I’ve turned in my Independent Study paper, said goodbye to my host family and the Kind Man Who Sells Dumplings Down the Road, and reunited with my actual family. It’s time for me to grasp that my time in Yunnan is coming to an end.
I hope through my blogs you can see what makes SIT China an amazing program – here arguably one gets to experience the “real” China away from Shanghai and Beijing. Through SIT as I’ve chronicled in my earlier blogs, I got to live with three distinct minority families: the Hui (Muslims), the Bai (in Shaxi), and the Mosuo (a matriarchal society). During September and October after one-on-one Chinese instruction for 4 hours, we got to experience our seminar on Ethnic Minority groups “first hand”. For instance, when we learned about the Hui, our lecture was held at a local Mosque. When discussing minority music, we attended a small performance at the Yunnan Arts University. The SIT instructors and program directors were fantastic.
As part of my reflection on the semester, I have come up with 8 (an auspicious number in China) pieces of advice for future SIT China students — hopefully other students planning to study abroad will find this useful too:
- Pack lightly. You only need a big backpack and a carry-on suitcase. A chronic over-packer, I had a hard time accepting this advice from a previous SIT China-er. But I am so grateful I took his advice, it made traveling much easier, plus taught me that I really don’t really need most of the clothes and tchotchkes that clutter my room at home. A big winter cleaning awaits me in Ithaca.
- Smile for the pictures people take of you. Yes it can be off-putting if you want to just go for a jog, see a sight, or practice yoga without people staring at you, but in fairness you will take more than your share of pictures of them too. They are just curious and a smile goes a long way. Smiling is an immediate way to break down barriers; accepting a glass of Baijiu (rice whiskey) furthers a friendship.
- Get over your food qualms. I was a vegetarian in the States, but honestly it would be so difficult, if not downright rude, not to eat the food put in front of you. Animals are raised much more humanely in rural China and small family farms are less harmful to the environment. Obviously, pig’s blood fried with rice is not everyone’s idea of a delicious brunch, but you quickly learn the power of small bites.
- Bring pictures of your family to give to people, but not your dogs. They’ll think the former are a prized possession, the latter just kind of bizarre.
- Don’t take it personally when people call you fat, pale, or old. All are considered compliments. (My dad was offended when people consistently over-estimated his age – a sign of respect).
- Take a Chinese cooking class. Or better yet, have your Popo (maternal grandmother) teach you.
- Bring a Kindle. I became a voracious reader while I was away, and was lucky to have thought to borrow one. During your Study Abroad experience you may spend 100’s of hours traveling (whether or not your Independent Study project is as remote as mine was). Having access to some good books will make long travel days seem not so bad. Lugging 15 books around would violate Tip #1, but if you don’t have a Kindle, bring a couple of paperbooks and exchange them at any International Youth Hostel or backpackers’ hangout.
- Keep a blog. If only for your parents’ and their friends’ comments (see “mama” from earlier posts). It’s wonderful to be able to share your experience, and they’ll enjoy the updates. It also makes you reflect on things while they’re happening. Just do it!
You’re not quite rid of me yet: I’ll be sure to write one final blog once I’m back on the Hill.