May: The Final Chapter

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After nine crazy months of adventures and explorations, I am finally back home. Back in the states, back in Pittsburgh! I’m writing this blog post in the comfort of my living room, with my family sitting on the couches around me, sharing about their days, chatting about the small things that while I was away I missed completely. Although a bit late, this blog post is dedicated to my final month in China, and it is an attempt to sum up what this experience meant to me.

Beijing Explorations

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With not a lot of time left, we all made it a personal goal to try and see as much of the city as possible before it was time to go. Here are some of the highlights. (Below each picture is a brief explanation of the place mentioned!)

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Temple of Heaven: “The Temple of Heaven is an imperial complex of religious buildings situated in the southeastern part of central Beijing. The complex was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest.” (Wikipedia)

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Miyun Longyun Mountain, some beautiful mountains on the outskirts of the city. Located near the Great Wall, this is a place city people often go to be surrounded by nature.

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Old Summer Palace: “Located only a few hundred meters from the existing Summer Palace, these ruins used to be a grand palace and park built under the Qing emperors in the 18th century, but was later destroyed by French and British troops during the Second Opium War (1860-1862).” (Tripdvisor)

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Temple of the Sun Park

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Super cute Beijing Roasted Duck restaurant I went to with my host family.

Adventures with Friends

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One of the best parts of the month of May was sharing all the adventures with my friends. Knowing at the end of the month we would return to the states and all return to our respective cities and states, we were determined to make the most of our time left together.

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FOOD!

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Host Family Goodbye

My last weekend with my host family was a very special way to end the year. Between delicious food, good conversations, and quality time together, we were able to reflect over the past nine months. We recounted when I first arrived, how I struggled to speak simple sentences, and now, we were having full length in-depth conversations. I thanked them for the way they opened their home and hearts to me. I even gave them some Pittsburgh gear, so they can rep the 412 all the way from Beijing. 🙂 

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Graduation (Part 2!)

At the end of May, we were lucky enough to be part of Beijing 80’s graduation. We stood alongside our peers, classmates, and friends, whom were graduating from BJ80 High School. Many of them are attending universities in USA or the UK, or perhaps in their home countries such as Korea or China. It was interesting to be graduating for the second time, in such a different environment than I ever would have imagined. Between the speeches and video montage and diplomas, I felt how special it was to be part of this day. 

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The Final Goodbye!

So after nine months, it was time to go! Overwhelmed with both an excitement to be reunited with our families/ be back in the states, we also all felt a supreme sense of sadness to be leaving behind this life. The amount we have each grown is unbelievable, and it is so large in part due to the role BJ80 played in our lives. 

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First Day of School

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Last Day of School

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With some of our language teachers.

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Mia and I, in front of the international department building (where we had class everyday)

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In front of my dorm! This picture was taken after I had successfully (to some people’s surprise, the hours leading up to this were quite stressful) finished packing.

Packing everything up, trying to fit my life into two checked bags and a carry on, was both a physical and mental challenge. Not only was it kind of impossible in the literal sense (the 50 lb weight limit and all of my stuff … was not quite working out) but in the figurative sense … I felt so sad by this notion of packing up, moving out, and heading home. When my dorm was empty and my bags were in the hallway, it felt so weird, so empty, so … final. 

We had one last lunch in the cafeteria and after had to head to the North Gate of the school to get on our bus to the airport. Many of our friends came to send us off, give us a final goodbye. Many thanks were exchanged, laughs shared, and tears shed.

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Pretty soon the time had come though, for us to board the bus. Sitting there, looking out the window we saw the waves and smiles of our teachers, classmates, roommates, and friends. For the past nine months these people had become such a central part of our lives, and now it was time to say a final goodbye. As the bus pulled away, I was trying to process what this “final goodbye” really meant. It felt surreal to try and understand that this was my final day here, no more zixis in the dorm, no more bibimbap for lunch in the cafeteria, no more stretching with Tima and Zhong Charlie in PE class, no more sitting by the pond watching the koi fish, no more meetings in ziroom’s basement, no more runs to Family Dumpling, no more malatong outings, no more banana and PB breakfasts in Mia’s room, no more practice HSK tests, no more quick trips to the chaoshi to buy spicy bread, no more sprinting back from Donghuqu to make it by the 7:00 curfew, no more nights in Alex’s room listening to Bon Iver, no more T25s in the common room, no more tingxies in Smiley’s class, no more sunbathing on the yellow mat listening to jin gui’s spotify, no more art classes with the laoshi non stop yelling 抓紧时间! No more moments together. No more Beijing 80, no more China. Although this was overwhelming, too difficult to process, and kind of heart breaking, I knew that  my time here would be something I would always carry with me. 谢谢八十中,你们给我这个难忘的经历。

WE MADE IT! 🇺🇸

“我们终于到了!坐飞机的时间太长了。我累死了。我饿,我饿!”

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After a near 15 hour flight to Dallas, bad weather, a delayed transfer, lost luggage, a missing bus, and many technical difficulties, we arrived at our hotel in D.C. around 3:30 AM running on next to zero hours of sleep. The next morning (still suffering from jet lag) we had a full day of meetings, presentations to the state department, and a final goodbye dinner barbecue.

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And May 31st was here before we knew it. Time to fly home, to say our last goodbyes to each other. Between tears, through hugs and a fumbling of words, I looked at my friends who over the past nine months had been there with me every step of the way, experienced all of the program’s insanely unique situations, who had pushed me to be my best self, supported me, cheered me on, and became so important in my heart. The kind of friends, you never ever forget. But as we often said, this wasn’t goodbye, but rather, 再见

(再见 means goodbye in Chinese, but it directly translates to “see again”. Cute way to remind ourselves, this would not be the last time we are together.)

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Friday, May 31st, 6:38 PM. Home.

At this time my plane landed in the Pittsburgh International Airport. I was finally home. No better way to end this experience than being reunited with my family, in the same place where a year ago we said our goodbyes before I embarked on this journey. I feel so blessed to have such wonderful people there supporting me, eager to hear about my travels, and just overall excited to have me back. Var(lotta) love for the fam! 🙂

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April: The Beginning of the End

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April, similar to March, has been a very lively and enjoyable month. Our position here (in regards to leaving China in a few weeks) has caused a positive shift in our attitudes, mindsets, and daily lives. The inevitable countdown towards our departure has resulted in the feeling of time passing by more quickly. This in turn causes everything we do to feel a bit more exciting, more special, and more intense.

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School Events

In school, the grind has continued. We have begun taking practice HSK tests – with the real one less than two weeks away. This is the same test I took in the winter, but this time I’m taking the test at a higher level. After passing HSK 4, everyone in my class is now working to pass HSK 5. 

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Through increased speaking opportunities in our classes ranging from presentations on: racial and gender stereotypes in Chinese movies, dilemmas single parents face,  and the mascot from the Barcelona Olympics, I have noticed drastic gains in my speaking and listening skills. I remember 8 months ago, when I struggled to introduce myself and respond to simple questions, and now am able to discuss issues that are both relevant, practical, and fascinating. 

Elective Class

All students at BJ80 have an elective class on Thursday afternoons. My class is called Cultural Exchange, and the student make up is half Chinese students and half Americans. The goal of the class is to practice speaking, cultural exchange, and to ultimately make new friends. So far this has been a super rewarding class. The students are all very friendly and fun to talk to. Speaking a mix of Chinese and English, we have begun to get to know each other and bond over similar interests. Whether it was when everyone was signing Bohemian Rhapsody together or when one of the student’s was playing  one of our favorite Chinese songs on the guitar, it’s exciting to create these new relationships. This past week we focused on food in America and China. We decided to have a debate about food, both to practice speaking skills and because it would be fun. The first debate was in Chinese and about rice vs. noodles (Team Rice) and the second was in English, about pizza vs. burgers (Pizza!). After the debates, which we engaging because of how passionate we all were about our choices, we shared Chinese and American snacks.

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Below is a picture with one of the Chinese students in our elective class, who next year will be attending University of Rochester. (And who speaks Spanish!!)

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Concerts

Jess and Sarah, both musical stars, are involved in various bands and orchestras at BJ80. They both had performances this past month. It was really fun watching them, along with some of the other BJ80 kids I know, perform. Sarah and Jess sang in English, Italian, and Chinese, all flawlessly.

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Listening to the music made me nostalgic  for CAPA, and the many many concerts I went to due to having two siblings who were instrumental majors. 

Friends from Boston!

Beijing 80 has an exchange program with a high school in Boston, and every year students from both schools visit/study at the corresponding school. The students sat in on a class, were able to see what our lives are like, and exchange stories of our interest in China, Chinese classes, and experience at BJ80. Due to the extended amount of time us NSLI kids spend in class or with each other, and our somewhat limited exposure to different people, it’s always refreshing to meet new people.

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Graduation

Last week during school all students in the international department wore our formal uniforms and took a photo together. After, all the students who were graduating took photos in our caps and gowns. Many of the “gao san” (third year students, equivalent to high school senior) students in the international department are attending universities in the states or in the UK this fall. Below is a picture of Alex, Mia, and I with Li Laoshi, one of our favorite teachers.

