Winter 2003 Magazine Archive & SearchMuhlenberg Home

 

DELIGHTING
IN THE DIFFERENT
at home and abroad

BY JEN EPTING ’03

 

On the shelf above her desk sits a small potted plant of bamboo. All around the room, mixed in-between Bob Dylan posters and record albums from the ‘70s, hang Chinese cloths and tapestries. And unlike most other student’s computer, Priscilla Begin’s is formatted so that she can type papers in Chinese.

“I miss speaking Chinese everyday,” she says. “I love speaking Chinese. I miss talking to people in Chinese; I like how Chinese sounds.”

Difficult as it may be to believe, Priscilla, a senior international relations major, has only been studying Chinese for a year now. She decided to go to China last fall without having studied any Chinese, and knowing relatively little about the Chinese culture.

“When Priscilla told me she wanted to go to China for her study abroad experience, I cocked one eyebrow and said, ‘Uh huh,’” recalls political science professor Patricia McRae. McRae helped Priscilla to get in touch with another student who had studied abroad in China.

“I picked Chinese because it was different and intriguing,” Priscilla says. “It looked really difficult but interesting at the same time. As odd as this sounds, I got tired of being able to read a book in a romance language and being able to figure out half the words because I knew English. At the time, I wanted something different, where the basic philosophy of the language was letters that could be traced back to where men had written things on the side
of caves.”

Living in Dalian, she certainly got something “different.” She stuck out with her blonde hair and lack of linguistic skills, though being different didn’t stop her from enjoying her experience. Rather, it posed a challenge that Priscilla confronted willingly.

“I felt completely and utterly helpless,” she says. “It was probably the second week I was there, and before then I’d never really gone anywhere on my own. I was walking down the street by myself and I didn’t know what people were saying. I didn’t know the word for water or buy or anything, I just kind of picked out a bottle of water and handed them some money and they handed me money back, and that was it.”

She learned quickly, taking intensive Chinese courses and thrived as she was immersed in a city where few people spoke her native language.

“After I’d had about two weeks of Chinese, I bought my first bananas, and I pointed to them and I said “I would like two bananas” and the woman understood me,” she says. “I was so amazed, it was the greatest feeling in the world, buying bananas.”

While Priscilla was enjoying being an observer of the Chinese culture, she could never forget that she was also being observed. As an American, she was the center of attention wherever she went. Even taking a walk through the streets of Dalian proved to be a difficult task.

“I don’t look Chinese at all; I have blonde hair and pale skin and being in the provincial city that I was in, people didn’t see a lot of foreigners,” she says. “When they saw someone that looked completely different, it was a show. I was always pointed at or laughed at or wondered at; I was always the center of attention wherever I went.”

The feeling of being “different” was something she knew she had to show others. On returning to the United States, Priscilla immediately found herself as an important resource on campus. She actively sought opportunities to teach others about the Chinese culture, of which she had only recently learned, and attempted to educate others, not only in the differences, but also the similarities between Chinese and American individuals.

Priscilla will be graduating in May with a concentration in Asian studies and at this point she is not sure how she will integrate her Chinese into her plans after graduation.

“I vacillate every week between what I want to do,” she says. “This week, I’m thinking more about going back to China and living there for about a year, becoming fluent in Chinese, and teaching some English. I’m also applying to a few grad schools to get my master’s in international relations. I think one day I’d like to be a professor. I want to always be teaching people and learning about them, but also studying new things, reading new books, developing new theories.”

Regardless of where she ends up next year, educating others about China is something Priscilla has ingrained in her. Because of her positive experience abroad, she strongly advocates others to challenge themselves in ways they thought were not possible.

“I feel like I have a duty to inform people about what I experienced so that if they never get the opportunity, they might at least know someone who has,” she says. “If it’s just for one day or one week, everyone should experience being ‘different,’” she says. “It changes your life; you see language from a different perspective, friendships, world politics, art, street signs and buses and public places from a different perspective. Everything. That’s just so valuable, I wouldn’t ever trade that for anything.”

 

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