GUEST COLUMN: While abroad, you will learn more from others than from sights
Editor’s Note: This guest column is the winner of the International Education Week essay contest, in response to this Yo Yo Ma quote: “When you learn something from people, or from a culture, you accept it as a gift, and it is your lifelong commitment to preserve it and build on it.”
Through the China Scholarship Council, which enabled me to study abroad for a semester in Beijing, I am extremely fortunate to have been a student abroad.
I believe the times when I have grown the most in my life are when I was abroad. What I hope to gain from being in another country is not merely to travel, but to learn the language, be integrated into a local community and change my outlook on life by living as others do.
I first went to China for a few weeks during high school. I could not speak Chinese. I was terrible at eating with chopsticks. I never had used a squat toilet.
I became fascinated with China years before, interested in how a Communist state could continue to govern its citizens after the Cold War had ended — long after my parents emigrated from socialist Hungary to the U.S.
Although I eventually would major in international relations, the lessons that I learned from living in China have rarely been about politics. When I traveled to China during high school, I could have simply visited the Great Wall of China, or seen the Terracotta Warriors and the bustling metropolis of Shanghai.
However, I wanted to do something more meaningful: I wanted to interact with the people. I wanted to do this by becoming fluent in Chinese and forming lasting friendships.
The purpose of my first trip to China was to volunteer in orphanages for disabled children. I developed friendships with children at the orphanage, as well as their caregivers who formed a community I eventually became a part of.
Upon my return to China to study abroad several years later, I was eager to nurture these relationships further. By that point, I had been studying Chinese in college, but I was eager to apply what I had learned outside of the classroom. I bonded with a little girl named Tian Fang, in particular, who was legally blind and could not walk.
She would enthusiastically talk to me, but I was dismayed on my first trip to China, because I could not speak Chinese. It was an incredible feeling to finally understand what she was saying when I returned.
One day, I was showing her photos on my phone. She could see general shapes of images if she held the phone close to her eyes. I was more excited about showing her photos of her and her friends, but she had stopped at a photo of my teacher that I took during class and asked me about it. I told her that I was bored in class and was just snapping photos.
I will never forget how she responded, “You have the chance to go to school. I wish I could. I would never be bored.”
Many American students face frustration in a foreign learning environment. I had particularly been frustrated by the rote memorization teaching style at my university in Beijing. It is true: I was bored in class. But I eventually realized that even though instructors may teach differently in other countries, it still can be a valuable learning environment.
Without consciously noticing it, I began to learn communally. My classmates were from all over the world: Russia, Nepal, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, Indonesia, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Japan, South Korea and even North Korea.
We learned to rely on one another, using Chinese as our lingua franca. If one of us did not know a certain word in Chinese, another one of us did, enabling us to fill in our gaps in knowledge by studying together and by exploring the country together.
To me, international education goes beyond the classroom. I learn the most through friendships with other people.
A few years ago, I could not understand what Tian Fang was saying. But she was able to teach me an important lesson, in a foreign language, in a foreign country: Do not take education for granted.
Karina Legradi is an international studies graduate student.