I have always been interested in the word beyond my immediate grasp. To see what other cultures and lifestyles there were elsewhere, to experience this firsthand as opposed to learning about it in a book, or being presented with the misconstrued images through forms of media. I have always loved languages and after studying Spanish and then moving onto Chinese, knew that I really wanted to get out and live somewhere where I could utilize these skills.
As I have been studying Chinese I learned more about there culture through my teachers and knew while it as incredibly different, different is good, it stretches your brain and pushes your levels of comfortability. My college only offered a program in Beijing, China and it did not have as many cultural aspects as I hoped to have. I also do not like big cities, let alone one such as Beijing, at such a size, population, and of course the reputation for haze. I searched for programs that were located in smaller cities, but were also developed enough to make daily-life still enjoyable to the level that I am used to (rather than one such as Guilin, decent sized city but still dirty throughout and construction everywhere). I also was looking for a program that had a focus on the development of China along with a focus on its environmental and social issues. IES Kunming definitely hit the spot on all of these notions, I took a core course on regionalism throughout SE Asia, an economics course on China's development, an environmental course focused on the different issues within China and the Greater Mekong Subregion (strongly focusing on hydroelectric dam development on the river) and of course an intensive Chinese language course.
The program's location was incredible and just what I was looking for. Kunming, Yunnan, China is situated in Southern central China one of the most biodiverse provinces as well as ethnically diverse compared to the other regions throughout China. While the friction of distance is much greater in China than here in the USA (in the sense of time to reach a certain distance), travelling by train is incredibly easy and a great way to meet new people and practice your Chinese. The semester was incredibly fun, always being encouraged to get out and explore the city on weekdays and the province on our weekends. Kunming is known as the city of "eternal spring," and it truly lived up to its name, being warm almost the entire semester that I was there, encouraging you to get outside and explore the city. The city has many different places that you can go on day-trips to as well as weekend trips (Tiger Leaping Gorge, Stone Forest, Luoping Flower Fields, etc). Or you can plan for a fairly epic adventure to Shanghai, Hainan, or Chengdu for one of your 3-day weekends, as some of us did.
Here's a quick glimpse into my daily life while there:
Weekday: Wake up around 7:30am walk downstairs and out onto the street our dorms were on and make my daily visit to the Baozi (steamed buns) Shop, get breakfast for 7yuan ($1 USD), cross the street to the university's campus and up the stairs of the international students dorms (those enrolled w/ the university) go to Chinese class for an hour and a half, go to our center's library/study room do some homework, then go down to my 1-on-1 Chinese lesson where I spoke with a local Chinese professor on my recent chapter entirely in Chinese for 45 minutes, meet up with my classmates and go to the dining hall ($1USD/meal) or a nearby restaurant for lunch ($3USD) before returning to the building for an afternoon class (either regionalism, economics or environmental; other options were Chinese society, sociology), after class would battle it out with our student programs coordinator on our program's ping pong table for a few hours before heading out and exploring the city in search of a new restaurant to eat at, then would return to the dorms to complete readings and Chinese homework, and if we didn't have much, hung out in the RA living room (our lounge open to all students) watching movies or tv shows before bed.
Weekends: either went on adventures outside of the city to go on a hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge, check out the pandas in Chengdu, or hung around the city and visited nearby lakes or went biking into the mountains surrounding the city, spending the nights going out to bars to meet other internationals or locals to practice our Chinese and make new friends, and maybe made our way to the club district in the city for some hours of dancing.
While personal experiences are great for abroad programs, one must also know about the academics. The type of academic work and how we went about learning was also very cool. Our first week in China, for orientation we travelled to Dali (a city 5 hours north of Kunming) where we became closer with one another, while travelling the city and beginning our studies. We stayed at an artist designed hotel that we more or less filled up except for a few rooms, so felt we had the place to ourselves. While we had classroom lessons while there, we also went on a day-trip, biking to the lake below the city, taking pit stops here and there to learn about the local ethnicity and take a look at their form of architecture, invasive species in the lake and how they were introduced to solve a pollution problem (yet caused another one!), the rice industry and the differences between the different SE Asian states.
At the end of the semester we went on a two-week adventure through the SE Asian states we had been learning about during the semester, allowing us to visualize that which we had read and discussed in class. Travelling by foot over the border into Vietnam, after a night learning about the culture of those travelling over the border daily to trade goods and future potential developments to increase this, meeting with US ambassadors, professors at local universities in northern and southern Vietnam, travelling with Vietnamese students into the Mekong Delta to discuss with locals the implications of climate change and what they knew of it, the leader of the opposition party looking to beat out in the incredibly corrupt government currently in place in Cambodia in the country's capital, etc. etc. etc. Giving student presentations at different destinations to not only see the beauties of the countries but also learn more of their histories.
I was also the blogger for my program and you can check out my adventures and thoughts here: