The SIT Study Abroad program in China gave me the opportunity to interact in depth, in a meaningful way, with the local culture. Throughout the entire experience, you are engaging with local people. From day one, nearly all meals are on your own and you are given a stipend to find breakfast lunch and dinner at restaurants around the city. In addition to quickly improving in my basic language skills around food and money, I learned the stories of restaurant owners and learned to appreciate the incredible variety of food in this rather foreign culinary culture.
The assignments, especially in the Field Methods and Ethics seminar, get you out talking to people even more. One assignment focussed on learning one person's life history through interviewing in Chinese. I dove into the story of a hardworking couple from a small rice farming village in Anhui province who immigrated to Kunming to open their own dumpling store. Neither of they had attended middle school, yet they worked 6AM to 10PM seven days a week to support their son through college. Through that one interview alone I gained stunning insights about the mass migration of farmers to the cities and the incredible value parents place behind education in this country. And that was only a single project out of many more over the 15 weeks of the program.
The language teachers do an incredible job of preparing you for these kinds of experiences. Classes are super intense, with only a couple students per teacher. You fly through the material at breakneck pace and they keep you very busy. Yet language is the backbone of this educational experience, where the majority of what you learn comes from the local people themselves.
The assignments outside of the language classes are hardly conventional. Upon arrival we were given characters on a piece of paper and then told to find the place in the city and navigate back to campus--we learned life skills of how to navigate and survive in a Chinese city through immersion. These exercises started off small, in groups where we could rely on each other to accomplish the tasks. But by the end of the semester the task is much more daunting: live independently anywhere you choose in the country and conduct novel research on any topic that interests you. You work up to this point throughout the semester. You are given a week to travel where you please for vacation. You are asked to develop a miniature research project independently in a Bai ethnicity village during a week long rural homestay where the program staff are only a few kilometers away. But the whole time you must prepare for the Independent Study Project, where you will be on your own for four weeks. The program staff are there to help every step of the way, but they give you incredible freedom. This is not only about learning Chinese language and culture, it's about developing into a stronger person.
I loved the experience. It was one of the most intense three months of my life, and it was very, very stressful at times. Yet every day you are learning. I feel like I am more enlightened.