Yesterday the group participated in a very special culture class. Mr. Wei Sidong, a renowned traditional Chinese painter, came to share his craft with the students. He began his lecture with a demonstration, needing only six minutes to paint a beautiful picture of bamboo, a piece of artwork now coveted by many students. Mr. Wei then went on to teach some basics about the development and process of Chinese painting and to help the students paint their own masterpieces; he taught them to paint shrimp in the style of famous Chinese painter Qi Baishi. At the end of the class, Mr. Wei presented each student, teacher, and chaperon with books about his Chinese paintings, even taking the time to autograph the books for those who asked. He also awarded a book of his poetry to Matthew, whose painting he judged as being particularly outstanding. All the students can definitely be proud of themselves today, as they really took this opportunity to show off their artistic talent!
Almost every study abroad program has this one portion of the trip where they place each program participant into the households of local families. This is commonly called a “home stay,” and the purpose is to fully immerse the participant in the language, culture, and local community of whatever country they are in. The NSLI-Y program is no different. They carefully look to see which houses best suit the needs of each participant, and house them accordingly. Because of this process, no one on the trip will have the same experience. I have come to realize that my thoughts, experiences, and opinions of the Xiamen local culture will be based on what house I get put in to. So no pressure at all, right?
All joking aside, I really do like my host family. My host brother, Mella (this is his English name), is very active. He runs very long distances, and likes to play basketball with his friends. In fact, the first night I had moved in, Mella and I walked down to the Xiamen University campus to meet up with some of his friends and play basketball. Kevin, Subway, Sugar, Mella (once again, all English names) and I played basketball for around three hours, which is something that I had not done in years. Mella let me borrow an all yellow basketball uniform of his, so I must have looked like some kind of crazy, foreign, walking banana, missing three-point shots and chasing after runaway balls. Mella encouraged me to relax and try my best, so while I was struggling with the game, I was having fun as well.
My host father is a very kind and interesting person. We have already had long conversations about Chinese culture, which I find to be very interesting. He loves collecting Chinese art, CDs of traditional Chinese music, and most of all, tea. Tea is a major part of his life, and he took time to explain to me all about the history of Chinese tea, Chinese tea culture, and of course, the traditional Chinese method of serving tea. Last night, he took me to a teahouse owned by one of his friends (a fellow tea lover). There, we compared the tastes of three different variations of Pu’er tea that my host father had brought with him. All three had come from the same mountain; however, they were all gathered in different years, so there is a noticeable difference in taste. My host father never misses a chance to teach me a new word or phrase in Chinese that he thinks could be useful to the conversation, or my knowledge of the topic at hand.
Because it’s only the second full day of homestays, I have not had that much time to spend time with my host mother. Despite this fact, I can already tell that she is a kindhearted and generous woman. We did have a chance to go to the market on my first day, and she let me pick out any food I wanted. I didn’t want to be impolite and spend all of her money, but she insisted. It is a Chinese custom to treat your houseguests with as much food as you can, so even as I walked in the house for the first time, my host mother sat me down at the table and had me eat as much of their fruit as I could. Every time we all sit down to eat, she is always on top of making sure I like all of the food and am eating to my heart’s content. She is always so cheerful, and I don’t think I have seen her in a bad mood yet.
One of the things the chaperones told us to look out for was the cultural differences and similarities between lives of the local Chinese in Xiamen and the lives of the Americans from our hometowns, in my case, the people from Kansas City. Today, during our day off from classes, I noticed a lot of these things. For example after eating a big lunch of homemade dumplings with my host father’s parents and sister, the guests left right after, and it was encouraged that I go to bed. My host father tried to explain to me that many Chinese actually take naps after having lunch (Almost like the Spanish “siesta”). Still a little confused, and frankly not tired at all, I went in to my room and read a book. Later on today, when I told them what happened, how I didn’t fall asleep, they were very surprised, and assumed I must be very tired.
The rest of today was very fun. We ended up taking a taxi to a museum all about the history of Xiamen. My host family does not own a car, because everything is walking distance from their flat located nearby Xiamen University. When I asked my host father about it, though, he said, “If I had the money to spend on a car, I would probably spend it all on tea!”
We then ate noodles at a restaurant near the museum, and went grocery shopping at a nearby mall. After that, we walked to a sports park so we could watch Mella run around the track. There were hundreds of people working out, running around the track, playing basketball, playing soccer, and even just watching all of the commotion. In a city like Kansas City, you would never see this many people in one place just working out, it was crazy. After Mella was done, my host mother called an Uber to take us home. Overall, I have had a lot of fun with my host family. I can’t wait for all of the experiences, thoughts, and opinions I will gain from my time with these people.
Mella and I
After the first night with their host families, the students arrived at Xiamen University this morning full of stories to tell. Although the details are for the students themselves to share, it was certainly fun to hear about everybody’s experiences and first impressions and to watch everyone swap stories. Most interesting of all was the variety – each student had something unique to share, from their host family’s personalities, to what their room looked like, to what they ate. Tomorrow they will have a break from classes to spend the entire day with their host families for cultural excursions in the area, so additional stories are sure to be shared on Monday!
