Five LBCC students went to China to teach English, explore the country, and receive a full intercultural experience. Cynthia de la Torre shares her experience.
How I became involved:
Last summer a good friend of mine invited me to apply to an English as a second language teacher assistant position at Xijing University through a partnership program with Linn-Benton Community College for either the upcoming Fall term or Spring 2017 term. The role would consist of assisting LBCC’s Dr. Rob Lewis’ classroom and implementing our higher education skills into a teaching curriculum. At first I wasn’t overly eager at the thought of going away for three months to a whole different country in a far away continent, however, after my friend’s persistence, I decided to apply anyways. Fast forward to early August: Rob emailed me my acceptance to the upcoming Spring term trip and after discussions with my family I decided to accept the position. In the end my friend had a few complications which didn’t allow her to leave with an extended absence and although I had more anxiety than enthusiasm, before I knew it I was on a flight to Shanghai and then to Xi’an, China!
The teaching assistant experience:
The group of five of us were split into partners with one of us assisting the English professors by ourselves. As assistants we had some influence in the learning module, encouraged the students to practice their oral English and overall learned to adapt to new situations. Although I’m not an education nor an English major it wasn’t too difficult to lead group activities or facilitate the learning process.
Nevertheless, this experience has definitely reminded me how complex the English language really is. It’s a challenge to question the assumptions and unspoken rules that we generally don’t consider often if we are fluent in a particular language. Most of our students have been learning English since they were in primary school, however in a highly populated country that speaks Cantonese or Mandarin Chinese, the opportunities to practice their English are very limited, so the students often felt hesitant to engage in conversation.
We definitely related to these circumstances when the university later provided Mandarin Chinese lessons for us. We studied the pinyin phonetic sounds, characters, and pronunciation. Despite our classes, it was an every day trial to have a successful line of communication. Being in China, however, has definitely required that we practice our Chinese and forced us to get out of our comfort zone and find other, non-verbal ways to communicate. Once we are back in the United States, most of us, including myself, aspire to continue exercising our Chinese.
Despite the language barriers, I have found that the ability to teach is unquestionably a gift to humankind. The amount of energy a teacher dedicates to their students is outstanding. China recognizes a teacher’s hard work ethic and upholds a deep respect for their service to society. It certainly made this experience much more rewarding, feeling appreciated in such a way. I’m unsure if I will pursue an education major in the future, but I definitely have a deeper understanding of the tasks teachers are faced with.
Living in Xi’an is surreal. It sits squarely in the middle of the Shaanxi province and once used to be the nation’s capitol and occupied the ruling houses of many dynasties, such as the Zhou and Tang dynasty. Before adventuring out here, I read on many guides that have described Xi’an as a “living history book,” and I definitely feel the 3,000 year ancestral presence whenever I’m out in the city.
The Ming Dynasty’s Bell Tower, for example, is literally geographically the center of the city. The tower was originally built to rule over the city’s countryside and oversee an potential incoming attacks. Being on top of that fortress like building allows you to see north, west, south, and east of the city and makes you wonder the immensity that surrounds this beautiful ancient city. I almost couldn’t believe that I really was in China.
The Great Muslim Mosque is a little opposite in its environment. The mosque is still active despite dating back 1,300 years when Islam was first introduced in the Tang Dynasty. It’s something truly remarkable to be standing in ground that has been seen and traveled through for centuries. The place of worship is stylized with a blend of traditional Chinese and Muslim architecture. From the outside it seems relatively small, but once you step into the complex of courtyards the place is quite large. All around me I heard so many foreign tongues as group after group of tourists bustled in and out of the mosque. Although there were quite a lot of people, the mosque remained still and serene.
Finally, one of Xi’an’s most widely characterized and beloved historical places is the Qin Tomb Terracotta Warriors and Horses. The Museum is a bit closed off into a well preserved area away from the inner city and is divided into four different sections: vault one, vault two, vault three and an exhibition hall.
As we made our way through each vault, I kept thinking about Xi’an being a breathing living history book. I had seen pictures before the trip but experiencing it in real life was so much more magical. The individuals belonging to the infantry, charioteers, and cavalry were all constructed out of clay in the span of forty years to guard Emperor Qin Shi Huang tomb in the afterlife. Although the artwork carved out in each warrior is immaculate and truly special to look at, I found myself thinking about the 720,000 builders who tirelessly worked on this massive project. It was the people’s work, the people’s art. It reflected the people living at that time. It seems much more impressive when you realize individuals left almost a lifetime dedicated to the warriors.
One of our good friends, Sarah, who is also a Xijing University student, invited our group to her hometown, Ganquanbei for the Dragon Boat Festival holiday. Before arriving to her hometown we stayed in the neighboring city of Ya’nan for about two days. This city reminded me of Portland. It had the big city feelings, but it also contained that smallness. Surrounding the inner city were large massive mountain and peak ranges; almost like an oasis.
