Writing A Reflective Essay About Study Abroad

This week I leave for Barcelona and head back home to Louisville, Kentucky. It's been four months since I arrived in Spain and the time has flown by - just as I was told it would. Studying abroad has been an experience. I've tried to find an adjective to place before the word experience, but each time I write one down I delete it. Perhaps this is because there is no single adjective to describe the type of experience studying in a foreign country offers. 

You will often hear students refer to studying abroad as a "life changing experience". This may be true for some, but not for me. I feel as if I came to Europe with a deep understanding of myself. What studying abroad has been for me is something very different. Studying abroad has taught me to be appreciative. I've always appreciated everything I've ever been given, but studying abroad has given this concept greater significance. 

While studying in Spain and traveling Europe, I've had the chance to interact with individuals of many different nationalities, cultures, and socioeconomic situations. No two individual situations are perfectly similar, and thus it is nearly impossible to compare them. But what I have been able to do is come to one conclusion for certain: I have been fortunate enough to receive everything I could ever ask for in my life. 

My life in the United States is very different than my life in Europe. Back home, I have access to the best healthcare possible, job opportunities and vast professional networks, best friends that I've known since middle school, and of course, a family that I love very much. Studying abroad has been refreshing. It has allowed me to lead a new life in a foreign culture. I've explored the world, met incredible people, and moved many steps closer to speaking fluent Spanish. But today is exciting. I am ready to return home. I have so much to be thankful for in my life back home, and studying abroad has taught me that I cannot take anything for granted.

While I'm sad to leave this beautiful country that is Spain, I am excited for what lies ahead. I'm not sure when I will return to Europe, but it will certainly be in the near future. I am feeling a lot of mixed emotions right now, but I most strongly feel a sense of appreciation and gratitude. Thank you Mom, Dad, and IES Barcelona for the experience of a lifetime. 

August 17, 2012

With our month long trip to China finished; I am able to write an overview of the experience in this final reflection paper. In order to take a look at the overall experience in China I will need to address my initial motivations in joining the trip. The largest opportunity I saw from joining the China study abroad trip was the chance to learn some Chinese. Learning Chinese was a major subject in my first reflection paper and the reason for this importance I placed on it was my love for language learning, especially East Asian languages. Most of my reasoning and expectations about learning Chinese on the study abroad trip was address in that first reflection paper, but I will summarize it here shortly. I have learned Japanese through self-study methods and I had a level of confidence in the ease of Chinese. This confidence led me to challenge Inteus in obtaining more of the language by the end of the trip. The exact words were, “I’m going to be better in Chinese by the end of the trip.” I planned to accomplish this by using my electronic flashcards and creating an immersive environment. These were my expectations before the trip, however during the trip I found more difficulty in achieving this goals than I initially expected.

The difficultly of learning more Chinese was a combination of both my classroom environment and my attitude. Because I had no history of taking any college level Chinese courses, I was put into the beginner level of Chinese. The first week of classes was spent on solely pronunciation alone. The following week was then spent on vocabulary presented in the first lessons. The pace was staggeringly slow. I had an idea of what the pace would have been like because I’ve taken language classes in the past. Students who are struggling with understanding the lessons presented would continue in a trend of holding the class back. Students who are at a higher level or faster to learn the lesson would be bored during class. The ideal classroom environment would be where the students are at a similar starting point and the class being taught at a suitable level for all the students. I fell into the category of the students who was bored during class because of the pace. The pace did however speed up but only to the days leading up to our final exam. During those days, a lesson from our textbook was taught in one class day and we were expected to understand and learn everything within that lesson for the next day. When this pace was in place, I enjoyed the class more than previous times in class.