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Below is a picture of my friend Michael, a BJ80 student who will be attending University College London in the fall.

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Beijing Adventures

Outside of school, trying to make the most of my time left, I have continued on the journey of Beijing explorations. Below are some of the highlights.

Beihai 

Beihai Park is one of the most well known (and beautiful!) parks in Beijing. Built in the 11th century, it was previously an imperial garden. It contains numerous historically important structures, palaces, and temples. On one beautiful Saturday my friends and I went and enjoyed being out in the nice weather and surrounded by nature.

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Nanlouguxiang

Nanlouguxiang, one of Beijing’s most famous food streets lined with traditional shops and snacks and goods, is a super fun place to go. There are so many delicious foods to try, and always something new. A popular tourist sight, it was exciting to hear a mix of languages being spoken between the people on the crowded street. (Hearing English, because it’s such a rare occurrence, is always noteworthy to us.)

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Chinese Ethnic Cultural Park 

Located across the street from the Olympic Stadium, this museum is unique in that it features displays of the daily life and architecture of China’s 56 ethnic groups. Here is a quick blurb about the Cultural Park:

“The museum covers approximately 50 hectares and so far comprises 44 ethnic villages and 200 ethnic buildings. There are 800 staff members comprising various Chinese ethnic groups. All buildings are constructed to a ratio of 1:1. At the museum, several ethnic groups grow traditional crops such as paddy rice or buckwheat, and each day Tibetan lamas from the Tar Monastery of Qinghai chant Buddhist sutras. The museum has also collected approximately 100,000 cultural relics, and exhibits items representing the daily life of China’s ethnic groups.”

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Tianamen

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Easter!

On Easter, a few of my friends and I attended Easter Mass at a church in Wangfujing called St. Joseph’s Cathedral. 

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Meeting with State Department Rep!

This past week the State Department NSLI-Y Program Officer visited China and Beijing 80. Stacy and I had the opportunity to give him a tour of the neighborhood our school is in, ask him questions about his experience working for the state department, and give feedback on our NSLI-Y experience.

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FOOD

One thing I really like about living in Beijing is the sheer amount of amazing food to be found, tasted, and enjoyed.

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Xinjiang Food

Xinjiang is a territory in northwest China. “The ancient Silk Road trade route linking China and the Middle East passed through Xinjiang, a legacy that can be seen in the traditional open-air bazaars of its oasis cities, Hotan and Kashgar. Xinjiang cuisine reflects the cooking styles of many ethnic groups of the Xinjiang region, and refers particularly to Uyghur cuisine. Signature ingredients include roasted mutton, kebabs, roasted fish, and rice. Because of the Muslim population, the food is predominantly halal.” (Wikapedia)

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And of course… I love international restaurants. Below are some of the good ones I’ve been to this past month.

New Zealand Food! 

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French Food

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Hong Kong Food

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Tacos!

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Japanese Food

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And another favorite- whenever we stumble upon an international market we always get super excited and splurge in the (pretty pricey) food from the states.

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T25 !

Everyday at 5 when school gets out, we have two hours of free time to leave campus before mandatory self study time begins at 7. Normally, my friends and I go to the gym. As we have less and less time here, we have begun using our free time to go to new restaurants and areas, in place of the gym. Thus I’ve begun waking up early (5:30 AM) to get a workout in before school. We also often workout after our study time ends (9:00 PM). Everyday I do a T25 (25 minute high intensity workout). Not only is it a great workout, but it reminds me so much of home (because my sister and my dad got me hooked on them.) I have so many vivid memories of T25: doing a cardio workout with my sister in our living room while my mom is in the kitchen making her coffee, working out with my dad in our basement learning the different workout moves, or waking up early senior year to do T25 before school. I’ve recently embarked on a “25 Days of T25” challenge, and today is day 22. Sharing these workouts with my friends here has been super cool – also, they’re very ideal for our super intense schedule. Whenever you have 12 hours of Chinese a day, a 25 minute workout is perfect!

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4 Weeks Left

A few weeks ago, the students who were selected for 2019-2020 NSLI Beijing Academic Year were announced. A group chat was formed and we began talking to the new students, both excited for them to experience Beijing 80 next year, and sad realizing this was another mile marker of the program slowly coming to an end. We created a google doc for the new NSLI kids to ask us any questions they have about this program. I remember vividly a year ago at this time, the roles were reversed! I was the one asking questions to the current NSLI students, trying to get a feel for China, and for what I had in store the following year. And yet here we are now, one year later, on the other end of the spectrum. Full circle. 

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It’s always in moments like this, whether it be anniversaries or specific moment or time of year, that I reflect on my experiences. Using the google doc as a gage for time – I was able to transport myself a year back. Remembering when I was just beginning to prepare for my move to China, for this completely new life. Hard to wrap my head around how 12 months later, a relatively short time, my life has changed so drastically and I have experienced so much. In those twelve months I decided where I was going to college, where I would spend the next few years of my life living and learning and growing, graduated high school with my classmates who I’ve been going to school with since 6th grade, said goodbye to my family for 9 months, moved across the world. And learned Chinese. 

As my time left here gets shorter and shorter, I’ve already begun thinking about and planning when i’ll return. The idea of continuing my study of Chinese is thrilling, and I’m hungry for more opportunities like this one to explore and discover. I hope to be back soon, (next summer!) and I know the next time I’m here, I will appreciate it even more. The longer I spend here, the more comfortable I am, and the more I want to experience. As my language skills continue improving, so does my experience as a whole.

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Incredibly crazy to think about how May is a mere few days away, and I’ll be back home in about four weeks. I’m not quite ready to leave, to leave this life behind. I feel that there is so much left to be done. Places to be explored, areas to be visited, dumplings to be eaten, words to be learned, food to be tried, conversations to be had, and memories to be made. But as time often goes, when you want it to last the longest it seems to fly by the quickest. The bittersweet passage of time during April has resonated deeply with me, and I’ve deeply felt this past month the concept of how this is the “beginning of the end.” 

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Back to School: March Edition

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After a super fun packed break, it was time for second semester to start and to get back into the school grind. We all arrived back at school at the end of February and dove head first back into class. Below is a picture from the first day of school, when we had an opening ceremony and all of us wore our formal uniforms. 

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Spring!

After a long and cold winter, we were all ecstatic by Spring’s arrival. The warm days and blue skies were the perfect way to start the new semester. The beautiful weather was in part largely responsible for a boost in our mood. Everyday after lunch instead of going back to the dorms or classrooms to avoid the cold, many NSLI kids now spend time outside by the soccer field, studying, relaxing, and talking under the sun.

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Language Pledge! 

NSLI-Y students, as a collective, decided to start a “language pledge” in our classes. The rules are simple: when inside the classroom, you must speak Chinese. If you speak another language, you have to pay 1 kuai. (And at the end of the year – we will throw a party with all the money in the collection!) At first it was pretty difficult to remember to always speak Chinese, but after a while we were able to make it through the day with barely any English. It was exciting to realize that we were capable of communicating many of our conversations, small talk, jokes, and stories in Chinese. Below featuring Sara, one of the biggest language pledge police, with the money box.

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Language Partners

Jess, one of the most all-star people I know, organized a language partner program. Many NSLI kids wanted to be able to practice Chinese more and make some Beijing 80 friends, so Jess acted on this by finding a handful of Chinese students also interested in this goal. The way the language exchange works is the NSLI student and BJ80 eat lunch together, speaking a mix of English and Chinese, and in the process get to know more about each other. My language partner is named Michael, who is a third year student at BJ80 attending the University of College London next year to study Educational Psychology. Below is a picture of a different language partner I hungout with one day, when we bonded over our love for Harry Potter and Timothée Chalamet!

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Beijing 80 Soccer Tournament

Every year Beijing 80 holds a school wide soccer tournament. I was super excited to participate, because what is cooler than doing a sport you love, in a new place, with new people! Similar to the school wide track meet back in October, this was a chance for me to do something here in China that I’ve grown up loving. Each class had one team. My class – yu yan ban (language class) consisted of a handful of my NSLI friends along with some of my international classmates. Tima (my friend from Kazakhstan who is 15 and already fluent in 4 languages – and knows more about American pop culture and rap music than me) was our captain. That is him on the right.

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We have played 3 games so far, ending the first two in a tie and the last with a 0-1 loss. The pre game rituals were exciting and nostalgic, as I was remembering the countless of times I lined up for games back at home. The game itself was short – two 15 minute halves. Nonetheless it exciting, being able to play one of my favorite sports in such a different environment, but yet, it be so similar. The cheers from the other yu yan ban students could be heard from the sidelines. 

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Below are some of the other international students at BJ80, from Mongolia and Japan.

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Next week playoffs start, with the following week being championships! Below are some more action shots from the games.

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30 Mile Walk

My friends Kristian and Alex came up with an idea to walk a marathon. When I overheard them talking about it I immediately said, I’m in. 

In the place that used to be Beijing’s city wall is currently a subway line. It is a square that goes around the center of the city, hitting many of the popular Beijing destinations. Kristian mapped it out, we would walk to this subway line (6 miles) around the subway line itself (a square path 14 miles in total) and then walk 6 miles back to school. 

