Hailey Cohen: I Love China

Hailey Cohen, Fairleigh DickinsonUniversity

Most college students spend their semester abroad in Europe. I wanted something different, something a little more fulfilling. Well… I got it.

The first thing that crossed my mind after landing in Chengdu, SichuanProvince, Chinawas, “Boy, am I exhausted.” At that point, it didn’t matter that I was in one of the most interesting countries and most historical countries in the world. All I wanted to do was sleep.

We took a bus to the dorms that was too small to hold all of us and all of our luggage, so we stood cramped together for almost an hour until we were able to drag our heavy suitcases up four flights of stairs and crash into our beds. The last thing I thought before falling asleep was, “Man, I hope it doesn’t stay this cold all night.” Little did my roommate and I know, our windows were open and the heater was broken for the first two days. Fortunately, it all went uphill from there.

Some of my students with my internship, teaching English.

With a random Chinese kid

I don’t think it quite hit me that I was in China until after orientation. Orientation itself was a whirlwind of events that happened too fast for me to really take a step back and appreciate where I was in order for it to sink in. I bought my niece a stuffed panda and the panda reserve and purchased a keychain for me to add to my growing collection of places I’ve traveled to when I went home.

Dinner was provided, a wonderfully diverse collection of vegetables and meats and a dessert of brown-sugar sweet buns, and despite the awkward tension of meeting the new classmates and navigation the strange, relaxed dynamic with the study abroad professors, everything went smoothly… that is, until we were left to our own devices to learn how to navigate the unknown culture and unfamiliar language.

As a vegetarian, it’s nearly impossible to order food without knowing how to read the menus. The first couple of days I was accompanied to restaurants by the staff from theChengduAmericanCenterfor Study Abroad. I jumped into the food culture with vigor, letting them order me whatever was on the menu as long as it fit into my diet, and everything was delicious. I became a food cart connoisseur, and everything I could get my hands on that was something new I did. I took a picture before every meal and posted it on Instagram, wishing I could also photograph the scent, taste, and feel of it in my mouth.

When I was left on my own after those days, it got harder. This resulted in my ordering of egg fried rice from various places every day for the first month until I finally learned what characters mean what. I took on an internship at the Qingsu Vocational High School on Tuesdays and Fridays, which resulted in an hour’s bus ride one way on my own one day a week. I brought a pen with me and marked each stop on the back of my hand, but accidentally got off the bus six stops early on the way back. If it weren’t for the hospitality and kindness of the Chinese people and the unyielding helpfulness of the picture I took of the address of the dormitory, I may never have found my way back.

Still three months later, I feel like I’ve barely seen anything. I still walk around the streets with wonder on my face, with my nose and eyes and ears open for something new, afraid that if I stop even for a moment I’ll miss something that I could have experienced. I have been to places such as Wide and Narrow Alleys, the Panda Reserve, Jinli Street, and Chunxi Road. I visited the Wenshu Monastery, saw a show at the Chinese Opera, and journeyed sixteen hours on a slow-moving train through China to Xi’an, in the Shaanxi Province of China. I became the “laoshi” to over forty wonderful high school students who taught me just as much as I’ve taught them, from the day we did Tai Chi to the day we made dumplings, all the way to our DIY craft project where I learned some traditional Chinese origami… and there is still so much to see, too much in a country so big to be able to experience in just three short months.

In less than one week I’ll have to say goodbye to a place that took no time to fall in love with. It feels likeChinahas buried itself deep within me, taken up residence in my veins, pumped itself through my entire body, and slowly become part of me. Even when I’m back home in the United States of America, I will carry China in me always, from the scents to the sounds to the tastes to the color that bleeds and pulses through each Chinese person I met and each Chinese person I was unable to communicate with because of a language barrier. The uniqueness of China has an undeniable charm that sucks you in and captures you before you even land in the Middle Kingdom, whether you realize it or not. It’s an experience of a lifetime, and has made my own life a little more interesting, and painted it with new colors I didn’t even know existed before.

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