Students Add Spice to Their Lives With Study Abroad in Sichuan, China
By Kenna Caprio
Without speaking fluent Mandarin or Cantonese, the women navigated to Mount Emei from Chengdu, China last summer.
“We took the bullet train and made all the arrangements on our own (with the help of Google translate and maps),” says Joanne Gallegos, a senior business administration major at the Metropolitan Campus. “It takes up to two days to reach the summit. To save time, we took a two-hour bus ride and only hiked for two miles to reach the sacred Buddha.” At the top, Jannice Santiago and Gallegos marveled at the Golden Summit and golden Buddha rising up beyond the clouds.
“It was simply an amazing time,” says Santiago, a Florham Campus senior studying hospitality management, of the trip, which spanned weeks in June and July. She recommends to fellow travelers, “Find joy in whatever you do.”
Another student explored her family’s Chinese roots, connecting deeply to her history and heritage.
“Walking down the streets of Chengdu, I tended to feel like I hadn’t left home. Standing in the metro, or ordering food, I felt less like a foreigner and more like a local,” says Amanda Lou, BA’19 (Flor). “My behavior, my actions, my words, my identity are shaped not only by my culture and upbringing, but also my experience in both China and the United States.”
These three women spent five weeks taking classes and interning abroad through g-MEO, which facilitates cultural exchange opportunities for American students at Chinese universities, and is Fairleigh Dickinson University’s partner in the region.
Students live and study at the Chengdu American Center for Study Abroad on the Huaxi Campus of Sichuan University. A total of 10 FDU students participated in the two summer sessions. “You could smell the Sichuan spices in the air,” says Santiago.
In between day trips and special seminars, including a traditional tea ceremony and calligraphy tutorial, students found a rhythm, balancing classes with internships and free time.
Each day Santiago explored the city before heading to her internship at the Fairmont Hotel or Mandarin class in the evening.
She practiced Mandarin at her food and beverage internship at Cube, “a three-tier lounge, bar and Japanese restaurant” located in the hotel. Sometimes the language barrier proved difficult, but she persevered to learn about Japanese food and etiquette and assist the waitresses and bartenders in their roles.
Just like in the American hospitality industry, “quality service is always key,” says Santiago. “There’s no such thing as nine-to-five, it’s around-the-clock. People need to be there, willing and able, for guests.”
To decompress from her busy schedule, Santiago ate Western food or headed to a spa. She called home to talk to family, friends and her boyfriend. Then she would catch up on sleep.
“My advice is to have no expectations. Learn, grow and walk through your travel journey. Don’t run,” she says.
For Gallegos, this summer’s experience in China was a return trip. She spent an entire semester in Chengdu previously, during which she interned in Unilever’s marketing department. Three days a week at the internship, she would visit fish and meat markets and other local businesses which sold Unilever products to check displays and expiration dates with another intern.
On her second trip, she put her cultural familiarity to use, feeling more comfortable navigating the city and ordering dishes at restaurants. “People get too comfortable, and they don’t expand their horizons,” she says. “I felt so independent there. I like constant newness.”
When she wasn’t studying or attending her international business and sociology classes, Gallegos sampled the Chengdu food scene, trying the fiery hot pot, a Sichuan specialty loaded with meat, veggies, spice, peppers and broth. After digging in, only a glass of passion fruit juice could quell the heat. She’d top it off with sweet steamed buns. “I miss the smell of the food,” Gallegos says.
Lou misses the community she found with locals. “Growing up, I didn’t fit in at school, but abroad in China I did,” she says. “I realized that I’m important and can serve a purpose. My cultural identity matters.” Lou’s entire family emigrated from Myanmar. “Most of their ancestors are from Yunnan. Speaking Yunnan Chinese is just as equally important as my Burmese Buddhist beliefs,” she adds.
Through her chats with locals, Lou mastered more words in the Sichuan dialect, which is similar to the Yunnan vernacular, also taking the opportunity to teach her new friends some English slang.
In her formal teaching experience, at the Hua Mei International Education and Training Center, she tutored a 13-year-old student in writing, reading and the English language.
“Being a teacher requires being a communicator. When I was younger, I was more anxious and talked more quickly,” Lou says. “Being a film major helped me learn to articulate myself better. I know how to form and create a strong, compelling story to get people to talk.”
Those skills benefited her in the classroom. She taught her student English vocabulary and American history. When her young student didn’t know the meaning of the word “trouble,” Lou suggested she listen to the Taylor Swift song of the same name. “She liked American music and pop culture,” she says.
Some days Lou became the student and learned more Mandarin words. “To have that bilingual experience with her in China was really rewarding.”
All three women returned stateside filled with new experiences and expectations, and a new understanding of how they individually and collectively fit into the world.
“Students return happy, with a love of China and traveling that they would never have had the opportunity to cultivate otherwise,” says Anne Perry, director of study-abroad operations at FDU. “They are more confident and excited to use their new cross-cultural knowledge and feel connected to a world outside of Fairleigh Dickinson University.”
Not long ago, Santiago, who lives in New York City, noticed a woman on the subway looking lost. Very lost. “I realized she only spoke Mandarin, and then was able to direct her.” She feels more in tune now, with fellow travelers, and with herself.
Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter/Spring 2019 edition of FDU Magazine.