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At 6:30 AM a few weeks ago I met up with them at school and we began our walk. We wound up spending the entire day together hitting so many major Beijing spots: Koreatown, Wangfujing, Xidan, Tianamen, Houhai, Nanlouguxiang, Dongzhimen, and more. 14 hours later, 70,000 steps, and 30 miles, we were done.

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This will go down in history as the farthest I have ever walked, and one of my biggest feats. Not only was it incredibly cool to see our steps (and how they broke 70,000) but also the chance to see so much of Beijing in one day was amazing. On top of that, sharing the experience with my great friends, and hours of interesting conversations, all led to a truly unforgettable day. 

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Summer Palace

This past week, yu yuan ban took a field trip to the Summer Palace. The Summer Palace is a popular tourist attraction consisting of lakes, gardens, and palaces. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve been to in Beijing! Built during the Qing Dynasty as an imperial garden, it is known for the beautiful mountains and lakes.

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The Summer Palace was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1998, calling the Summer Palace “a masterpiece of Chinese landscape garden design. The natural landscape of hills and open water is combined with artificial features such as pavilions, halls, palaces, temples and bridges to form a harmonious ensemble of outstanding aesthetic value”.

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It was super fun to share this beautiful place with my classmates and friends. After the trip, all the students had to write an essay about one aspect of the Summer Palace. I chose Yunming Lake, the largest lake, featured in the picture below. This was a good chance for me to practice my writing skills in Chinese.

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More Adventures

Wearing Green on St. Patricks Day!

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I had the chance to meet up with a fellow Quaker – he will be attending UPenn in the fall! Originally from Beijing, he moved to New Zealand for high school. It was super fun to get to meet someone else going to Penn, share my adventures in China, and hear his story. We were able to bond over our shared experience of speaking Chinese/English, and also excitingly discuss our plans for the Fall. It is somewhat surreal to think in a few short months, I will finally be starting college.

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Below is a photo of my host sister and her friends, all of whom are in Beijing 80’s traditional instrument orchestra and are wonderful musicians. This past weekend they were over my house and I had the chance to hear them perform. The instruments, from left to right, are the Guzheng, Pipa, and Erhu.

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Eating Dominos! In China!

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Me, after translating one of my favorite phrases, “Let’s get this bread” into Chinese. With the help of my friends to correct my grammar and word choice, we wrote it on the board in class and declared it our motto. It was fun explaining to all of our Chinese teacher’s what it meant.

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Classic flick below including Alex and Alex, me, and one of our favorite teachers.. LIU ZHUREN! (Featuring Yaya’s drawings of us on the board)

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Also so fun — I received a care package! Full of some of my favorite snacks and letters from people from home. All of them were so thoughtful and fun, hearing my friends and family member’s voices in their words and getting to see what is going on in their lives. Some of my favorite ones were the ones from my little cousins – alongside with the drawings and paintings they sent. Love you guys!! Can’t wait to see you soon 🙂

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10 Weeks Left

In the middle of March we hit a monumental mark: 10 weeks left. As a group we reflected on how we felt about this. Most of us were sharing similar feelings, a mixture of excitement and sadness. For sure I’m happy that soon I will be back. I have missed my family a lot, nine months is longer than I’ve ever gone without seeing them. I miss my friends, my neighborhood, my city, and my home. It will be nice to wakeup in my bed, be able to eat healthy food, design my own schedule, and be able to communicate with everyone without having to work for it. So yes, going home will be super fun. (Pic below is the day I left for China! Surreal to think that was 7 months ago)

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But at the same time, it is really crazy to think that in ten mere weeks I will be back in the states. Over the span of the past 7 months, Beijing has become my home. I’ve developed a life here than goes deeper than a vacation or trip. I find happiness in my routine, in the familiarity of Wangjing neighborhood, in how this place feels like a home. I’ve fallen in love with the city, and being able to go a new place every weekend, having the power of new adventures and explorations at my fingertips. I enjoy spending time with my friends and sharing in this experience that is so unique. When thinking about going home, I already feel the sadness of leaving. Not only leaving Beijing 80 and China, but leaving this life too. 

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The life we have, of studying Chinese 10 hours a day and living with host families on the weekend, that at times was so very difficult, is also incredibly special. Never again will I be in an environment so focused on language learning, with friends who are all passionate and motivated and excited to be on this journey with me. Being here, even though the grind is hard and studying Chinese is hard, is so fun. It is somewhat of a break from reality, almost as if we put our real lives on hold for a year and moved to China for 9 months. 

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As the end of the program draws nearer, I am intent on making the most of my time left. Instead of dwelling on the fact that I’m leaving, I focus on making each day one to remember. Every weekend I make a point to go somewhere new and discover a different area, while during the week I find joy in the little things. Whether it be laying under the sun after lunch listening to Jack Johnson, getting a great HIIT workout in with Mia, Alex, and Yaya at the gym, hitting up my FAV restaurant Family Dumpling, hanging out after zixi in the common room, playing soccer during gym with my friends from Brazil, France, & Korea, or even just walking around Beijing 80’s campus and looking at the Koi fish in the pond, each day feels really special. 

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This was something my mom always emphasized growing up, the importance of finding happiness and peace in little moments. Here, I’ve come to better understand how to do that, and how beneficial it really is. Without a doubt, I know in the future I will always remember all the amazing places I went during my time here; from visiting the Terra-cotta Warriors in Xi’an, to overlooking Shanghai from the tallest skyscraper in the city to walking across the Great Wall. But perhaps even more memorable, are the smaller moments from my life at Beijing 80. The community we have formed here, the friendships I’ve made, the things we have learned, and the life we have created, will never be forgotten. So in the meantime, over the next two months, its my mission to make each day a good one. Or, as all of our teachers here love to say,  抓紧时间

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Xi’an!

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The last week of break the NSLI-Y group took a trip together to Xi’an. I was very excited for this trip, because Xi’an is the city I lived in when I first travelled to China two summers ago on a NSLI-Y Summer Program. To be returning to this place, with much higher language skills, a deeper  appreciation and understanding of Chinese culture, and a new group of NSLI-Y friends, felt incredibly special. This trip was a unique way to better understand my appreciation for China, the origin of my passion, and the way it has influenced my life. Checkout below for pictures of my 2017 time in Xi’an alongside the 2019 trip!

Overnight Train

On the way to Xi’an we took a night train. I have never been on one before so this was a fun new experience. There are separate rooms with two bunk beds each, a table, lights, etc. We boarded the train at 8 pm and arrived in Xi’an at 8 am the next morning. Before we went to sleep, we all got together in one of the rooms. How many NSLI kids can you fit in one compartment? Answer.. 16!

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City Wall

Once in Xi’an, we were off filling each day with activities and travels. One of the first things we did was go to the City Wall. Xi’an is famous because it is one of the only cities in China to have a city wall left behind that is so intact. Built in the 14th century by Hongwu Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang, it encloses an area of 14 square kilometers.

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2017:

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2019:

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Wild Goose Pagoda

This pagoda was built in 652 during the Tang Dynasty. It was later rebuilt in 704 during Empress Wu Zetian’s reign. One of the original functions of the pagoda was to hold figurines of the buddha given to China from India by Buddhist traveler Xuanzang. Today it holds buddha statues by well known artist Yan Liben. 

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2019:

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Terrracotta Warriors!

A place every AP World History students studies, returning was once again such an amazing opportunity. Built over two thousand years ago and involving 700,000 workers, the warriors are a form of funerary art. The sculptures depict the armies of Qin She Huang, China’s first emperor. The figures themselves are all different, ranging from warriors, chariots, and horses. The three various pits of the Terra-cotta Warriors are said to contain more than 8,000 soldiers, 130 chariots, and 520 horses. The purpose was to protect the emperor in his afterlife. 

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 Muslim Quarter

Perhaps my favorite place in Xi’an is the Muslim Quarter. This area is streets lined with food stalls of so many different restaurants, stores, mosques, and interesting goods. The food ranges from fried scorpion or fresh coconut juice or chicken feet or meat on a stick. My personal favorite is the fried potatoes and “Roujiamo,” a Xi’an specialty meat sandwich using pork that has been stewed for hours in soup — kind of like a Chinese hamburger! 

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Two years ago I spent so much time exploring this area with my friends, we made many trips to spend either a short time or all day there. I remember when I first arrived, I was so overwhelmed. The amount of people, smells, noises, and new stimuli was shocking. Part of this also had to do with traveling there in the Summer, in the peak of tourist seasons. I began to realize this time around though, after living in China for 6 months and getting accustomed to huge cities and huge amounts of people, I wasn’t as shocked by Muslim Quarter. I think my perspective has changed as I have gotten more used to a plethora of people in places I go.

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2019:

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Xi’an Host Family!

Two years ago when I came to China I lived with a host family. Incredibly kind and welcoming people, I spent 6 weeks living in their home, being part of their daily life, and exploring the city with them. Below is a picture from the first meal I shared with them two years ago.

