Commentary: A piece of my heart remains in ChinaLast summer I had the great experience of visiting China not for a week but for 50 days.
By: Jason Luhman, The Republican Eagle
Last summer I had the great experience of visiting China not for a week but for 50 days.
The greatest trip of my life led to a new venture back here in the states — the birthing of Building Bridges International Culture and Language Summer Camp. The camp will bring Chinese students to America and give them a taste of what life is like in America through home stay, visiting businesses, and engaging in cultural, artistic, and sports activities.
My experience in China was not one shaped by touring all the big cities, universities, and other attractions. I got to live amongst ordinary people, eat with students at their cafeterias, wander around their campus, sit in their classrooms, and play games with them. I also had the chance to experience family life: road trips, family meals, two weddings, amongst other things. I am extremely grateful to both Shandong Polytechnic University and Wenqiang Jiang, a chemistry professor at SPU, for their amazing hospitality.
We wish to create similar experiences for students that attend the camp in America. We will have to add a bit of a twist to it. In addition to having a taste of what American life is through different kinds of activities, they also want to see what American universities may have to offer in regards to post-graduate studies. With a highly modular camp schedule, we will be able to help them accomplish both goals.
Many of us don’t live the life portrayed in a Hollywood movie. I think Chinese students will come to find out that we share many of the same hopes, dreams, and values, just as I did while I was Jinan.
One doesn’t learn these things from a book but rather by interacting with one another. If you asked me two years ago if I would spend my summer in China in 2011, I would have said, “What, are you out of your mind?”
I never knew the world was so big beyond the horizons of Red Wing and even U.S and that I would have the opportunity to see it, experience it.
I have been curious about China and the Chinese culture since I was a young boy. See, I have always loved Chinese food. I grew up hearing my grandmother talk about visiting Xi’an in the 1980s while I was a young boy. My grandfather worked as an engineer for a firm that specialized in setting up iron foundries. She once got to visit China with grandpa back in 1988. I grew up playing with the Chinese artifacts she had around her condo.
I would have never imagined what this ongoing interest in China would amount to until I started taking classes at Minnesota State College-Southeast Technical in Red Wing. I needed a general education course to fulfill the requirements for my individualized studies, so I took the Chinese culture class. My adventure began at this point.
Before I even stepped into the classroom, I realized I had the same teacher for both my college writing and culture classes. I at first found this to be a bit odd but figured I would go with it.
I met my Chinese culture class teacher Yanmei Jiang first for English. I was definitely intrigued as to how this Chinese lady was going to be teaching my English class, but I soon found out that she was a wonderful educator that also employed a different method than what I was used to for English writing. She makes you read, discuss, write in a spiral order, so you continually develop and move forward with your thoughts and ideas for your paper. The idea is to immerse yourself in critical reading and writing practices, which actually helps you more effectively than just listening to a lecture and then attempting to write a perfect paper or two.
When she first introduced the model, we were overwhelmed with fear, but as we immersed ourselves in reading, writing, re-reading, and re-writing, we became less fearful of engaging ourselves critically with published writers and with ourselves.
I learned a big lesson through this experience: to acquire an academic discourse or anything, one must learn by practicing without fear. This model will play a major role later in designing the culture and language camp. We want Chinese students to know that to further their knowledge of the English language and the American culture, they must immerse themselves in American life and practice English without fear.
Later that day I had her for my first Chinese culture class. While she had taught English writing and literature for many years in the U.S. before coming to Southeast Technical, this was her first time teaching Chinese culture. I found that interesting. I knew we were going to take an authentic look at Chinese culture, but I never knew just how authentic that would turn out to be for me.
It all started with the Moon Festival. We decided to celebrate the festival in our classroom a couple of weeks after the semester started. I say “we” because it was a pretty open process. While many of us may have said “yes” to the proposal simply to get out of the drudgery of doing homework, little did we know just how much we would learn through this process.
When the big day came, everyone brought in their food and projects, and we proceeded to celebrate. We all had a good time and learned many things about the Moon Festival. We were able to connect the Moon Festival to our own harvest festival — Thanksgiving. As the event wound down, we started talking about how the Chinese culture students in the spring semester could do better with a similar project: the Chinese New Year celebration.
Then we realized the spring class would be online. I felt taking an online class would very much cheapen their experience as Yanmei brings a human element to the class. As we continued to discuss, we came to the idea of hosting a big celebration of the Chinese New Yea not only for the spring semester’s online Chinese culture class, but for the whole Red Wing community.
Through three months of planning and working and with the support of Southeast Technical, we had 300-plus people showing up for the event. Not bad for a first outing put together by a few students with a hard working adviser.
Through that conversation the Chinese New Year celebration at MSC-ST was born. Yanmei was the adviser and I was the chairperson of the student planning committee. I also got the great honor to be the master of ceremonies not only last year but this year as well.
Working on this event together really brought about the opportunity to go to China although my initial purpose was to have some authentic Chinese food and help lead a group to a successful completion of the event so that I would have something nice on my resume.
This event exposed the community to Chinese culture. It also opened our eyes to the amazing interest the Red Wing community has toward diverse cultures through various ventures. We came up with many ideas that we could possibly pursue, such as starting a culture group at MSC-ST and visiting China.
I told her I had always wanted to visit China since I was a young boy. We began a process that was slow at times and fast at others. Last June she saw me off to China and into the care of her brother Wenqiang Jiang, a chemistry professor at SPU.
In China my ideas about how to learn another culture really took shape. They followed along the lines of Yanmei’s ideas on how to teach English. I found myself as somewhat of an English teacher, although teaching English was not part of the original plan.
I could tell the remarkable difference in how well those around me could speak English after just a few days of being around me. We did everything from going to the supermarket to making our way up Mount Taishan, which is considered one of the must-see tourist destinations in China.
Yanmei prepared me well for the trip, but only through immersing myself in the culture did I truly appreciate the knowledge I learned beforehand and was acquiring by active participation. I got to create friendships and connections that went beyond anything imaginable.
They were not my Chinese friends but rather simply my friends. I felt I was not their American visiting student. I was their adopted son or brother. I continue to feel that way through my on-going communication with them over the Internet. I truly feel I have an extended family in China now.
I hope we can replicate that for Chinese students with this camp and I do believe we will do so.
I feel part of my heart remains in China. I hope students that participate in this summer camp will feel as if they have part of their heart in America after they go home. In the long run these connections can help our two countries to better understand one another, one person at a time, to discredit all the false stereotypes, inaccuracies that separate us.
We hope to build bridges between people and bring them together on the same level - the human level - through this summer culture and language camp. After all, we are all humans with hopes, desires, wants, and needs although they might be manifested in different ways.
I came to the Chinese culture class hoping to learn how different the Chinese culture was from my American culture, but I ended up learning how similar we were — even to the point of leaving part of me in China.
If we have part of our hearts somewhere else, we will see the world with a tender heart and a fair perspective, since only through the heart can one see clearly.