Melodious voices rise, mixing and dispersing above the steamy pavement of a corner-side pavilion, attracting curious passersby. Actually, the staring eyes are more likely drawn by the fact that these voices that are crooning “I Love This City”, a song by Chinese singer Jane Zhang (who, coincidentally, bears the same name as me), belong to a class of foreign teenagers.
We are sixteen American students studying for six weeks of the summer of 2011 in Chengdu, the capital city of the Sichuan province located in Southwest China. Worth roughly $11,000 per person, our 45-day exchange is sponsored by the National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarship through the State Department, and overseen by the American Field Service Intercultural Programs (AFS).
â–º FINALIST 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
Our group of sixteen came from all over the United States; stretching from Laguna Beach, California to Concord, New Hampshire to Plano, Texas to my home in Madison, Wisconsin. Each of us is distinct; within our group we have a rock climber, an artist, a dancer, a military school student, soccer players, a singer, a rower, a figure skater, and more. We range from my mere 15 years of age to the 18-year-old future Harvard student. Despite these many differences, the past six weeks have transformed us from absolute strangers to classmates, from classmates to friends, and from friends to what we lovingly call our “Chengdu family”.
We have spent countless hours together sipping tea on a lazy afternoon in the People’s Park, screaming as we hurtle down the gigantic roller coasters of Happy Valley Amusement Park, suffering the wrath of the hot peppers in the famous Chengdu-style hot pot for dinner. We’ve been through the good (observing the beautiful pandas at the Chengdu Panda Breeding and Research Center), the bad (getting lost in the city at 11 o’clock at night), and even the ugly (watching a torture film in the Chinese movie theater was NOT my idea of a good time). We’ve had some healthy competition through cooking and selling contests, as well as group bonding through trust falls and PLENTY of awkward situations.
Now, looking around me I absorb the sight our Chengdu family, clad in blue AFS shirts, singing our hearts out as we wrap up our end-of-stay “talent show”. The song, originally written about this very city, expresses our precise feelings toward the place that has become our second home. And, like any home, this home has loving families, or in this case, our magnificent host families. My host sister Qing Qing smiles as she joins me onstage and gives me a half-hug. Grinning back, I give her hand a squeeze. Around me, my friends’ host siblings join them as well. Scanning the audience, I spot my host mom beaming up at us. It never stops amazing me, the fact that a family would volunteer to take me into their home, give me a safe place to sleep, delicious food to eat, and love me like their own child, which is precisely what my host family has done, and I thank am ever-thankful to them.
For me, these past six weeks have been more than simply another trip to China – I have travelled to China four times in the past with my family – but rather they have been a grand journey, teaching me more about life, about others, and most of all, about myself.
As the song, as well as our journey, come to an end, our voices ring with the ever-so-true last lines of “I Love This City”:
I love you, I love my city
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