Below is a reflection from Brendan Melchiorri. Brendan participated on our Intensive Chinese Language program this past spring 2012. Much of what Brendan talked about highlights some of the exciting changes we have made.
"I stepped onto the plane bound for Beijing with trembling legs and sweating hands. Why on earth did I decide to leave the safe and comfortable haven of my American university for a completely foreign world? My Chinese language skills in practice were shaky at best, and I had never been considered the “adventurer” among my friends. In other words, I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and that scared me. Nothing could have prepared me for it—China is a complicated tangle of the past and present, of the traditional and revolutionary. The streets of Beijing are a jumble of ancient monuments and modern infrastructure. Across from an old teahouse is a KFC. On every street there is construction, soon to be something beautiful. A world of promise awaits those who live there, and witnessing the rapid growth of this country has been incredible. The city is so alive, and there is an endless amount of things to do. Whether it’s exploring the ancient sites, bargaining at the silk markets, or simply sitting outside an old restaurant and playing mahjong with old Chinese women, a Beijing day is never long enough.
Even better, being able to study at world-renowned Peking University put me directly into the lives of the upcoming leaders of China. By attending classes there, I was able to make many friends. By talking with them, I gained insights into the lives of young Chinese that I could have never understood from the shores of America. With the barrier of distance gone between us, we could see one another’s hopes, desires, fears, and goals for the world, which we share. Despite the cultural differences, which CIEE taught me to understand in an elective course, I realized our mentalities are not always so different. While at PKU, I made several good friends, and, while sad to have left them, I know our friendships will continue, in China or in the US!
Living with a host family was another major concern of mine. I wanted it for the potential benefits—to live directly within the culture of the country, to better learn Chinese through immersion, and to create a genuine bond with a Chinese family. However, there was also a great deal of risk as well, potentially stemming directly from our cultural differences. I was pleasantly surprised—my host parents were both extremely friendly, willing to talk, and always welcoming. As an added bonus, my host mom’s cooking was easily the best I had in China. And I’m a pretty tough critic! At home and out, speaking and understanding the language was definitely the biggest obstacle for me. I had studied Chinese for almost five years before coming to Beijing—and let me tell you, there is no better way to learn a language than total immersion. Within just a semester, the awkwardness and panic I felt speaking Chinese melted away completely. I learned new words and grammar structures with ease, and writing characters, previously a source of endless anguish, became natural. No longer was I afraid to speak Mandarin—I looked forward to it! I’m pretty sure I didn’t always make sense, but I would spend hours chatting with my Chinese friends and host family. A semester won’t make one fluent, but it sure helped my proficiency and whetted my appetite for language learning.
The CIEE program was truly flawless. The teachers were committed, the housing was comfortable, the electives were interesting, and, as if Beijing wasn’t big enough, we went on several life-changing CIEE-led trips to other parts of China. I chose to go to Xi’an, an ancient city rich with history, and on a one-of-a-kind rural trip, where I experienced life in a tiny village. There were also many optional local excursions in and around Beijing for those willing to push themselves. Again, I’m not the “adventurer,” and yet I found myself hiking on a regular basis, exploring mountaintop Buddhist and Taoist temples. I pushed myself like never before and was rewarded for it. Sitting on the edge of a temple wall, looking down at the Chinese countryside below me, I realized what an amazing experience I was given, and I’m glad I seized it.
After four months in Beijing, I feel so much stronger. I’ve learned to live more independently—after all, if you can do something in Chinese, why can’t you do it in English? I’m impressed with how much more natural speaking Chinese feels, and I can’t wait to return to China again. As I boarded the plane headed for Boston, I realized how truly grateful I am to CIEE, to my host family, to my Chinese friends, and most of all to the city of Beijing for giving me this experience. The plane picked up speed on the runway, but I wished the wheels wouldn’t leave the ground. Beijing was an amazing experience—my life has been changed for the better."
--Brendan Melchiorri, the University of Notre Dame