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I recall the frustration I felt about not being able to communicate deeply with them and form a bond I had been hoping to. In hind sight, this is not that surprising considering I came to China with zero background in Chinese and then only studied for a month and a half. As expected, I didn’t make enough language gains to have the kinds of conversations I was hoping to have in the target language. We spoke mostly English, but that still didn’t feel quite fulfilling enough to me. So this time around when I visited Xi’an, I was extremely excited to meet up with my old host family. 

One night we met and had dinner at the Muslim Quarter (a place we would go together two years ago!) The night with them was nothing short of so incredible, wholesome, and exciting. We spoke entirely in Chinese, about topics ranging from my experience in China, returning to Xi’an, how our lives have ranged since I was their host student, and more. Being able to finally communicate with the people who had given me so much and been so thoughtful my first time in China was so special. They were amazed, truly blown away by the gains in speaking I had made. I began learning things about them that I never knew! This further displayed the idea of the kinds of connections you make when you speak the same language. When it was time to say goodbye I felt a wave of sadness. I realized though I would see them again, ad have the chance to further share fun experiences together. 

Me and my host sister Summer 2017 in front of the Xi’an drum tower!

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Me and my host family 2019! Same place!

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My First Chinese Teacher!

When I studied in Xi’an two years ago, I was a student at North Western University. Everyday we had four hours of Chinese class in the morning, and then various culture classes or field trips in the afternoon. My Chinese teacher was named Tian Laoshi, who coincidentally enough studied linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh! (Such a small world) This trip Stacy (friend who did NSLI summer and is on the NSLI year program with me) and I met up with Tian Laoshi. It was a surreal experience, to reunite with the first Chinese teacher we ever had, and this time, be able to have conversations in Chinese. Once again, these types of moments were so exciting and motivating, to see how far I’ve come. We were able to share our favorite things about China, memories about our summer in Xi’an, and compare the cities of Beijing and Xi’an. Meeting up was a super fun outing, and being able to share it with Stacy made it all the more special. 

2017:

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2019: 

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Without a doubt, this trip was every bit as meaningful and memorable as I imagined it to be. Between exploring new areas of the city while remembering my old experiences, I felt so happy to be back. Xi’an has a special place in my heart – the first Chinese city I ever visited and the first place I began learning the language. Having the chance to meet up with the people who allowed me to have such an impactful first visit to China was pretty amazing. I am grateful for how those six weeks shaped my life, aka … being the reason I am where I am now!

My NSLI Story

I remember three years ago, in the fall of my junior year, I received an email from my mom with a link to NSLI-Y and the caption “Not sure I wanted to send this to Gigi… so far away.” I never would have guessed how that email would alter my life path. After researching NSLI-Y, I knew I had to apply. My interest in sustainability coupled with passion for Chinese history and culture immediately drew my attention to the Mandarin programs. Upon being accepted I prepared for my first trip to China.

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Six weeks in Xi’an, flew by, with nothing but amazing exposure that left me wanting more. Coming home still on the NSLI-Y high, I applied to the academic year program. The idea of spending 9 months in the country that I had fallen in love with, and getting to the chance to accelerate my Chinese to new levels, was truly exciting.

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After completing the application, NSLI-Y was put on the back burner a bit, as I focused my time and attention on finishing college apps and senior year classes. I remember always feeling a bit of stress as people discussed post high school plans. Not only did I not know where I would be going to school, but let alone if I would be starting college. Part of me was scared, scared of the idea of picking up my life, putting everything on pause, and moving to China for 9 months. Another part of me was thrilled at the idea of being able to take spend a year focusing on learning Chinese, and have a drastic change of pace from the past four years of a non stop grind at high school. (Little did I know, my life here would still be a grind.) The other part of me wanted to start college right away!

In the Spring of senior year I remember vividly the day I received the email that I had been accepted to NSLI-Y on a fully funded scholarship to spend 9 months in China. I recall a mixture of emotions, happiness of course, but also, a bit of nerves. A few months later I had consildated all my belongings into two bags, say bye to my friends, house, neighborhood, city, and finally family. It was surreal to say bye to my life for 9 months.

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Now here I am, a year later, reflecting on my entire NSLI-Y process and feelings about living in China. And i’ve already begun planning on when I will return to this country to continue studying.

Without a doubt, traveling to Xi’an this year was a way to reconnect with my first experience in China. I was able to re-experience the things that made me want to truly devote my time and energy to Chinese. It was reassuring to be back, remembering how and why I ended up here. Being back in Xi’an felt like I was coming full circle … so I have many thanks to NSLI-Y, for making this experience happen. To my Xi’an host family, my first Chinese teacher, and all the friends I’ve made on NSLI-Y who have been there with me, supporting me, encouraging me, and going through it with me. Thanks to my mom, for three years ago, against her initial thought of not wanting me to be so far away, sending me that email about NSLI-Y. Neither of us could have guessed how much one email would impact my life and the person I’ve become.

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More Xi’an Memories! (2017)

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2019:

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SHANGHAI

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One of the highlights of my break was spending a week in Shanghai. After a mere few days there, I can say whole heartedly, I have found my new favorite city. This place was the most amazing blend of architecture, interesting food, people form different countries, history, culture, and so many cool places to explore. Below are some of the trip highlights! 

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The Bullet Train 

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On the day I was off to Shanghai I woke up at early to finish packing and then walked to the nearby subway station. At 6 AM walking through my neighborhood, with the faint noise of a bus driving in the distance and my suitcase wheels rolling below me, excitement was coursing through my veins. I remember when I was little, waking up early to catch a flight was such a special feeling. I felt something similar at that moment. After an hour long subway ride, I arrived at Beijing South Railway Station where I boarded my train. Riding the gaotie, (the high speed railway) is always such a cool experience. Traveling at speeds of 217 mph and peering out the window allows a view into Chinese cities and country sides. It was extra fun having my friends Jess, Alex, and Brian (and their families!) on the same train with me.

 

Yuyuan Bazaar

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One of the first places I visited when I got to Shanghai was this area. Next to the famous Yuyuan Garden which was built during the Ming Dynasty lies the Yuyuan Bazzar. This area is perhaps my favorite food/market street I’ve been to in China! “It has a great number of small streets and lanes where you can find many restaurants, tea houses, and shops. It is a good place to sample some local snacks and buy some souvenirs. 

 

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The most popular local snacks are Yangchun noodles, steamed stuffed buns, fried stuffed buns, crispy fried cakes, and chop rice cakes.

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In the bazaar, Yuyuan Old Street offers traditional Chinese commodities, such as Chinese lanterns, decorations, silk, antiques, arts, handicrafts, craftworks, jewels, and so much more.” (chinahighlights.com) Below is a picture of me and Alex’s dad eating some of the famous meat on a stick.

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The Bund

The Bund is a mile-long stretch of waterfront promenade along the Huangpu River. To the west of this stretch stand 52 buildings of various architectural styles, including Gothic, baroque, and neoclassical styles. It is often referred to as “the museum of buildings”. To the right contains Shanghai’s skyscrapers and financial district, full of eye catching buildings that at night have impressive lights highlighting their unique styles.

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Starbucks Reserve

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Shanghai has the largest Starbucks store in the world – opened in 2017 it has over 400 employees and is 29,000 square feet. Not only was there a line to get inside, but once you made it in, you had the chance to watch coffee being created. Everything in the store was so aesthetically pleasing, from the wood carved tables to art lining the walls. All the workers were young and friendly, and everyone seemed excited to be there. We ended up spending over an hour here, tasting some of the coffee, shopping for souveniors, and enjoying the ambiance. This was definitely one of the highlights of the trip – it was just SO nice!

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Nanjing Road

Nanjing Road, the “Times Square” of China, was another super cool sight. The area once populated with traditional shops has now been replaced by shopping malls. It felt so modern and western, it was surreal to think this was China and not somewhere in the states. My favorite store I went in was a Nike store called Shanghai 001, the Nike House of Innovation. 

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Jing’an Temple

This Buddhist temple is unique because of its location in the city. The temple sits right in the middle of a business district, with tall and modern buildings lining the sides of it. Nonetheless, once inside the temple, you can still appreciate the beauty and serenity of it. The day I went was rainy so not many people were there, which allowed me to appreciate it in a more peaceful manner. The architecture was incredible, with intricately designed wooden rooftops and pillars. Inside the various rooms were beautiful statues, along with areas to pray nearby. 

 

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Here is a bit of history about it:  “The temple has a history of more than 780 years. First built in the Three Kingdoms Period (220-280), it was named Hudu Chongyuan Temple. In the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), it was moved to the present location from the bank of Wusong River. Later, a famous calligrapher renamed it as Jing’an Temple in 1945 and is still named as such today. Unfortunately, the temple was burnt down to ruins in 1972. However, the reconstruction began after 1984, so the Hall of Heavenly Kings and the Three-Sage Hall were repaired in succession. In 1990, the whole temple was finally opened to the public.” (travelchinaguide.com)

 

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Tianzifang

“Little known to Shanghai old timers, Tianzifang has transformed itself from legacy residential architectures and factories into an artsy area housing bars, cafes, crafts shops, design studios, galleries and boutiques. It is ardently supported by crowds of yuppies, trend setters, designers and expatriates, who fall for temptation of old Shikumen houses (stone-framed-door houses) and lanes with infinite novelties.” (travelchinaguide.com) I ended up eating at a cute ramen restaurant here!

