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President Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao in January 2011

Last week, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at Howard University urging American students to take advantage of study abroad opportunities in China. It’s all part of President Obama’s “100,000 Strong Initiative” which aims to increase the number of students studying in China by making it more affordable through scholarships and programs. It was launched during President Obama’s 2009 trip to China, and unlike other initiatives, it relies solely on private-sector donations.

 

Michelle Obama speaking at Howard University last week

During her speech, the First Lady emphasized that “studying in countries like China is about so much more than just improving your own prospects in the global market. The fact is with every friendship you make and every bond of trust you establish you are shaping an image of America projected to the rest of the world.”

As someone who studied abroad in Hong Kong, I fully support this initiative because studying abroad is the most humbling, life-changing experience. In fact, I urge college students to take advantage of these opportunities to study abroad in China – or anywhere in the world. You will not regret it.

Sometimes, it’s hard to explain in words how much my life – and world perspective – changed after studying abroad. Yet I’ve come up with a few things that I learned during and after my experience:

1. Living in a city is different than visiting.
When you live in a city for an extended period of time, it’s a completely different experience than being a tourist for a few days. Living in a city forces you to mingle with the local people – in restaurants, marketplaces, riding the MTR or public transportation, and school. When this happens, you learn about their culture, mannerisms, values and language. For me, riding the MTR every single day was one of the greatest learning experiences for me. I observed and listened to the Hong Kong people, and after a while, I began to blend in with them. You don’t get to experience this as a tourist.

2. You develop a deep sense of appreciation and gratitude.
When you live in Asia, you witness all levels of living conditions from rural villages to metropolitan cities. I was given the opportunity to teach English in Zengcheng, China (see post here), backpack throughout Vietnam and Cambodia (post here), as well as visit thriving cities such as Seoul and Shanghai. When you travel to these cities, you develop a deep sense of appreciation for everything you have in America: freedom, democracy, a stable government, education, and endless opportunities to follow your aspirations and dreams. After witnessing some rural conditions, especially in Cambodia, it made me reflect on these simple freedoms that I took for granted beforehand.

3. China is now a major focus of the world – and the future.
China is a country filled with opportunity and adventure, especially now because it is a major focus of the world. Companies are moving to China while others are growing exponentially, the economy is booming, and opportunities are plentiful. By studying abroad in China, you can experience firsthand what it’s like to live there, and you can immerse yourself in this pool of opportunity.

4. Mandarin is the world’s most spoken language.
More people in the world speak Mandarin Chinese than any other language. English is the second most spoken language. While in college, I noticed that more and more students were enrolling in Mandarin classes, especially those from the USC Marshall School of Business.

5. Learning a new language can be beneficial for your job hunt after college.
What better way to learn another language than living in a city where it is spoken all around you? Textbooks and classrooms can only teach you so much. Using the language on a daily basis is KEY to becoming conversational and fluent. When you learn a new language, you become that much more multi-dimensional. It looks great on job applications.

6. Our world is becoming increasingly inter-connected.
With the internet and social media as powerful forces, our world is becoming increasingly “smaller and smaller” (not literally, but figuratively speaking). People are now connected more than ever, news travels fast, businesses and companies are working together overseas, and the need for people with international experience is a plus. When I was abroad, I met so many European and Americans living in Hong Kong with various companies. They all told me it was important to immerse yourself in the growing global economy. Studying abroad is one way to do this, so take advantage of these opportunities while you’re young!

7. You learn to become independent.
When I reflect on my time abroad, I think the biggest transformation was becoming more independent. A more independent thinker, decision-maker, and person overall. I will forever be grateful for this experience. When I left Los Angeles for Hong Kong, I didn’t know anybody. I had never lived anywhere else besides LA, and that is all I ever knew. I was going into unchartered territories. But when you’re living in a new city, you’re forced to make your own decisions. You have to ask for directions on the MTR. You have to ask taxi drivers to take you to your next destination. You have to order food at local restaurants, and ask others for good recommendations. It opens your mind and soul to your own personal capabilities, and it brings out the best of YOU.

8. You make lifelong friends and share a special bond.
I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for meeting the most incredible group of friends in Hong Kong. My experience wouldn’t be half as wonderful had I not met these people. We explored the city together, ate together, traveled around Asia together, and had unforgettable memories. You form a special bond with these people that nobody will understand because it is an experience that only you went through. Even after this experience, we share memories and get together as much as possible. We will forever share a very special bond that cannot be explained in words.

