When I visited China this spring break, I was able to reconnect with a friend from Troy, who I had not seen since she moved back to China.
Troy’s emphasis on global awareness has been one of my favorite aspects of this university since freshman year. I knew I wanted to be as involved as possible with the diverse array of students studying here, and Troy made it easy for me to do so.
I befriended Mofan “Ashley” Chang a student from Shaanxi, China, when I was paired with her for the Conversation Partners Program.
The first time I heard about the ESL Conversation Partners Program, I simply wanted to take advantage of the neat opportunity to befriend an international student while helping them practice conversational English. I had no idea it would eventually lead me across the globe.
Ashley was very shy at first, and it was sometimes a challenge for us to communicate. But through patience, practice and using lots of translation apps, we can now speak freely with each other about nearly anything. We usually talked while strolling around campus or eating lunch, either in the dining hall or her dorm room in Pace where she cooked delicious homemade Chinese food for us.
Later on that semester, I invited her to spend Thanksgiving with my family and me. Not only did her English improve leaps and bounds during those few days, she beamed with gratitude and joy as our friendship became sweeter by the minute. She loved playing with my little niece, who is close in age to her niece back home, and she loved being around such a large family (eight children) since she had grown up with only one sister. I showed her my hometown of Huntsville, taking her to the Space and Rocket Center, Bridgestreet Town Center and some other local staples. She told me just last week that my mother played a crucial role in her first semester by encouraging her in her studies.
A few months later she took me to the Chinese Lunar New Year celebration in the Trojan Center ballrooms, a fun event that became a yearly tradition for me. Through every conversation had, every meal shared and every holiday celebrated, I learned so much about China and Chinese culture. Unfortunately, she moved home at the end of this past summer. Though I was sad to say goodbye, I felt grateful for the friendship we have and hopeful for a chance to see one another again in the future.
I always wanted to visit China, but I wasn’t sure if the occasion would arise when I would be able to. As it turns out, the opportunity came knocking much sooner than expected. This year, through the Confucius Institute and Troy’s $1,000 study abroad scholarship, I spent roughly 10 days in China.
Though I wasn’t able to visit my friend’s hometown, we saw Chongqing, Chengdu, Xi’an and Beijing. Ashley’s sister lives in Beijing, so it worked out for her to meet up with us over the 3-day period we were there. She came with us to tour the Great Wall of China, the Emperor’s Summer Palace, Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and various markets. She helped me haggle for a good price on souvenirs for my family and translated the meaning of Chinese characters.
Together with her sister’s family, she welcomed us into her city with open arms. Because of our friendship and many conversations, I felt that I had a good understanding of Chinese culture before going on this trip. However, upon spending some time there, it’s evident that I have much more to learn. As is the case with many things in life, the more I learn, the more I realize how little I actually know. I left the country with more questions than answers.
It’s fascinating to discuss the differences in our societies and how our perspectives and lives are shaped. To consider our varying approaches to families, education, government, dining, shopping, etc. is intriguing — but what is even more important are the similarities we share as humans.
On the last night of the trip, as I was sitting at the dinner table with Ashley’s family, I was reminded of this simple fact by her 7-year-old niece. Even though we could hardly communicate beyond basic conversation like “It’s nice to meet you,” we became quick friends through shared smiles and goofing around at the table.
Authors Note: If you haven’t heard of it before, the Conversation Partners Program is where natively-English-speaking students sign up to meet with international students once per week for about an hour. The goal of the program is to help ESL (English as a second language) students practice their language skills.