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Shanghai Tower

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Shanghai Tower is the third tallest building in the world, the first being the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the second is the Guangzhou Financial Center, also in China. The Shanghai Tower,  although third in the world, is still an incredible 2,073 feet tall, 127 above ground floors and 5 below ground floors. On the first floor of the building there was a mini museum of tall buildings, detailing the different skyscrapers throughout time, the design process, impact on cities, etc. It was so fascinating to see all the different aspects that come into play when designing a building of that magnitude. We were then led to an elevator, that within 55 seconds takes you from the 1st floor to the 118th floor. After stepping out of the elevator, you are greeted with wall to wall windows overlooking the city. After spending a few days walking around the city, it was so cool to see the same city from a bird’s eye view, such a drastically different perspective.

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Although it was a bit of a rainy day and there was fog, it was still an incredible feeling. Visiting Shanghai Tower reminded me of my interest in sustainable architecture, and inspired me to see what kinds of amazing things are possible when people push the boundaries of what they believed was possible. To be part of a team that creates a building as magnificent and revolutionary as Shanghai tower would be a true dream.

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After my few days in Shanghai, I developed an appreciation for the city in such a way that I know I will be back sometime soon. Whether it is to study or work, I want to be in a place with so much emphasis on diversity, modernization, and innovation. Can’t wait to return!! 🙂

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Chinese New Year!

The past few weeks have been so exciting, non stop fun and adventures. I spent time exploring Beijing and later celebrated Chinese New Year with my host family! Before the holiday began I went to some cool new places I have never been, I included some of the highlights below.

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Exploring the city Tianjin!  A 30 minute bullet train ride away from Beijing, we were able to explore this major port city. Below is us on Guwenhua Jie, a street lined with traditional architecture, temples & shops.

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Going to the top floor of the China World Trade Center (81 floors!)

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Making food with friends! After 5 months of Chinese food, we of course long for some of our favorite dishes at home. Luckily, a few of my friends have gone out of their way to scout out the international supermarkets in the city, pick up ingredients, and make some delicious meals. From pesto grilled cheese to apple crumble, nothing taste better than some home cooked Western food! 

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Exploring many of Beijing’s incredible malls – places that could be more so classified as art museums than just shopping areas.

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Eating burritos at a place called Avocado Tree, which truly lived up to it’s Chipotle vibe by charging extra for guac.

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And other fun adventures with friends in new areas of the city.

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After a handful of days in the city, it was time for Chinese New Year! Chinese New Year marks the start of the lunar new year. It is most commonly known for being a time where a lot of food is eaten, fireworks are set off, and red lanterns are hung.  Also known as the Spring Festival, this is the most important Chinese holiday. 

During this time everyone gets together with family to celebrate. I went with my host family to my paternal grandparents house for the first few days of the holiday. The first day we arrived we cleaned the entire apartment, a common tradition to take part in before the festivities begin. Later we bao jiazi – made dumplings! 

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This is one of my favorite foods and activities, hand making dumplings. When dinner ruled around we were advised to eat and eat and eat. My host family, who knows I normally eat small portions, told me during chunjie (spring festival) you can’t jianfei (loose weight). This was their version of saying, no dieting during the holiday! And this phrase proved to be very true. The next few days I ate an incredible amount of food, and some foods I had never tried before. Think… chicken feet and cow heart. It is common in China whenever you are done eating your host mom or grandmother will put more food on your plate, and strongly encourage you to keep eating. 

After dinner of dumplings on Tuesday February 5, (the start of Chinese New Year) my family sat together and watched CCTV – China Central Televion’s new year banquet. This ranged from musical performances to magic tricks to dances, full of many elaborate pieces that made for an exciting show. Because all across China people were watching this same show, my NSLI friends and I were texting in the group chat about what was happening. As in how the lead singer of TFBoys (one of China’s most famous boy bands) wants to study at Berklee college of Music! Below is a picture of the TFBoys during the CCTV New Year’s show.

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After the New Year, I spent another few days with my host family visiting their family. One day I went to the park with my host sister Yiming and my NSLI friend Melinda.

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Something interesting is that parks in China are very different from parks in the United States. At home you typically find swings, a slide, and some sort of jungle gym-esque structure for little kids to play in. In China, the parks are more so “outdoor gyms” that while are fun for kids, also benefit the older population. You can often find elderly people at the park getting their daily excersize in. Below is a photo of a traditional Chinese park.

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After some fun times visiting with my paternal grandparents, we drove an hour to the house of my maternal grandparents. When we arrived we were greeted with plates steaming with fresh food. Ranging from cooked vegetables to meat to dumplings, every meal during this holiday was nothing short of a feast. I did not remember to take any photos of our food before we ate, but luckily some of my friends did! Below are pictures of what a traditional meal during the holiday looks like.

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I met many many cousins and aunts and uncles and family members, and saw all around me smiles and laughter to be spending the holiday with their loved ones.

In regards to the holiday, I was my friend Jess summed up super well expectations vs reality. “In China for the Lunar New Year, I was expecting festivals and fireworks, floods of food and crowds of people. But at its heart, the New Year is all about family. It’s about caring for each other, no matter how far the distance is. It’s about spending time together, at least once before work and life begins again.”

After the holiday I had the unique experience of going skiing with my host sister and cousin. This was a super fun experience! I have so many great memories of snowboarding in the mountains, from when I was first learning with my family to later ski trips with my high school. Being able to take part in something so special to me, across the world, was really special. 

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Over break I’ve read a handful of books, but there are two specifically worth mentioning. “Crazy Rich Asians,” was a super fun read!! Being in China made this book even more special as  I had a better understanding of some of the dynamics and background for the story.  Second, “Blink” by Malcom Gladwell – a completely different type of read, but so worth my time. This is one of my new favorite books, a phenomenal piece that changed the way I think about first impressions and snap judgments, and a story I believe everyone should read. Not only so educational, but a powerful way to think about how we can understand our own prejudices and counter harmful implicit bias. 

Reading this book in the perspective of a foreigner living in a new culture, I have even further appreciation for this idea. Perhaps if everyone better understood where our stereotypes come from and what they mean, they could begin to actively break them down.

As I am coming close to the month 6 mark of my time here (the 2/3 point!!) I’m constantly reminding myself to enjoy every day. Out of everything I have learned so far, the ability to be open minded, aware, and accepting of new cultures is by far one of the most valuable lessons. Although times it is difficult to be in such a drastically different environment with different norms, I am so glad I have the chance to learn how to navigate those differences. As adventurer Bear Grylls always says, and somehow the NSLI gang has now adopted as our mantra – in the face of any challenge or difficult here we remind ourselves to always Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

The Winter “Crux”

These past two months have been a very eventful time, full of many big holidays and tests.

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In December I celebrated my first Christmas away from home, and a very unconventional one to say the least. We had class in the morning, and in the afternoon there was a school wide performance. It was mandatory that all students in the audience wear our formal uniforms.

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Below is a picture of me with Monghe and Nanle, my classmates from Mongolia and Thailand.

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The acts in the show ranged from skits to performances to dances. It was exciting seeing my friends and classmates on stage, and getting to hear the amazing voices of some of my NSLI friends. Below is a picture of Jess and Kristian singing “O Night Divine.”

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After school we were able to go off and celebrate with each other. A few of my friends and I went to eat at a place named “Elisa’s Italian Restaurant.” The food was delicious, and made me feel close to home knowing thousands of miles away, my entire family was together cooking Italian food for Christmas Eve dinner.

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After dinner we walked through this area with super cool lights. Although completely  different from any Christmas I’ve experienced, it was still a super fun and memorable one.

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Later it was also very fun to celebrate New Years with my friends. For lunch I explored a Hutong (Hutongs are traditional Beijing alleyways lined with traditional courtyard residences, many that have been renovated). The Hutong we went to was full of cafes, restaurants, and little shops containing tea and flowers and jewelry and clothes. Below is a picture of our lunch at a Thai restaurant. 

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Later we met up with some more friends and had dinner at Houhai, a lake in Beijing that has stores and restaurants and food stalls surrounding the edges. Although it was New Years Eve, we still had to follow our strict 10 pm curfew. Thus around 8:45 we all had to go our separate ways  for the one hour subway ride to make it back to our host family’s on time.

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This was not only my first New Years away from home, but also the first time I wasn’t able to watch the ball drop, count down, and celebrate at midnight. I missed all the little things that make the day so special: talking in the living  room with my family about our favorite memories of the year, celebrating at my house with my friends and family, and running through the streets of Brookline setting off sparklers and banging pots and pans. Its funny how at home, I didn’t realize how much I valued all of these simple traditions. But here, in such a different environment, I’m reminded how special these moments are and how they are a core part of who I am.

