Kate V. is currently a junior at SYA China and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Texas.
This past week was the National Day holiday in China, meaning that us SYA students got a much-needed break to travel with our host families. My host family took me to Chengde, a fairly small city about 4 hours away from Beijing by train. The SYA group had gone to Chengde about 3 weeks prior, so I went into the week thinking that I had a pretty good sense of what Chengde was all about. I could not have been more wrong, and the fact that I was so wrong reminded me of what I love about SYA.
There is one experience in particular that stands out to me when thinking about how my trip to Chengde changed my perspective on SYA and the experiences that I have had thus far. There is a mountain called Sledgehammer Mountain (or Thumb Mountain, take your pick) that we climbed as a group when our SYA class went in early September. It is known as being one of the biggest tourist attractions in Chengde, and you get a stunning view of several of Chengde’s 8 outer temples and the Chengde Mountain Resort. In early September, our bus pulled up to the parking lot of the trail and all 34 sleepy, English-speaking students, many with ChaPi in hand, clambered off of the bus and up the mountain. The hike was a great bonding experience for all of us; you never feel closer to someone than when you are huffing up a basically vertical set of stairs early in the morning. The Chengde trip made us overall tighter-knit as a class, and we were able to see the amazing sights of Chengde along the way.
However, I got an entirely different perspective when I went back to Chengde with my host family. When the taxi pulled up to the same parking lot of Sledgehammer Mountain, I assumed that we were going to hike again. However, instead, my host grandfather insisted that the taxi kept driving on a small dirt road at the back of the parking lot. This road looked decidedly tourist-unfriendly, but nevertheless we kept driving through the houses and little farms on this back road until arriving at a dead end. My host grandfather then cheerily got out, paid the driver, and led us into the bushes. After bushwhacking for about 10 minutes we came to a small clump of trees, and my grandfather proceeded to climb and then shake the trees until hundreds of little red fruits fell out. We then spent the next few hours talking and picking these fruits (called 小山楂, xiǎo shān zhā, or Chinese hawthorn fruit). All the while, I could see the cable car that went up Sledgehammer Mountain, and it struck me that even though I had been a 10 minute walk from this exact location 3 weeks before, I was having such a different experience now than I was then.
And this is precisely the thing that I love about SYA: on one hand, you get to experience the wonder and novelty of a new culture and country from the perspective of a tourist. You get to go to all of the tourist sights, you get to travel around China, and you get to make amazing friends who share a lot of your same interests along the way. On the other hand, you get to experience a deeper level of the culture past what you can see as a tourist. Only through interacting with a local family can you be immersed in the true Chinese culture as opposed to viewing China through the lens of an American tourist. The first time I was in Chengde, while I got the valuable experience of seeing amazing views and hiking up Sledgehammer Mountain with my friends, I completely missed the deeper level of culture that I got by going back with my host family to pick fruit and interact with the locals who lived on that back road.
So, the moral of the story is that, even if you think you are a fairly seasoned traveler with a good understanding of world cultures, the experience of total, authentic immersion that a host family provides is exceedingly difficult to get. The beauty of SYA is that it allows you to both participate in a new culture as a traveler and allows you to dig deeper into the roots of the local society, leading to a truly amazing and unique experience abroad.
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