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After spending time in Xi’an, we hopped on a plane and headed south to Shanghai. We spent the next few days in Wuxi, Suzhou and Hangzhou, three quaint and picturesque towns located a few hours outside of Shanghai.

Tai Lake in Wuxi, China

The three towns we visited were full of beauty and displayed the marvels of nature in its most serene form. You feel a true sense of peacefulness while traveling in these areas. Wuxi is known for the enchanting Tai Lake, the third largest freshwater lake in China. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.

We then traveled to Suzhou, which is known as the “Venice of the East” because of its water canals that go through the city.

Humble Administrator’s Garden, located in Suzhou, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is considered the finest garden in Southern China. The garden is filled with boulders with intricate textures and shapes. When you’re walking around, it feels like a maze!

My sisters posing on the rocks

Hanshan Temple is located nearby the canals. It is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Hanshan, a legendary poet and monk who came to Suzhou.

Inside the temple with our two friends in the tour group, Carolyn and Taylor from Texas!

We found triplets inside the temple (Not really, but they had matching jackets!)

Our last stop was Hangzhou which is known for the beautiful West Lake.

Hangzhou is well known for their dragon tea, so we went to a traditional tea house in the countryside to taste this delicacy! While driving through this area, there were hillsides filled with tea leaves growing.

Hillsides of tea leaves

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After exploring Beijing, we hopped on a short plane ride to Xi’an, famously known for the Terracotta Warrior Soldiers.

The Terracotta Warriors

Xi’an is famously known for the Terracotta Warrior soldiers.  The story behind this is quite fascinating. In 1974, local farmers were building a water well and unburied these soldiers. Archaeologists took interest in this discovery, and eventually unburied over 8,000 life-size clay warriors and hundreds of chariots and horses. Every sculpture is unique and different in its own way, which is quite remarkable.  The army was buried with the First Emperor of Qin in 210 BC to protect him and help him rule another empire in the afterlife.

What’s even more interesting is that most of the warriors are still buried. Even though it’s been over 40 years since the first discovery, archaeologists say there are still thousands to be uncovered.

What impressed me the most was that every single Terracotta warrior was different than the next. They all have unique features, which really shows the great work of these hand crafted figures. Also, my family got to meet one of the farmers that made the discovery in 1974. He signed two of our books that we purchased too, which was quite exciting!

My sisters and I

This was uncovered in broken pieces, but archaeologists were able to put it back together. Now it is preserved in the museum.

We went to a Terracotta factory that makes replica figurines to sell to the public.

Admiring the Terracotta replicas - which come in all sizes!

Aside from the warrior soldiers, there are other notable places to visit in Xi’an.  The Big Wild Goose Pagoda was built in 652 AD for the purpose of displaying Buddhist statues and figurines that were brought from India. The pagoda is quite impressive with its height, and there are beautiful shrines and gardens in the surrounding area.

The pagoda in the distance.

One of the many beautiful Buddhist statues

Our tour guide wrote our Chinese names in calligraphy writing

I saw this interesting looking tree while walking around the area

We also went to Hua Qin Hot Springs, a picturesque area located at the foot of Li Mountain. The royal family and guests would often come here for retreat. It is known for their beautiful pools and bathing areas.

Rinsing our hands in the hot spring water

Muslim Street is located in the center of Xi’an, and it is an outdoor market for both locals and tourists. It’s interesting to stroll around the area and check out what people are selling on the streets (food, trinkets, jewelry, and more).

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My sisters and I jumping for joy on the Great Wall of China!

When I say this was the coldest day of my life, I mean it. Even though I was bundled up in five layers, including a ski jacket and a North Face windbreaker, I was still freezing. The temperature was around 12 degrees fahrenheit, but the wind speed was at 20-25 MPH. It’s the wind chill factor that made it feel extremely cold. Yet who could complain about the weather situation when you’re climbing the Great Wall of China, one of the most fascinating and spectacular feats of mankind? It expands throughout China for over 5,000 miles and it was built by hand starting in the 5th century B.C.!

To make things even better, who could say they climbed the Great Wall of China on Christmas Day? I had no complaints. It was such a surreal moment because I’ve seen photos of the Great Wall ever since I was a child, and I was finally there to see it for myself. It was a truly monumental and remarkable sight to see.