The second expectation, that was somewhat inaccurate, was my assumption on Inteus’s proficiency level in Chinese. From talking to Inteus before the trip, I knew he had taken at least one quarter of Chinese at the University of Washington, but I did not expect him to have taken three quarters of the language. The difference and significance of the time is the amount of time he has already spent learning Chinese. I also had the goal of being better than him with the assumption that he had a quarter or so of actual in class Chinese instruction. If that were true, then my goal would have been more achievable. The way I discovered his level was higher than I thought was during the trip and his conversations with Chinese people. Inteus was able to speak and have conversations with some Chinese people with some difficulty, but he had conversations nonetheless.

During the trips we took, I watched as Inteus talked more Chinese and I started to enjoy the trip more of a time to relax. When classes start each quarter in UWT, I like to get work done early and get a head start on the work assigned in the quarter. In the same fashion I typed all of my reflection papers after each eventful trip or lecture we went to. Right after a trip or lecture was ideal because I remembered most of the details and assignments are better to get done with and out of the way early. Writing this quickly resulted in me being one of the first one done with the reflection papers during the trip. Because of my typical habit of stressing to get my work done, I didn’t recognize the other side of the trip, enjoying the trip in China. Eventually this changed after finishing my last reflection paper. I knew others were not finished yet, so I decided to relax and enjoy the trip more, and that was exactly what I did. I enjoyed exploring the places we visited and did not concern myself with any other work assigned. I did the minimum required for the Chinese language classes we had remaining and still found it adequate. My effort was adequate in finishing the necessary lessons in class but not adequate enough in learning Chinese. After the initial enthusiasm of learning Chinese and discovering the pace of the class, I came to the conclusion that these Chinese language classes would not provide me with what I needed in order to learn the language fully. Instead of learning through the class, I conceded to teaching myself Chinese at a later time through self-study. Through self-study I could enjoy the pleasures of going at a faster and more comfortable pace and not having to wait for anyone else. I could dictate what I wanted to learn and when I would learn it. The remaining duration of the trip I would focus on enjoying China and the trips we would go on.

My academic concentration quickly transitioned to enjoying getting to know the other students on the trip and getting to know China better through my own way. Before the trip, I only had limited contact with the some of the students from the Tacoma Campus, and I had none with the students from the Seattle Campus. This did not have a large effect on our ability to get to know one another through the one month living together. One month may seem like a short period of time, but I felt that it was just the appropriate amount of time to become familiar with one another fairly well. Combine that time span of one month and the fact we lived, ate, and travel in a foreign country together, the possibility of not learning about one another was low. The majority of my time was spent with the other guys on the trip. I am not completely sure how this arose but there seemed to be some gender segregation in moments of the trip. During some planned dinners, one guy would sit at a table and the others would simply follow. The end result would be a table with all the guys with a few girls and another table with everyone else. I saw this pattern and tried to purposely do something different for the sake of changing things up. After I would try to change this during dinner, after dinner I found myself going out with the other guys to look around the city.

The nightlife in Beijing is what to be expected in an urbanized city with millions of people, lively and concentrated in a few areas. I was able to explore these areas with the other guys in one of our many trips around the city. We would enter into clubs and enjoy our night with other people in the Beijing area. I was surprised at the amount of Chinese people able to speak English when I started to speak to them. The people I talked to had varied levels of comprehension and speaking ability, so I attempted to use the phrases I learned from class. I could say the basics like any beginner in a foreign language; Hello. How are you? What’s your name? etc. This conversation would rarely last long because of my limited knowledge of the Chinese language, but I was able to communicate through other means. I met a girl who couldn’t speak any English and there I was not able to say anything but those basic phrases. I thought quickly and I got my phone out and opened the Japanese-Chinese dictionary application. Through using my dictionary and knowing simple body language, I was able to communicate with this person for a couple of hours. We would then take turns handing my phone back and forth. I would write a word like “hobby” and the dictionary returned the translated Chinese word. It turns out that she liked to draw and so we spent time drawing on my phone together. This was a memorable experience for me because it shows the multiple ways people can communicate with one another even with a language barrier.

