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The first week in China went by so quickly, I felt like I barely had time to breathe. A week ago, I was in the comforts of my home in Pennsylvania, and now I am on the other side of the globe in an unfamiliar place. Honestly, a part of me is still surprised that I even made it here. I’ve never really enjoyed traveling, I haven’t been abroad since I was too little to remember, and I stress out about all of the little details of everything. When should I get to the airport? How long will it take to check my bags and get through security? Where do I pick up my bags because I have an overnight layover? How do I find my way through the airport in Dubai and get to the hotel? And how do I do all of that alone when the farthest I’ve made it from home alone was Duke?  But, after 2 days of anxious and stressful traveling, I finally made it. From navigating international airports and layovers to ordering food from menus written solely in Chinese, every experience until now has been a new one. I’m exhausted from the packed schedule, and I feel like I’ve never gotten enough rest, but I’m still excited for rest of my time here.

We arrived in Guangzhou late Sunday night in the rain. What were my first thoughts upon arriving in China?

  1. It’s very hot and humid.
  2. I don’t understand a single thing people are saying to me and that scares me.
  3. I am glad the flying is finally over, but I have no idea what to expect in the next few days besides confusion and uncertainty.

We stayed in Guangzhou for a day and a half, visiting a high school and speaking with students who are planning to go to college abroad. The students seemed eager to talk with people from America, and they asked us a lot of questions. I thought they wouldn’t want to talk to me because I am more shy and quiet, but even I already made some friends on WeChat from that first day. I was also thankful for our guides from Win Win Education who helped us obtain Chinese cell phones (a process that is more complicated than you would think) and navigate through the city too. Then, we traveled to Zhuhai and jumped right in to teaching English classes on Wednesday morning. When we arrived at the school, we were welcomed like movie stars as we walked down a red carpet surrounded by cheering students. So many of the people we have meet so far have been extremely generous and hospitable, giving us gifts and helping us feel more comfortable in the unfamiliar place. There is a sense of community that I feel in Zhuhai that I haven’t seen as much in other places near home.

Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself so seriously.

Teaching English has been challenging though. Ice breaker games or any activities that require instructions are difficult to conduct when you can only explain the rules in English and the students don’t understand everything you are saying. The English speaking and listening skills of the students varies widely, so I often don’t know whether all of the students understand me or not. In a few of my classes, there was one student who was very good at English and could translate my instructions into Chinese. However, for the other classes, I had to improvise and change things as I struggled to convey my messages to the students. I used simpler sentences or synonyms and tried to express things through acting and hand gestures as well. However, keeping this up throughout the day was draining, especially since I am naturally introverted and usually not the most expressive person. I feel silly moving and speaking energetically to get the kids interested in the activities/convey my messages, but already, I’ve found myself doing things for the kids that I usually try to avoid doing in front of people: I’ve sung Blank Space alone, danced to Faith and a K-pop song, and acted as different animals. I’ve been trying to keep Hsiao-Mei’s wisdom in my mind: Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself so seriously.

In some ways, being a Chinese American has been advantageous, but it has also, at times, made things more difficult. Since I grew up around aspects of Chinese culture, certain foods are familiar, and I am used to hearing Chinese being spoken around me, so not everything is entirely foreign. However, I do not actually understand or speak any Chinese. Many people I come across speak Chinese to me at first, expecting that I will understand them because I look Chinese. When I shake my head and look confused, they look surprised that I do not respond in fluent Chinese. Every time that happens, I feel bad as if I am letting them down or disappointing them for being a Chinese person who does not speak the native language. I often feel awkward because I usually don’t look like an “American” to them but then I’m strange because I don’t speak Chinese. This has definitely made me more nervous about interacting with people in the community because I am afraid of judgement. People have asked me, “Where are you from?” and I reply with, “America.” Then they ask again, “Where are you from?” but my answer is still, “America,” and they give me a puzzled look. It is probably unusual for them to see someone who looks Chinese but speaks no Chinese, and they probably are not asking the questions in a judgmental way, but I can’t help but feel a little ashamed each time I have to explain that yes, my parents are Chinese, yes, I have Chinese heritage, but no, I do not speak or understand any of the language and no, I have not been to China before.