How it started: “Hi Bella, China chose you!”
How it’s going: “Hi China, I choose you!”
When people ask me “why China?” I do not have a concrete answer. It’s a combination of so many memories, experiences, people, and feelings.
Back in 2015, I was studying in Portugal and finishing 11th grade. At that time, I applied to United World Colleges (UWC – international boarding schools around the world) and one day, I received a call – “Hi Bella, China chose you!” UWC Changshu China decided to open in 2015 – coincidence? I do not know, but China it was. I learned how to say “你好” and “谢谢”, packed my suitcase, hugged my mom, and flew to this big, far away country.
Landing at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, I felt scared, and my heart was racing. But after saying “你好” with a huge smile to the lady at passport control and seeing her smile back, I felt relaxed. I felt welcomed. On the bus to Changshu, I glued myself to the window, and was fascinated by so many unknown Chinese characters, the different buildings I was seeing and groups of people laughing while playing cards by the street. I loved that combination of energy and simplicity.
I spent two years at UWC Changshu. Despite being an international high school, we were immersed in Chinese culture, stayed with Chinese host families, and did several projects in different cities around China. I went from struggling to pronounce the name of my Chinese roommate and giving up on eating with 筷子, to making lots of friends and loving Chinese cuisine. My friends inspired me to be active and try new things, that’s why I participated in a calligraphy competition and joined the Dragon Dance club. As an IB school, we were supposed to have CAS, but our school named it Zhi Xing (知行 – learn by doing), where I got the chance to immerse myself into the Chinese community by helping at the local autistic center and orphanage. These activities developed my interest in education and desire to create a bigger impact. In addition to that, I got to spend Chinese holidays with my friends at their home surrounded by hospitality and care. I enjoyed making dumplings, saying 干杯 with everyone that approached the table and hearing fireworks almost every day. I felt home in China with all the amazing people I met.
When graduation approached, I did not want to leave so soon, so I joined the IDEAS summer camp in Beijing. Doing activities and leading groups of kids pushed me out of my comfort zone but also brought lots of joy. I loved the laughs, the games, and all activities at the camp, yet one of the biggest struggles was the language. Thus, I promised myself to improve my Chinese and then come back to the summer camp again. Hence, the first thing I did when I came to Smith College was registering for a Chinese class. But majoring in Chinese Language and Literature was not part of the plan. Until my advisor told me “come and take my literature class.” I found Chinese literature deep and relatable. It taught me that literature can connect us and make us reflect on the world we live in. Thanks to the incredible and inspiring professors at Smith my knowledge and love for China kept on growing. In my junior year I went back to the summer camp and did a study abroad program. This time hearing kids commenting on my Chinese – “哇这个老师会说中文” – made me happy and motivated to keep learning.
After the camp I started my study abroad experience with Associated Colleges in China, an intensive language immersion program hosted by the Minzu University of China in Beijing. Being at Minzu, I got exposed to different minority groups, learned about their traditions, customs and saw them perform on campus wearing traditional clothing. And the program highlighted the importance language plays when we try to understand a different culture. Once my Chinese skills improved, I was able to appreciate things like Peking Opera, ask questions at stores, order more authentic food, dance at the park with elderly people and many other fun activities. We also got to explore Beijing, Xi’an and Tianjin. It always fascinates me how diverse China is and the story each city can tell you.
All the experiences I had, and memories I made in China were warm, taught me lots of lessons and shaped me into who I am today. Hence, joining Yenching Academy of Peking University is such a privilege and brings a smile to my face because I know it will be fun, insightful, and rewarding journey. I am excited for this new adventure and looking forward to meeting fellow scholars, professors and YCA staff.