“I just want a salad,” I muttered under a breath of mixed anxiety and exhaustion; a thirteen-hour time difference wasn’t something a young-20-something year old could fake an effort through.
“Whoah yo my sha-rah.”
“Wǒ yāomǎi shālā,” she said, emphasizing each tone which I had mistaken as intonation at the time. I had no concept of the four different pitches to accompany spoken Mandarin, yet alone that misspeaking just one of those could change 买(Mǎi) “buy” to 卖(Mài) “sell.”
“I can do this.” I thought to myself. Three interviews, self-studying the best I could in preparation for moving to the other side of the world AGAIN, spending more than a summer in Shanghai but this time wanting to truly encapsulate myself in the Chinese culture and language learning process.
I starkly remembered at that moment our Fulbright outbound students’ language agreement, the faith and chance that our Professor 万里 took on a kid from Ohio that only had a passion for learning — and who wanted to go all in on that passion.
I confidently adjusted myself in the low riding seat to face the server, “服务员!” The sharply dressed man adjourned from his conversation with the other host and faced me; pen and paper at the ready. “我要卖沙拉.”
It’s not the most remarkable first day experience as a Fulbright Hayes Chinese Language Immersion Program participant, but it’s one that stood out to me the most. The first of many months in Xi’an, the beautiful NEW First Tier City of Shaanxi Province followed similar suit.
Wake up at 6:30-7 am, make your way to the student cafeteria and pay for your choice of 包子( ), steamed buns, or 粥 ( ), rice porridge. And, in my case, the extra 2 mile round trip commute for the only non-instant coffee available.
Six hours of language intensive curriculum: Speaking, Listening, Reading, and Writing, only broken apart by the hour or so lunch at noon and the fifteen or so minute breaks between each day’s domain being taught.
But you know what, I didn’t mind my brain bursting at the seams with 汉子Hanzi. Speaking broken Mandarin with people from South Korea, India, Morocco, and other nations I did not know existed until we showed each other our position on a globe while sharing cheap cigarettes that cost 7-30 元. With those shared laughs, dinners out, 干杯(gān bēi) — otherwise known as cheers — and cultural study field trips to 大理市 (Dali), 丽江市 (LiJiang), 昆明市 (KunMing) and other cities I can’t immediately recall.
I was explicitly and implicitly taught Chinese culture and language the way the Fulbright Program was designed to do.
It is impossible to experience real life in China without being a part of the Chinese New Year. Drastically different than the United States’ New Year’s Day or Eve; the entire nation shuts down for what seems like weeks to spend time with family.
No matter how far, the heart is always fond of home and one could easily find stories on 微博(Weibo) about people riding share bikes hundreds and thousands of miles to — or sometimes the wrong direction — home.
I got to spend nearly two weeks with a family — a one-child family that lived in the inner city and upper skyline of Xi’an that gave me their ten-year-old child and a pocket smart-translator to survive the excursion. They fed me, and they taught me the Chinese word, idiom, or character for everything we came across. I was able to ski for the first time; then promptly switch to snowboarding after wrecking into their child two times, and go to the countryside two hours away to set off fireworks that we bought inside a ramshackle supermarket that was more than likely an illegal trade for such explosives.
Contracting food poisoning at one of dozens multi-coursed traditional Chinese meals, I got to take traditional medicine and be even more comforted by whom I only know and am allowed to call “Yen Mama.”
Days turned to weeks and weeks turned into months, and between the spontaneous adventures set by the Fulbright program, the school we attended, or by the dumb-witted brains of our young college selves, our pack of Fulbrighters made their way into the pinnacle of opportunity to experience Chinese culture . . . work culture.
An internship with the prestigious Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce, to be exact.
You would be hard pressed to find this paramount of trade, I’d personally walked past it several times on my way to the movies with an ex-girlfriend simply because it WAS past the movie theatre, up the stairs, and around the corner. Rows of cubicles symmetrically aligned with each having a different pedigree of importance and prestige to each department’s role.
Experiencing the 8-6 work culture and the two-hour lunch and nap break in-between emailing treasurers of trade was only part of the one-belt-one-road initiative.
It was something I’d only dream of.
Graduation was shortly after. Although each of us had our own kind of experience graduating the program, our studies, internship, and our English language camp with the Dandelion School in Beijing meant that none of us could have been prepared for the friendships and lifelong connection’s we left with.
I’m not in frequent contact with everyone in our old 微信(Weixin) “WeChat” group chat, but I see the successes everyone has accomplished since. Graduate degrees, big tech jobs, research articles and journals published, etc. Not one of us stopped being excellent after this Fulbright program and experience — not a single one of us plans to either.
My Fulbright experience wasn’t ordinary, it was beyond extraordinary, and not something I’ll ever take for granted.
Raymond O’Donnell – Fulbright to China 2018