Here’s a short video my older sister filmed while we were taking a break. Can you hear the wind in the background?

My family

My dad!

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After a one month hiatus, I am back and ready to update everyone on my travels during December! It was quite a busy time for me. In early December, I went backpacking with three other study abroad friends to Vietnam and Cambodia. It was by far one of the most amazing and exciting times of my life, and I can’t wait to share my experiences with you all! Right when I came back from my backpacking trip, one of my best friends Amy, and my sister Dayna visited me in Hong Kong for 4 days. I took them around “my” city – the place that i’ve grown so fond of – and we ate delicious food, and shopped till we literally dropped! Then, my sister and I met up with my family as we went on a 10 day tour of China. We visited Beijing, Xi’an, Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Shanghai. It was a very culturally enriching trip filled with great memories!

All of this and more will be documented soon on my website…so please hold on! In the meantime, i’ve got a few photos from my trip to share with you all.

Angkor Wat in Cambodia:

Rene and I at Angkor Wat (sunrise):

The four of us with Cambodian children:

Cruising down the river in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam!

Climbing the Great Wall of China on Christmas Day:

Visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors/Soldiers in Xi’an, China:

Full updates to come!

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Two weeks ago, I traveled to Zengcheng, located in the countryside of Guangzhou prefecture of China to teach English at Pai Tan School for students in grades 2-4 and 7-9.


Sometimes, putting yourself in the most unfamiliar and different situations can lead to the most enriching experiences of your life. In the days leading up to my teaching trip in the countryside of China, a rush of anxiety and nervousness consumed my every thought. My perceptions of China – being uncleanly and unsanitary – got the best of me. I had the notion that the people would be aloof and unfriendly towards foreigners, and I foolishly went into the trip with a blind eye.

Yet the moment our driver picked us up from the bus station, and Seven, the English teacher from the school, jumped out of the car with a warm smile, all of my inhibitions disappeared. Seven is a sweet, middle-aged woman with a short and petite frame of 5’2”. I came to realize that her personality is bigger and bolder, sweeter and softer than anyone I’ve ever met.

Driving into Zengcheng was a true eye-opener, primarily because of its underdeveloped landscape and poor economic status of the area. I’ve lived in the heart of South Central Los Angeles and have seen my share of rural, urban living, but this was unlike anything else. Many of the roads were severely unpaved, with concrete and brick piling up on the sides as if a tornado passed by. Some of the buildings looked like they were barely standing.

We taught English at Pai Tan School, and students from grades 2-4 and 7-9 voluntarily showed up on their weekend to see the “foreigners” as they call us. Many of the students have never traveled outside of Zengcheng, not even to Beijing or Shanghai, so you could imagine they were excited. It was quite difficult trying to teach English because they knew very little of the language, but we did our best by talking about our lives, showing them photos, and playing interactive games. Each day we were there, no matter how frigid cold it was, the students had a genuine smile across their face. It was a good feeling to hear the excitement in their voices as we all played games together and talked about America.

The more I interacted with everyone, I came to realize that they were such warm-hearted people. Despite their living conditions, they were so hospitable and caring towards us. The teachers and staff of Pai Tan School treated us to many hearty meals with more than enough food to feed the entire group.

When reflecting on this experience, I gained an important life lesson. I was so foolish to go into the experience with preconceived assumptions about what was to come. I chuckle at the thought of me stocking up on snacks to put in my backpack so I wouldn’t go hungry during the trip. Yes, my idea that it would be dirty and unsanitary proved true at times, but let me tell you this: the beauty of the people in Zengcheng far surpassed anything else. Despite the language barrier, their warm and loving smiles were enough to know that they appreciated us, and we appreciated them.

Highlights from the trip:

Seven (top left), the English teacher at Pai Tan School, and her young daughter Angel.

A few snapshots of Zengcheng

The students of Pai Tan School

Classroom activities

For breakfast, we went to a small restaurant/shop that was basically tables and chairs inside a garage. It was one of those moments when you think, “wow, what an experience!” Not many people can say they ate breakfast in a garage while bundled up in sweatpants and jackets in the freezing cold, watching the rain trickle down, all while eating a hearty, hot breakfast. We ate the most delicious jook and chow fun noodles!

We ate at the most peaceful, scenic restaurant for two meals. We had our own private cabin room overlooking the beautiful forest and mountainous landscape. I was in absolute awe. Pictures do no justice.

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