I still remember the day I arrived to Shanghai: the painful 14 hour flight from Chicago to Shanghai, and the invisible curtain of humidity that hit me immediately when I stepped out of the airport.
But even before that, I remember the tests, the essay, and the interview that got me here on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean with only $500 USD to last me the 6 weeks I’m here in China without a family member in sight.
It all started a week before the application was due; my Mandarin teacher told us about a chance to go abroad during the summer to study in China, completely free. We immediately went down to the counseling office to request our transcripts, and got scolded for not being in class.
â–º Quarter Finalist 2011 Teen Travel Writing Scholarship
The next few weeks afterwards, we jumped through multiple hoops for the program—it took three oral proficiency tests, one written, and an interview to narrow down the final 20 Chicago students who would go to Shanghai.
The NSLI-Y scholarship is an all-expense-paid 6 week trip to Shanghai to study not only Mandarin, but Chinese culture and history with East China Normal University as our hosts.
We have class every morning from 8:30 to 11:45 and dictations every other day. We live on our own in the dorms the first week, then the roommates move in for two weeks, we go to Xi’An for a long weekend, and live at our host-family’s home for the rest of the trip.
My family was beyond ecstatic when they found out I got into the program. I remember telling my mother one night, “You’re acting like I got into Yale or something.” She responded, “It’s better than getting into Yale!”
At that point, I knew that there was no way I would stay in Chicago.
Even so, I still had moments of hesitation: missing several crucial Chicago Scholars College Essay meetings, leaving my family behind, and Lu Laoshi, the program’s army-sergeant director, whom quite frankly scared me.
In the end, I decided to go because I knew that when I leave for college next summer, it will be like leaving for Shanghai all over again.
On the bus ride to the airport, I didn’t feel anything — no joy, excitement, or nervousness. Just this numbness deep inside. The feeling that this can’t be happening, and yet it is.
Our dorms were the size of a garbage bin — sure, they were clean, we had our own bathroom, and two beds as promised; one for us, and one for our Chinese roomies.
But the bathroom was smaller than my arm-span, and Shanghai was not only hot, but humid. As in YMCA-sauna humid.
I came to Shanghai knowing that it wouldn’t be that hard for me to adjust — I’m Cantonese after all. I’ve heard everything, from the squat toilets to the mosquitoes and the weather, ever since I was born.
Although I’m Chinese, and I grew up in a Chinese household, living in Shanghai has been a bit of a shock for me; the food, the language, the culture.
The one aspect of Shanghai and Xi’An that really shocked me is the contrast of old and new. Especially in Xi’An, you can see everything from Terracotta Soldiers to high-rise hotels—the pace that China is growing is astounding, even compared to a city as Chicago—the population, the heat, and the pressure to modernize while preserving the past.
If there’s one lesson I learned from this trip, it’s the fact that we really are life-long learners.
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