In the afternoon, the whole group went together to have one last lunch at Nanguang Dining Hall (Due to the end of the summer sessions on campus, the UDNSLIY program will have meals at another cafeteria on campus). Up until this point, we’ve been having all our meals on the second floor of Nanguang, where the staff members very graciously took care of us, making sure there were “reserved” signs on enough tables and providing fruit and beverages for us every lunch and dinner. But now the Nanguang staff will have their summer break, so we celebrated our last meal at Nanguang with a buffet that the staff prepared just for us. Additionally, Jessica offered some words of thanks on behalf of the group, and Rachel played the guitar while the group sang Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida”. Starting on Monday, we will be eating at another dining hall – Furong – instead of Nanguang. It just won’t be the same!
The waiting is finally over – Students moved in with their host families this afternoon! It was a much-anticipated event, opened by some introductory remarks by Dr. Chen, followed by some words of gratitude from Phoebe, an excellent piano performance by Skyelar, and a graceful modern dance performance by Joy and Samara. Although the students were a bit sad to be separating from the roommates and classmates they have grown so close with over the past three weeks, they were also a little nervous and extremely excited to finally meet their Chinese families, with whom they will live for the next two weeks. After the short ceremony and many photos, each student returned to the dorm building one last time to grab their luggage before heading to their new home. The host families prepared a variety of foods and planned a variety of activities for their new American sons and daughters. Some students made dumplings with their families; others played games with their host siblings; and others still went out shopping or for a walk around the neighborhood. Tomorrow is sure to be an interesting day as students recount their experiences from their first nights with their host families.
Today was one of the complete “immersion days” that we experience on our NSLIY trip. Every student is expected to speak only Chinese from the break of dawn until sundown. While immersion days are difficult, they change your perspective of your Chinese ability, especially in everyday life. From ordering food, answering questions, and greeting people as the day goes on, I have personally found that the “immersion days” are the easiest way to become comfortable with one’s speaking ability.
Meals are one of the easiest ways to meet new people in China, and today I had a unique encounter with a student getting his Bachelor’s Degree at Xiamen University. I sat down at the table and asked if I could sit (in Chinese.) The man simply nodded his head and looked down at his food. I have a tendency to sit with more girls or younger students because of their general welcoming spirit, but today I took the initiative to challenge myself. I started to ask some simple questions, (ex.) “What is your name?” “Do you attend Xiamen University?” The man slowly looked up from his dish, and responded, “Sorry, I don’t speak Chinese!” We both started to laugh, quickly realizing that we were both exchange students. We then introduced ourselves, “Mi Tu” (the man’s name) is from Northern India, and is studying his Bachelors in organic chemistry at Xiamen University. I soon discovered that he had been living in Xiamen for over a year, yet had not learned a drop of Chinese, in his defense: “Everyone speaks English.” Though this may be true, I saw a powerful correlation between his Chinese ability and his lack of belonging. Mi Tu spoke of feeling lonely in Xiamen, and how I was one of the first people during lunch that he had spoken to. We went on to discuss NSLIY, and Mi Tu seemed to have a different sense of language, that although English can be universal, it doesn’t drive the same connections as a local language.
Later in the day, all thirty NSLIY students explored GuLangYu. GuLangYu is an island off of Xiamen, which was opened after the First Opium War (1840). Because GuLangYu was used as a treaty port after the Opium War, Japanese, French, British, and New Netherland Victorian-era architecture can be admired along its coastline and inland. At around 6:30 pm we arrived at the crowded dock and took the ferry to GuLangYu. The group was divided into smaller ones, each with a teacher and a chaperon and we explored at our own pace. With my smaller group and chaperone, I enjoyed the “WenHuaYiChan” or “Cultural Heritage” GuLangYu has to offer. While visiting GuLangYu, “WaiGuo” or “foreign country” treatment was quite prominent, as many locals and tourists were excited to see Americans. I found the fascination with Americans to be quite interesting, because many of us haven’t had to face our privilege so directly. Small children, in particular, have a fascination with Americans; one child kept her eyes locked on the NSLIY students, waving her hand continuously as we left the ferry. GuLangYu gave most students good insight on what Xiamen, absent of the college life, feels like. The general public, unlike college students, are less familiar with Americans and more likely to treat us with “WaiGuo” privilege.
After more than two weeks of hard work and dedication, the students got a special treat today – an evening trip to Gulangyu Island. The island is one of Xiamen’s most famous cultural and historical locations, boasting beautiful scenery and a wide variety of attractions such as the Xiamen Piano Museum, Xiamen Underwater World, Shuzhuang Garden, and more. It was simply impossible to see everything, but the students still had fun dividing into groups and exploring the island. They enjoyed sampling a variety of drinks and snacks and investigating the many shops. Some groups made it as far as the imposing statue of military commander and local hero Zheng Chenggong, while others preferred to browse the stores or simply stroll along and enjoy the view. Some students expressed that they hope to return to Gulangyu in the future to visit the places they did not get the chance to see this time. But all in all, by the end of the night, although the trip was tiring, everyone had had a great time and was thankful to have had the opportunity to visit the beautiful island of Gulangyu. Since today was one of the complete “Chinese Immersion” days, all the students tried to speak as much as Chinese during the daytime and on this trip. So, the trip was an additional rewarding experience.