💥2019!💥

2019 started off with a bang, jumping headfirst into test preparations. January was a super busy month, because the HSK, Hànyǔ Shuǐpíng Kǎoshì — Chinese Proficiency Test, was drawing near. This is the test that we had been studying for since we arrived in China 5 months ago. Thus the first few weeks of the new year were nothing but a nonstop grind; learning an insane amount of vocabulary words, studying new grammar structures, all the while trying to review everything we have learned. Without a doubt, studying consumed our lives. Because it has been a very important personal goal of mine to pass the HSK, I made sure to do everything in my power to put myself in the best position to make this happen. I applied similar test study tips I used for the SAT at home to prepare for the HSK. I took many many practice tests, reviewed my answers, and was able to see what I got wrong and why. Below is a picture of us on our study grind.

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So finally it was time – on the  the morning of January 12th (HSK day!) my classmates and I met up early in the morning and rode the subway together to the testing site.

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When we arrived, we showed our test ticket and passport and were led to our testing room. It all felt so similar, the routine of standardized testing that I know so well, but this time in China. My assigned seat was near Simon, a NSLI peer and good friend. Before the test began we kept exchanging glances of excitement. It was pretty surreal to take the test after preparing for it for so long. At 9:00 when the proctor told us to begin, Simon and I exchanged one final glance and a look that said, “Let’s do this.”

The test, pretty similar to the many practice ones we had taken in class, was over before I knew it. When I finished the final question, I felt as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. After it ended there was such a happy mood in the air, the realization that we had done it! It felt pretty monumental, to have accomplished something that we all devoted hours upon hours and so much energy preparing for. Below is a picture of the other class after they finished their HSK!

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The week following the HSK was finals week. Most of our classes in school were 自习 (self-study) review time. All of our electives (gym, art, computer class, ping pong) have ended by this point, and were replaced with more 自习 periods. Below are some photos from our final art class. 

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When Thursday and Friday came around, it was time for our finals to begin. We had a speaking final Thursday and then four finals Friday back to back. The day was long, the tests were difficult, and by the end we all were pretty tired. Nonetheless we felt so happy – the first semester of school was officially over! After all these months of a non-stop grind, it was finally break and a time to be able to rest for a bit. 

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This was such a big mile marker in both our minds and in the structure of the program. This is due to the way our academic year is set up. The first semester of school is 5 months long – from September  to January, then we have the month of February off, and the second semester of school is just three months – March through May.

I always thought of these past two months as the crux of the program. A crux is a term used in rock-climbing to describe the the most difficult section of a route. So the reason I believe December and January were the crux of my nine months here is due to the combination of 3 things: weather, holidays, and tests. The winter in Beijing so far has been very cold pretty much all the time, the days are kind of dreary (haven’t seen sun in a while?), and it’s somewhat miserable to be out unless you’re bundled in many many layers. Plus no snow!! 😦 Additionally, spending our first holidays away from home was also a challenge. I not only missed celebrating a traditional Christmas and New Years, but I also missed my family. Finally, anyone who has ever taken an important standardized test or finals of any sort, can understand the stress that exists in the weeks leading up to the big exam. Due to the nature of this program (all my time solely devoted to learning Chinese) I felt more pressure on myself to do well on the HSK test than I normally feel for tests. At home, there was never a point when one test consumed my life. Even when there was a super important one, whether it be the ACT or the AP Calc test, there were always other things going on, other classes to study for, and other things on my mind. I believe the unique situation that I’m in here allowed me to cultivate a passion and drive to pass this test, that at home I did not ever experience in this manner. Although this was very exciting to devote myself so fully to a goal, to push myself to new limits with my learning and studying, it was also exhausting. I spent all of my school and studying time and most of my free time devoted to working.  An absolute grind.

As one could imagine, that’s why after the semester ended and the tests were all over, I felt a supreme sense of relief. Over the month of February I could finally have a chance to relax! I could now do the things that I had to put on hold for the past few months; including reading books, exploring the city, going new places, and watching movies. Not to mention my February is full of exciting plans – including celebrating Chinese New Year with my host family, traveling to Shanghai, and later to Xi’an! (Which is the city I spent 6 weeks living in two summers ago!)

So without a doubt, things are looking good. I can be proud of all the gains I’ve made in the past 5 months, and look forward to the second semester.

A quick story that is pretty fitting; my Chinese name is 吉吉,jí jí, (pronounced similarly to Gigi) which in Chinese means lucky. Once I was shopping at an area called Pearl Market when I saw a storefront that had my name. I excitedly took a picture.

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Reflecting on my past 5 months here, I feel like the meaning of my name is very fitting. I feel nothing but lucky for being here. For living here in Beijing, being able to truly learn and begin understanding Chinese culture, make incredible friendships, learn from others opinions and experiences, learn Chinese from great teachers, learn about the world, and learn about myself. It’s exciting to remember that from here on out, things will be easier. As I spend more time here, my Chinese improves, so in turn I’m able to better communicate with my host family, develop deeper relationships with people here, and feel more comfortable navigating the city. Also, spring is coming! Here comes the sun, and I say It’s all right.. ! 🙂

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A Day In the Life: What It’s Like Attending a Chinese High-School

A lot of my blog has highlighted the exciting and thrilling adventures that I’ve been on in China. I realized a blog post dedicated to my daily life would be a great way to show what the majority of my days here (that I’m not on the Great Wall or seeing Pandas) consist of. And these days consist of, studying Chinese – 15 hours of it to be exact.

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Here is a quick snapshot into my life as a student studying Chinese at Beijing 80 High School. 

Everyday at 5:00 my alarm goes off, and I silently study for an hour and a half before my roommate wakes up. Using my phone flashlight, I use this time for learning vocabulary words, practicing grammar, and reviewing old worksheets and tests. Around 6:30, Alex, Mia, and I eat breakfast together! (Always: a cup of coffee and some banana with peanut butter, 好吃!)

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At this time, at about 6:50, we walk over to the classroom. It has been VERY cold lately, morning temperatures well below freezing. We walk down the 6 flight of steps in our dorm (there is no elevator) and make the quick trek to school. 

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We are in 语言班, the Chinese learning classes. The rest of the students Beijing 80 are either 1) international students who are already fluent in Chinese and are studying to go to college in China, 2) Chinese citizens who are studying to go to school in the UK/USA, or 3) Chinese citizens studying to go to school in China. All of my classes are in the international building, which also has classes for students in groups 1 and 2 mentioned above. Below is a picture of some of the International students. 

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After arriving at school around 7:00, we all go to the classroom to study. During this time a teacher comes in to check our attendance. This is also when students will get in trouble if they aren’t following school rules; wearing the uniform, hair must be tied up, no makeup or nail polish, no phones allowed, no food, no being late etc.

 At 7:30 our classes for the day begin. We have 9 periods in the day, each 45 minutes long, with 10 minute break between each period. Our first two classes of the day are 写作- writing. My writing teacher is one of my favorite teachers, he is easy to understand, very helpful, and always makes us laugh. Here is a picture of him below, along with some of my classmates.

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During the break, students from all classes have a chance to talk to their friends, go to the bathroom, take nap, and just relax. Here are some pictures of us during this break.

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Everyone in 语言班 has to take the HSK test in January. The HSK is the Chinese version of the TOEFL, with sections on reading, writing, and listening. The goal of the test is to determine your language skills. We have been studying for this test since the beginning of school, with most of our classes focused around this test. Lately, we have been taking practice tests pretty much daily in preparation for this exam. We review our answers, see where we need improvement, and use this to help us study. It is interesting to be in a class so devoted to a test. When I share this with people at home, many mention how the good thing is that it is not graded and probably not as stressful. Ironically enough, I actually feel more stress for the HSK than I ever felt at home for the SAT. The combination of teacher’s expectations and my own self goals has led to me putting a lot of pressure on myself to pass this test. 

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After writing and later speaking and listening class it is time for computer class. While my classmates go to a computer lab for this class, I stay back and receive tutoring from teachers. Because I came into the program at a significantly lower level than my classmates, tutoring was implemented to help me review the basics and help me catch up. I am so grateful to have this opportunity, as it gives me a chance to work with a teacher on areas I struggle in. 

Today during tutoring my teacher had a meeting so a new student teacher came to fill in. We began speaking Chinese and were talking about ourselves. She said that last year she spent 9 months teaching at a high school in the states, and when I asked what city, she said Altoona, Pennsylvania. Hearing that she worked in this small town which I know people from, which is 90 minutes East of Pittsburgh, was such a shock to me. I shared with her how I’ve heard a lot about Altoona and how this was such a crazy coincidence. She mentioned how she often went into Pittsburgh, for the colleges, Steelers Games, museums, and more. This *simulation glitch* was so exciting, having coincidentally met someone who has lived in Pittsburgh! Talking about all the things I love about my city, in Chinese, with someone from China who had experienced them, was such a unique opportunity. After exchanging WeChat information – the national messaging platform of China, similar to WhatsApp, we agreed to meet up again sometime in the future.

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Fifth period we have a comprehension class, where I have felt myself make most of my gains in. This class is centered around using stories / dialogues to teach us vocabulary, grammar, speaking, and reading. It has been very helpful and one of my most difficult classes. 