Before arriving Sarah talked to us about the lack of foreign travelers there and they might be taken back whenever they saw us. This happened to be true; we ended up being stopped quite a bit and asked where we were from. Which is interesting, because it seems that there is this perception that Americans look like European descendants. It was good to have a little bit of diversity within our group to challenge that assumption about America. Regardless, a few people even took pictures from a distant. It was kind of fascinating to feel very unknown and seen at the same time. Nevertheless, people’s curiosity was much more friendly than anything else.
On the first night we walked around the city and ended up climbing a summit to see a light show the city puts on every night. Because there isn’t much tourism in this area, the light show is a significant gift to the people of Yan’an. Because Yan’an was once the military headquarters of Mao Zedong’s chinese communist party the light show shows images of the labor movement and the struggle for the workers liberation.
The next day we traveled about four hours away to visit the Hukou waterfall, an extension of the Yellow River which often is referred to as the” cradle of civilization” because it connects to so many other provinces across China, irrigating and providing life to its people. Being in the presence of such an ancient and majestic body of water was truly a memorable experience. I had no words. I was in awe.
I was surprised the most by the people. There is so much kindness! Everyone on campus is very welcoming and genuinely interested in getting to know us, as individuals. The sense of community Xijing University embodies is quite surprising. In the United States, the school system and how the student approaches their academic life is for the most part individualistic. It’s pleasantly surprising to me that in China, the relationship of what it means to be a “classmate,” is much more intimate. Students help each other succeed beyond study groups–students within the same major and same age group are so much more present in each other’s lives. If we are classmates, we are family.
Music play a huge role in many of the students lives. A Xijing student who has quickly become a close friend of ours, Crystal is studying Chinese International Education, but in her spare time she takes lessons in a Chinese traditional instrument, Pipa, which resembles a westernized guitar or cello.. Another friend, Amy plays the Guzheng, another Chinese traditional string instrument played in a piano like fashion. Everyone in Xijing’s music club is incredibly talented. While I was in the Music & Art department I was introduced to Lucas, a guitar teacher who had studied abroad in Australia for a couple of years. After exchanging conversation I later learned he had a cousin residing in Portland, Oregon! What a small world!
Within the music floor there are several large choir rooms that Crystal asked me to go to. In one, a small group of students were hanging out. One of them was singing passionately the lyrics on a huge television screen. When I entered the room–it went still for a split second and then they quickly approached me and asked if they could have a selfie. They each waited patiently to take a turn. Later we exchanged WeChat (a social facebook version app very popular in China) and they invited me to sing with them. Which I attempted, to say the least.
Nevertheless, being surrounded by music was one of the most incredible situations I found myself in. Here the students use music to alleviate stress and shake off moods, almost like therapy. Much later we had the opportunity to attend three student performances–two concerts and one dance show. Even though Xijing University is more of a STEM, business, and Education major centered school, the artistic talent among these students leaves me amazed.
Xi’an is part of the central northwest area of China, which means people generally like spicy food a lot more here than the south part of China, where sweeter food from the sea is more popular. Growing up in a Mexican background I was very happy to notice this the first few days, but I later realized that Northern Chinese spices are a lot different than Latinx spices. It was definitely a culture shock when we realized we loved Hot Pot but could no longer enjoy it after some digestion issues. Not only is the soup you cook the raw vegetables and meat in spicy water but the heat is through the roof. Hence, the name hot pot.
Another dish we really enjoyed is Yangrou Paomo, pita bread soaked in lamb stew. The flavors of garlic, spicy sauce, and sesame oil all make this dish mouthwatering.
Cold noodles is probably one of my favorites dishes to eat in the hot weather. It’s wonderful because it’s a local speciality here in Xi’an. They’re made from either rice or flour. They’re usually accompanied with green bean sprouts and sesame paste.
Rou Jia Mo is often referred as a “Chinese hamburger.” It’s usually pork stewed for long periods of time in spices and seasonings between two fried pita bread buns. It’s incredibly delicious and is widely acclaimed as delicacy among the Chinese people.
Bouza, is one of our dearest breakfast favorites. I will most certainly miss them when I come back to the United States. They’re basically soft dough steamed into buns filled with pork, chicken, beef, red bean, or lamb. Students here on campus eat them as a quick breakfast usually with a cup of dou jiang, hot soy bean milk.
Although China is very far away I’ve had a few moments that remind me of home, like the weather and school life. I’ve also met many wonderful people and established relationships in this short period of time that I feel will be life long. I’m surprised that I haven’t felt as homesick and I definitely believe that it’s because the community you travel with and meet along the way build a home for you. I’m so grateful that LBCC and the Xijing University partnered up to create this experience. Not only am I so much more aware of the world’s immensity but also where I can see myself. I’m definitely coming back to China, and I’m definitely not done exploring this wide, diverse world.
Story by Cynthia de la Torre