My personal website originally began as an e-dossier to fulfill a graduation requirement. Among the requirements was an essay about one of my study abroad experiences.

Since I decided to remake my entire website (which included moving the domain and host to a different provider - bye Squarespace!), I'm posting it here again. 🙂

Following my first incredible study abroad experience on the CU in China program, I knew I had to go back to China soon.  I hadn’t yet completed my internship, which is a graduation requirement for my major, so that was reason enough to go back. However, I wanted to return and spend a longer period of time in China for a few reasons.  While the CU in China program is a fantastic first introduction to China, I felt that there was a lot of ‘hand holding.’ By that, I mean that we were often led by our professors or language partners and relied on them as a crutch in uncomfortable or unfamiliar situations. Likewise, because we were all students from the same university, it was too easy to stick together because of our similarities.  I wanted to break free from all the things that held me in my comfort zone, because I knew that on the other side of discomfort would be increased self-confidence, independence, and improved language abilities.

I decided to go on The Education Abroad Network’s (TEAN) study abroad program in Shanghai, China, at the prestigious Fudan University.  The program started in mid-February and ended on June 30th. I lived in an apartment with other students on the program, as well as one Fudan graduate student. I was lucky enough to have my own room, bathroom, and balcony. The quiet space this provided would be invaluable to me during my time there.

The apartment was located off of University Street (大学路), which would end up being my favorite street in all of Shanghai. It had so many unique restaurants, cafes, and bars, and many were hidden on upper floors indicated by inconspicuously placed signs that dotted the façade of each building. I would learn about many of them thanks to my language partner, Jiayin (more on her later).

Regarding academics, I had intermediate Chinese classes 4 days a week, organizational communication and its social context, language and culture, and psycholinguistics once a week for two or three hours in one sitting. I had Chinese class with one other TEAN student, so we were able to receive individualized attention, especially if one of us was unable to attend. In the beginning, there was some misunderstanding between the teacher and I. I often found it difficult to express my opinions regarding the lesson topic, and still hesitated when forming sentences. She took this as me being unwilling or uninterested in learning Chinese. However, I explained to her that I was struggling to get over my perfectionism, and felt that I should have been better because I had grown up bilingual. She finally understood this, and found a language partner (Zhibo) for me to practice with.

The Chinese class was taught through the University of Virginia and taught inside a large building off campus. The rest of my classes were Fudan classes. Two of them were taught in the Guanghua Towers (the tallest towers on any campus in China!) and another was in building five. I started every day by getting a 5 yuan bubble tea from the campus bakery for breakfast before heading to class. I felt like an awful student - I could never get used to having class once a week for two or three hours because it created a feeling of having copious amounts of time to study. It was difficult to find any kind of motivation. Professors would send additional material or homework through the WeChat groups, and the school’s academic portal often had issues or was altogether inaccessible. While I didn’t learn too much academically, I got something even better : friends.

One day during my psycholinguistics class, a senior linguistics major came in to ask if any foreigners wanted to help her with her senior project. I volunteered and we added each other on WeChat. We met a few times to finish her project; she had me listen to clips of Shanghainese and then indicate whether I had heard a first, second, third, or fourth tone. When that was finished, I asked her if she would like to be my language partner because I saw that she was really sweet and not only eager to learn more English, but also teach Chinese. She would be a great help to me during the semester.

One experience that will always remain with me is when I went to an acupuncture clinic with Jiayin and her mom. For added context, I should mention that it had been an emotionally and physically difficult semester for me. A relationship ended, and I was struggling for a while to overcome all that I felt, and the emotional turmoil had manifested itself into physical ailments. So, I decided to give acupuncture a try after Jiayin suggested it to me. Coincidentally, that day I had woken up with neck pain I had never experienced before. I couldn’t turn my head in any direction without feeling like I was being stabbed in the neck.

We got to the clinic and Jiayin’s mom had already reserved a spot for me. When it was our turn, we were taken to a smaller room which was full of other patients (mostly old ladies). The doctor asked me about my health while Jiayin translated. There was no privacy - everyone else could hear the conversation. Not that it particularly mattered to me, but I was still a bit surprised. Afterwards, the doctor had me sit on table. He tried to adjust my neck, and I kept imagining him twisting my neck to make it pop. Thankfully he didn’t do that, but the thought alone was enough to make me cry. He eventually stopped, and started putting the acupuncture needles in. He put three on the back of my neck and two on my head, and you can bet that this freaked me out further. The doctor put more needles on my hands and feet, and had me lay there for at least half an hour. Jiayin, her mom, and seemingly the entire room watched as I, the ‘pretty foreigner’, lay on the table trying not to cry (and completely failing). Jiayin’s mom tried to console me as if I was her own child, and put her face to mine. It was a sweet moment, and it reminded me that empathy is cross-cultural, even without words.

To put it simply, this study abroad experience was a bad time filled with beautiful moments and monumental personal growth. As the seasons changed from winter to spring, and finally summer, so too did I. I was able to find lessons in the hardship, and this helped me appreciate the beautiful experiences I did have.

While I’m not particularly religious, I do believe in fate. I met another Croatian American in my language and culture class, and she became a good friend as we were able to talk about our shared experiences of being first generation Americans. We practiced our Croatian, and we formed an immediate bond (which seems to happen between Balkan people quite easily). I also became good friends with Van, another  TEAN student who immigrated to the U.S. from Cambodia, and would later take me to Cambodia to visit her family and learn about Cambodia’s turbulent history and vibrant culture. I even met an Italian-American who would become a good friend whose carefree disposition would remind me to relax.  A lot of what I had believed about life, myself, and the people in my life had changed during this time. I had to let go of what wasn’t working, but in turn I received the invaluable friendship of those that I met and showed me the kind of people I needed in my life.

At the end of my time in Shanghai, I was able to realize all that I had learned and why  it had all been necessary, even though it had felt cruel and undeserved as I had been suffering through it. I left Shanghai changed in many ways - I felt more comfortable speaking Chinese; I realized more of my personal strengths and weaknesses; I was able to see the beauty of moments as I experienced them and not after the fact; I had more belief in my ability to overcome challenges, and identify when to let people go.

When I first applied to Clemson, I chose to study Chinese on a whim because I had no interest in the other languages, but I knew I wanted to study a language in college. I picked this program in particular because studying abroad was required, and I knew that it would be the only way for me to get to Asia and explore my new-found interest in China and South Korea. I never could have predicted the way in which studying a language would affect me. Some of my best friends are Chinese, and many of my favorite memories and people are related to my time in China. Studying Chinese became more than just something I could ‘slap on my resume’ to impress people and complain about its perceived difficulty. Instead, it became my teacher; it taught me to keep going when I wanted to give up (and I thought about quitting numerous times), to be more mindful and observant (which I learned through differentiating tones), and to be persistent as I wrote the same character down for the thirtieth time in a seemingly futile attempt to memorize it. I realized my perfection was a hindrance, and am still working on getting over it because mistakes are prerequisites for progress. It has not been an easy journey, but it has given and shown me more than I could have ever dreamed it would.