talk and interact. These observations have led me to pick up on different peoples’ quirks and gestures. It’s pretty interesting how I can use their body language and facial expressions, and use that to understand what someone is saying or about to say. As an example, when my host mom yells at my host brother for being a rambunctious little boy, she always frowns and squints her eyes just before she yells. When I see that face, I know it’s about to go down. Or when Lay, one of the Zhuhai students, is about to agree with something he reaches one arm out and the other close to his chest. I don’t know why he does it, but he makes the gesture every time. Most of these things other people don’t pick up on since they are the ones actively engaged in the conversation. However, since I am watching from the outside, these are the sort of things I notice.

But I want to be more than just an observer. I really want to get to know my family. I want them to share stories about their lives, and in exchange stories about my life. I’m not quite sure how to do this, but I am determined to connect with them on a personal level before I leave. This goes for the students at the No.9 school as well. I mean come on, this is DukeENGAGE. My purpose here is to provide service, to engage with the community, and to challenge myself. Well…this is my challenge.