Now, lunch! Lunch in China has been a crazy experience! Unlike my high school at home, where there were 4 different lunches to accommodate all the students, Beijing 80 has only one lunch. Thus, 3000 students eat lunch at one time. When the lunch bell rings at noon many students can be seen SPRINTING to the cafeteria, racing to be first in line for the good food. Although this may seem extreme, it makes sense. If you aren’t quick, you might have to wait half a hour in line for dumplings. Everyday the NSLI students eat together in the cafeteria. Due to the large portion sizes, Alex and I share a meal. We normally get just vegetables; but you can find everything from dumplings to fried chicken in that cafeteria!

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Our lunch break is 90 minuses, so students take advantage of this free time. Some students go to their dorm room to get a quick nap in, some play basketball, and some study. Everyday at lunch I have tutoring, so I head back to the classroom early to meet with the teacher. Below are some of my notes, where I go through old tests and worksheets to learn the words I don’t know.

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At 1:30 afternoon classes have begun, and we have another period of comprehension class. After this, we have gym! Gym is one of my favorite periods of the day because it’s a chance to unwind, excersize, be outside, and talk to the other students. (If the air allows though — on days that are very polluted gym class is cancelled and we have study hall instead.)  Our gym teacher leads us in a warmup lap around the track and warm up stretches. 

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After this we are free to play what we like. I often play soccer. It is always super fun because the other international students play with us, and many of them are incredible players. This has been one of my favorite ways to make new friends at Beijing 80. Below is a picture of Melinda (from the states) Dawei (from Russia) and Nanle (from Thailand) playing goalie together.

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On Thursday’s after gym, we have electives. (This is the only day of the week we have electives – the other days we go back to language classes after gym class.) My elective is ping pong! Featured here is Stacy, a NSLI friend on her ping pong grind.

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After class ends, most of the other students have free time from 5-7. Many students use this time to go to club meetings, grab dinner, go off campus, walk to the mall to get some bubble tea, or just relax. I on the other hand, head back to the school for an extra hour of tutoring. 

At 6:00, tutoring is over and I’m able to leave school (11 hours after I arrived!) At this time I head to the gym which is right next to our school. Here I’m able to get a quick workout in. Whether it be a HIIT workout I designed or a core circuit or a run on the treadmill, this workout is one of my favorite parts of my day. Another super cool part is having my friends right along with me. 

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Now it is time for mandatory self study time. While for the other Chinese students and international students this means going back to the classroom for a few additional hours, NSLI students have self study time in the dorms. From 7:00-9:00 we must be in our rooms. During this time, I try to finish all my homework for the day and do extra studying for the HSK test. Below is a picture of my dorm! It is small and simple, we aren’t allowed to hang anything on the walls and our room must always be kept clean. 

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At 9:00, we are allowed to leave our rooms. This is our final free time of the day. We like to use this time to talk to one another, listen to music, share snacks, get homework help, shower, call our families, etc. Here is a picture of Alex, Mia, and Peppa (a Chinese favorite).

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Many nights I can be found doing a workout in the common room, with a few friends joining in on the fitness train. Here is a pic below of us post workout.

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At 10:00, we have to be back in our rooms, and if we aren’t, we get yelled at by the dorm moms. (A dorm mom is a woman who lives on our floor, cleans, and enforce the school rules.) I look at it as a more extreme version of a college RA. 

10:10 is lights out – literally. They turn off the electricity for the night so we cannot charge any of our devices or use the lights to keep doing homework. Sometimes at 10:10 I haven’t finished my homework and use my phone flashlight to keep working on it. A handful of times I have gotten yelled at by the dorm mom because of this, she sees the little light through the window, knocks on my door, and starts yelling. At this point you have to go under your covers or in the bathroom under a towel to finish your work… this is not even an exaggeration! These are true stories of things I’ve had to do here at Beijing 80.

Around 11:00, I normally go to sleep. At 5:00 the next day, the same thing repeats all over again.

As you can see, my day to day life is very different than the rest of my blog. Much less glamours, a lot more studying, and a lot more rules. It is interesting because most of my days are like this, probably about 80% of my time here. During the week I rarely leave the school campus and spend my time on things other than studying or working out. It just happens that whenever there is a cool field trip or adventure, I post about it.  This blog post is a more accurate representation of what most of my time here looks like. 

Being part of a Chinese high school has without a doubt be one of the most influential things I’ve ever experienced. Before I arrived in Beijing, I was not really aware of what I had signed up for, and even now, sometimes I can’t believe this is really my life.

My own high school, Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts 6-12 ( “CAPA” – a very liberal arts school) is a completely different experience than Beijing 80. After attending a place like CAPA, which places such an emphasis on the arts and creativity and curiosity and expression, coming to Chinese high school was a challenge. Some of things I am used to in school were not present. The methods of teaching, relationship between students and authority, and culture around learning is very different from what I’m used to. 

Instead of viewing the differences negatively, I’ve looked at them as a way to grow.  It has been so impactful to be able to truly experience this eduction system, in ways that reading books or watching movies could never allow. Being out of your comfort zone is when we learn most about ourselves, and navigating this new school has been this chance for me. I have been excited to be fully immersed in this environment and try and get an understanding of what kids my age in China go through.

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After a few months attending this school, I have developed an immense appreciation and admiration for the work ethic that the students at this school have. Because of the hard work culture, I have seen myself grow more disciplined with my studying, putting in more hours and time in my classes. I have developed better study habits and been working extremely hard to meet the challenge here. I often think about this education style versus the one in the states. I ponder what is better: devoting all your free time and energy to learning, and becoming an ultimate master of the content, or spending less time on school work and more on exploring and experiencing different things. I realize how one is not better than the other – but finding the correct balance is essential to a good education and to happiness. I think this discovery is powerful because when contrasting  Chinese and Western culture, it is critical to not compare which is “better,” but rather how they are different, and why. This has been an important realization to make and has helped with the transition to this school, rather than thinking if it is worse or better than my own previous schooling experience, realizing that it is just different. 

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I am excited for when I return home and go to college because I will be able to use my experience both at CAPA and Beijing 80 to best benefit my education. Being here, I have a better idea of what I believe is a healthy balance of work and play to lead to my ultimate success and happiness. Attending a Chinese high school made me realize I can be putting in more time in my studies and work than I previously believed was an adequate amount. After only four months I have already developed stronger study skills and the will to put extra time in. It is the norm for me to be up on Friday or Saturday nights until midnight studying, on the weekends putting in on average at least 4 or 5 hours a day studying. This mindset, where it is normal to dedicate this much time to a subject, is so valuable! I already can see how these lessons will allow me to be a much better student in college. 

The truth about my life in Beijing is that, it has it’s ups and downs. Some days are amazing! Traveling to cool places, eating delicious food, and having great conversations with the new people I’ve met here. Sharing jokes with friends from different countries, understanding a difficult lesson in class, bonding with my host sister, eating delicious dumplings, are a few of the many things that make this trip so incredibly special. On the other hand, some days aren’t so great. The school grind can feel monotonous, class can feel never ending, homesicknesses can make you feel down, the pollution can be terrible, the cold is so cold, and the language/culture barrier can feel too huge.

(Below is a picture of my friends sporting their masks during a very polluted day – a day we semi joked that we felt was similar to an apocalypse, where the pollution was so thick you could taste it with every breath and feel it sting your eyes.)

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Along with this, the structure of the program is very different from I expected. Between the rules of the high school and the rules of the program, I have struggled with feeling a lack of independence. On weekdays I only have on hour of free time (which is always devoted to working out) and on weekends there is a strict 10 PM curfew. Being in this position, after having turned 19 and having gradated high school, is a challenge! It has been difficult adjusting to this lifestyle, and having such strict regulations is frustrating. 

At times, all of this combined can feel so overwhelming! It can feel like these challenges are so big and so hard to get through. It’s during these moments that I always take a step back, and remember what I’m doing here. (I also always play “Best Day of My Life” and “On Top of the World” – the ultimate feel good songs to help me boost my mood.) 

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I sometimes find myself comparing this to my NSLI Summer trip to Xi’an, China a year ago, which was nothing short of the most exciting, fast paced, fun six weeks I have ever had. This time around, my experience in China has been very very different. My friend Stacy, who went to Xi’an last summer and is now in Beijing too, (and even going to UPenn also!!) summed it up perfectly in a blog post she wrote. Instead of it being non stop adventures and fun ,“going about my daily routine is itself a more muted happiness, like the small joys of a more permanent life rather than the emotional high of an extended trip.” I think that is a beautiful way to view our lives here!

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Continuing on the idea of what I think about when I’m struggling- I think about the things I’m learning and the value of this experience. I reflect on how I’ve already been able to get a deeper understanding of Chinese culture in a way many people never have a chance to. Thinking about how much my Chinese will have improved by the end is also always something that gives me hope. I think back to when I first arrived in China this year, and had no idea what was happening in class and could not read or write at all. Now, I am able to have conversations about more complex issues and understand the class material. I also am able to read complicated texts, and write stories and paragraphs on topics ranging from an informational essay on Chengdu to a made up story about my friend surviving the apocalypse. It’s crazy how many language gains I’ve made, and that I’m going to continue to make.

