This past summer I had an internship abroad through AIESEC NKU. AIESEC is a large student organization across the globe that matches students with international internships. NKU was the division of AIESEC that I volunteered with (Nankai University in Tianjin, China). My project involved two components: cultural exchange and teaching English to Chinese high school students in Inner Mongolia. Before leaving on my trip, all of the summer interns from Madison who would be going to different locations around the world had an orientation to help us prepare for our trips. During the meeting, we went over culture shock. The curve of culture shocks has different components including arrival (or the “honeymoon stage”), culture shock, recovery, adaptation, reserve culture shock when you return home, recovery and then reintegration. Having never left the U.S. before, I naively thought that this wouldn’t really apply to me. Though I was excited for my trip, I was nowhere near prepared for how life-changing the experience would be.
Now that I am back I can say that there are so many things that I love about China! First, the food—real Chinese food is nowhere close to the “Chinese” food that you can buy in Wisconsin. It is so much better! Second, the weather—I love hot and humid weather, and during my time in China I definitely developed a nice tan. Third, the variety—as I learned on my trip, every region of China is totally different! While in China I was in Hong Kong, Wuhan, Tianjin, Beijing, Inner Mongolia and Qingdao. Every region has different customs and different kinds of foods that are special to their province. Some provinces love spicy foods, while some don’t. You will learn so many different things with each city that you travel to in China.
I also just found China to be a truly beautiful country. Since many of the cities I went to were very large and crowded I didn’t always see much wildlife, but when you do get the chance to see nature it is gorgeous. While in Wuhan I had the opportunity to visit a burial mountain, which composed of elaborate gardens to provide a peaceful resting place for the deceased. The whole area was very breathtaking and sacred. Of course I also went to the Great Wall of China—pretty cliché for a tourist in China—but truly an absolute must-see! (Warning: nothing will be able to prepare you for just how many stairs you will be climbing on your trip to the Great Wall! Be ready for sore calves!) But perhaps my favorite place I visited in China was Lao Shan (“shan” is “mountain” in Chinese), a gorgeous granite coastal mountain range in Qingdao. The location is regarded as one of the birthplaces of Taosim. If you ever travel to China I highly recommend going on a hiking trip because the scenery you will see in China is breathtaking and very different from most sites in the U.S.
Needless to say, I was very impressed by China, but the biggest takeaway from my trip that means the most to me are the people that I met and the friends that I made. On my trip, our team was composed of Chinese college students, three Egyptians, two Turks, three Europeans (Italian, Swiss and French), a Malaysian, a French-Canadian and me—the only American and only native English speaker. While sometimes our group did encounter communication issues I can honestly say that I have never been with a better group of people. I didn’t just learn about China on my trip, but I learned about every part of the world that my new friends came from. One of my Turkish friends told me that in Turkey they have a saying about traveling: it provides you with “a door in every corner of the world.” This means that as you travel and meet people from new places, you are able to learn so much more about that than you are from just visiting as a tourist. The more friends you make around the world, the more doors you open, and you know you will always be welcome in those places. This summer I am planning on visiting some of my friends in their home countries. Though our group is now separated by oceans and times zones, we know that our friendship is still just as strong as it was on the sunny days we spent together in Beijing. I hope that my friends know that they will always have a place in Madison, Wisconsin to call home if they ever want to.
I encourage everyone to travel and, if possible, to become involved in a project with students from all over the world. It can be scary at first to be the only American, to think that you will be alone in your viewpoints and life experiences. But you will soon learn that you have so much more in common with people from the other side of the world than you thought. I am excited for my next adventure and to begin opening more doors in every corner of the world—and I hope that you do, too.
Nicole Gregorich is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.