Aside from the time I spent out with the guys at night, I also enjoyed the conversations during our long bus trips or in the hotel. We got along well because our mutual interest in business and economics. Each of us represented a foreign country whenever we talked. Sonar gave the Mongolian perspective; Terrance gave the Chinese perspective, Ben the Korean perspective, and me a combination of the Filipino, Japanese and American perspective. This unintentionally resulted in a greater cultural trip then I expected. Each of our individual countries had strong historical connections with China, so conversations turned historical often. Sonar talked about the Mongolians that invaded China, and Terrance gave more historical Chinese context into the conversation. As I listened to Terrance talked about China I learned more from him than the rest of the trip. He taught us that tapping with two fingers on the table while someone pours you a drink was a polite way of thanking the pourer. This was one of the many mini lessons I had the pleasure of receiving each day.

Through Terrance’s Chinese cultural lessons, readings in the book, and other sources of valuable Chinese knowledge, I gained a greater understanding of the China’s culture and its people. Initially when I came to China I had the impression that the Confucian and modest way of carrying oneself in Japan, was not as strong in China. This struck me as surprising because China was the origin of Confucianism. In lectures and in my interview with a Chinese student I learned about the spread of competition and desire for money in China in the recent decades. There came a China where sacrificing old historical buildings and China’s past for new modern commercial apartments or buildings became common. Where becoming powerful meant doing many bad things. During our stay, I saw the changes from older traditional values to newer economic values appear in front of me. When I thought all the old values were gone I came across people who still adhered to them. Just by being with Terrance, a native Chinese person, I learned about the older traditional values some people continue to have. Terrance assigned himself the role of the host of his country China towards us. He wanted us to feel welcomed and enjoy our time in his country. At dinnertime he would wait for everyone else to get his or her food and eat before starting himself. When there were older people, he would pay the proper respect to them. Seeing his actions showed me there were still some of the traditional values in Chinese people.

While Terrance showed traditional values, there was the Chinese student I interviewed who showed me the modern forward thinking generation. 南韩 was fully aware of the situation and problems that arose from modernization within China. People are so competitive to the extent that they would try to sabotage others who were better. The connection with other Chinese is thin because a person cares more for the individual. From reading China in Ten Words people placed more importance on the self and their immediate family than they do on society as a whole. Even though 南韩 was not a full exception, she talked with a great sense of understanding of the underlying problems. She felt a bit different from the majority of the population. She is able to be more moderate and less aggressive towards her goals because her financial situation was not stressful. Not having a lot of stress in her life allows her to take a step back and gives her perspective on the situation in China. She even included that she was not a unique person for thinking in this fashion but there were many others she knew who thought that same way. Knowing this allowed me to see that there was not an overpowering gravitation towards one philosophy but instead many different kinds of people in China.

The people of China came in many different shades of colors but the environment was surprisingly familiar to the Philippines. I wrote about the similarities between China today and the Philippines more in-depth in one of my reflection papers, but I contribute my lack of culture shock in China to the strong similarity. Both countries are still developing, so the environment suffers as the economy and cities grow. The weather when I got off the plane in China was similarly hot. The views on the streets of Beijing and the Philippines were riddled with vendors and stalls. The similarity allowed me to learn more of the culture without worrying about getting used to the environment. It also allowed me to draw some conclusions based on the Philippines.
The overall experience of the study abroad trip allowed me to gain more perspective on the Chinese people and culture as well as gain good friends in the process. Now after the trip, I can now have a topic of conversation when I meet someone from China. Not only a topic for conversation but a way of understanding and connecting with a culture I had only limited exposure to previously. This would give a less shallow understanding of China. Instead of thinking of its growing economy and communist state government, the typical threads of conversation when a common American talks about China, I can talk about the beautiful variety of scenery throughout China, the hard working and competitiveness in the country, and how enjoyable the nightlife in Beijing was. One of the best ways to gain experiences and stories would be to travel to a foreign country. I found this to be true now at the end of our trip.

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