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Along with this, just the thought of how this experience will impact my future is so exciting to think about! I know that finding a way to overcome the challenges I face now is a very essential skill to carry with me always. I believe this is one of those experiences that while it is happening it is maybe not always fun, but is something so valuable once removed from the situation. I know being here, in such a unique situation and so far from what I know and am used to, is an incredible way to grow as a person.

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When asked if I regret coming to China, the answer is no, no way. No matter how hard things are, I know I made the right choice to be a part of this program. I am so grateful to have the chance to be learning these things at a young age, and figuring out important things to who I am as a person. I know when I leave Beijing 80 I will be a different person than who I was when I entered, and I believe I will be someone better. When thinking about how much I have already learned these past 4 months, ranging from the language to the culture to about myself, I get excited. Excited to think about what I’ve done so far, and what I’m going to continue to do. Excited for what other opportunities lie in my future, and how my experience here will allow me to be in the best position possible to go after these things. Excited to keep learning and growing. Excited because I can’t wait for what the next 5 months have in store.

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19 🎂🎈 Model UN 🌎 & Thanksgiving 🦃

 

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Super exciting- I celebrated my 19th birthday a few weeks ago! After having 4 听写 during school (a 听写 is a test where the teacher says words and you have to write the character), I was able to spend the night celebrating with my friends. We got dumplings and after we went to karaoke. We had a great time singing some of our favorite songs – one being “Home” by Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. A fun fact about that song is that band came to Pittsburgh and performed during the Arts Festival a few years ago, and I was there front row! This song will always have a special place in my heart, and now I’m glad I have even more special memories associated with it. Below is Alex, Mia, and I at karaoke.

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Perhaps the most exciting part of my birthday was the AMAZING gifts I received – because what’s better than a huge minion stuffed animal! 

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The next morning I participated in a Model UN conference that Beijing 80 hosted. The conference consisted of two different committees, an English speaking committee on the topic of Climate Change (which I partipcated in) and a Chinese speaking committee on  the topic of the use of Chemical Warfare in Syria. 

I represented Germany in the conference. This was a fun opportunity because it is about an issue I care so deeply about, and I was able to represent a country who’s viewpoints are very similar to my own! Overall I had a successful experience with MUN, and would like to do it again. Hopefully in college I can participate. Below is a picture of some of us NSLI-Y students, alongside with some of the Chinese high school students after the conference. 

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Here is a picture of the NSLI-Y students. 

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This Thanksgiving was unlike any Thanksgiving I have experienced. We had to go to school in the morning, and it felt odd to be in such a different environment than the one we are used to on this holiday. We were all grateful for Simon’s inflatable turkey which helped get us in the spirit. 

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At noon we were dismissed from class, because we had the unique opportunity to have dinner with American  Embassy families. Each of the  us were doubled or tripled up and invited to the home of a different family for the night. Here is a picture of us dressed up of Thanksgiving before we dispersed to our different families!

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Then, Melinda and I rode the subway and arrived at the home of the family who was hosting us. After arriving at their house, I experienced a bit of reverse culture shock. This was the first house I have been inside in China. The interior reminded me exactly of a house you would find in the states, very different from the apartment style living that I’ve experienced. Seeing the family be together and prepare for the meal was a surreal experience. Pretty soon guests began arriving and it was time for dinner. The entire thing felt so familiar to me, the house, the cooking, saying grace. It was very interesting to think that this lifestyle, one so similar to mine from home, existed in Beijing. It was such a contrast from what I have experienced here on this trip so far. 

During dinner I had the chance to get to know the family that hosted us and their guests. After living in the states, the father who worked for the embassy did a tour in Jordan. The family moved their as well. Two years later, they moved to Austria. Now they are in China for the next four years, enough time for both the boys to finish high school. It was so fascinating to hear the perceptive of a teenager my age who lives this lifestyle. I was able to talk to the other guests; one who attended Dickinson College, and another one who graduated from the University of Pittsburgh! We call these crazy coincidences that seem to happen decently often to us in Beijing “simulation glitches.” 

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Here is a picture of MiaoMiao and I with the children of the family. Overall this was an impactful night, and I loved being able to eat pumpkin pie!

This past weekend I met up with my friend Olivia, who plays on the Dickinson tennis team with my sister. She is studying abroad for a semester at Peking University. It was fun to be able to talk to someone who is having a similar experience studying abroad in China, but who I also have connections with from home!

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Finally, here is a selfie of me and my host sister. She is so cute, and always a bundle of joy. 

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P.S.! My friend Sara made a youtube video about our life here and it captures all the fun moments that make this trip so special. If you have a few minutes, check it out! The name of the video is “NSLI-Y Beijing AY 2018-19: Three Months in the Life.”

Trip to Chengdu!

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This past month has been extremely busy; hence the lack of blog posts! Nonetheless, there has been a whirlwind of exciting things happening. During the last week of October we had midterms. This was a stressful time, full of studying and cramming and preparing for the tests. On midterm day we all arrived at school at 7 am, prepared to take 5 finals. Once the tests began, it was silent, all of us working hard to try and remember everything we have learned. We were given assigned test taking seats, had to leave our backpacks in the hallways, and were all trying to finish our tests in the allotted time period. The atmosphere reminded me of finals week during high school! Very exciting though was the week following midterms, we went on a trip! Here is us below 🙂

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The international students all went to Chengdu, a city in Southwestern China that has a population of 15 million people. It is the capital of Sichuan province and is famous for its historical, cultural, and natural sights. The two biggest factors that draw people to the city is pandas and the amazing food!

We began our trip with a 4 am wakeup Tuesday morning. We headed to the train station, where we boarded a bullet train.

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We were loaded with snacks and books and movies which would keep us entertained on our 8 hour ride. (Which would take 21 hours if you were driving)

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Once we arrived in Chengdu, it was nonstop sight seeing, excursions, food, and new experiences. Also – homework! Every night we had to (in Chinese of course) answer questions, take notes, and reflect on what we learned throughout the day.

Here are some of the highlights from Chengdu!

PANDAS!

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We went to the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding; one of the most famous panda conservation facilities in China! People from across the world come to see giant pandas, baby cubs, and red pandas. Absolutely everyone was so amazed and in awe of the pandas, whether they were sleeping, playing, climbing trees, eating bamboo, or rolling around, it was so cool to see them. Everyone loaded up on super cute panda gear (featuring Mia and Brian repping it below)

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Another super cool place we went was called Dujiangyan, an ancient functioning irrigation system. This amazing feat of engineering is a wonder of the world, built circa 250 B.C.! It helped Sichuan become a successful and prosperous region of China for thousands of years.

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It was built to stop the annual runoff from the river that continuously damaged property and killed people of the region. An official in the Kingdom of Qin wanted to fix this, so he enlisted the labor of tens of thousands of workers to build the complex system of networks and dams that still exist today. This lead the area to become an agricultural hot spot with abundant harvests. The new agricultural output helped sustain the Qin kingdom’s large army.

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We also visited the Wuhou Memorial Temple. It was built in honor of Zhuge Liang (181-243 CE) He is one of China’s famous historic figures, and he was a renowned minister and military strategist for Emperor Liu Bei (161-223) of the Shu Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms period in China. The temple is also dedicated to Emperor Liu Bei. It was built during the Qing dynastyin 1672.  (chinahighlights.com)

We also went to Dufu’s Thathced Cottage – a museum and memorial for one of China’s most famous poets who lived during the Tang Dynasty. (712-770 CE) During a war Dufu took refuge in a thatched cottage in Chengdu. The memorial for him was originally a temple that was built a thousand years ago during the Song Dynasty. The memorial has a recreation of his cottage, ancient temples, structures, and gardens. Below is Alex and I, both super happy to be at such a beautiful place!

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One of the highlights of the trip was the food. Chengdu is very famous for its food; it is known for its spicy and flavorful cuisine. Every meal on this trip had new dishes, and I tried them all! Some of the interesting things I tasted here included duck blood, cow stomach, and a bug!

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It was fun because during most meals, we were eating things we had never seen or tasted before. Often the food was spicy and left a numbing taste in your mouth. Just a few of the many famous dishes include: Mapo Doufu (tofu, ground meet, chili bean paste, Sichuan peppercorns, and red hot chilling oil, Fuqi Feipian (sliced beef tripe in chili oil with peanuts), and Chuanbei Liangfen (mung bean jelly with numbing hot sauce).

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Another thing that was really special about Chengdu was the streets we visited, many lined with traditional food stands and shops and vendors. These market style areas were some of the coolest places to visit- containing a very authentic Chinese feel. It was so much fun seeing all the things for sale, practicing our Chinese through bartering, and trying new things.

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Whenever we came back from the trip, we all had to write a 500 character essay as a culminating project for our trip homework! But overall this trip was full of new adventures and amazing times with my friends.

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I really enjoyed getting an opportunity to be in a new city. It was so nice to be at so many beautiful nature areas! As someone who really values being around green spaces and the natural world, it was a super relaxing break from living in a big city. I hope one day to return to Chengdu!

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