While in London, a man once told me: you don’t truly realize the full impact of being abroad until years later. He wasn’t
wrong, by the way, but he also wasn’t right. I studied abroad in London with less than positive American classmates, housemates, and London culture I didn’t always vibe with. Therefore, I didn’t appreciate London for what it was until years later. China, on the other hand was a completely different story, because I knew how lucky I was right away.
This is partially because I wanted teach in China since I was 14, when my big sister left us to teach collegiate English in Huangzhou. Since we were raised in Wheaton, IL, only speaking English, it seemed that our Asian-ness had somehow passed us by. We both felt it. When my sister got to college, she took matters into her own hands, and started learning Mandarin.
Nevermind that our family spoke Cantonese. Just like our resourceful ancestors, she took what was available, and worked hard to make something out of it. The natural next step was to immerse herself into the red waters of Chinese culture. I remember clinging to her before she left, her backpack swollen with crumpled clothes. We would see her soon enough, during her winter break. I may have been young, but what I saw was enough to make an impression. Huangzhou the beautiful city, with its lake filled with wooden boats and swaying bamboo mountains, was all the intrigue I needed. 10 years later, graduating college, I knew I had to get to China to have my own journey of self discovery. It was time to uncover our roots before they entered America. Looking on the World Teach website, and from stories of the old town where my family grew up, I imagined myself in a rural town on the side of a mountain. Solitude would be my motivation, where I could write introspective poetry in peace and study Chinese to fulfill repressed desires to know about oneself. That would be my reward… What I didn’t expect was friendship.
Besides knowing that China was my destination, my friendships with fellow World Teachers made me appreciate my China year — even in the midst of it. Cut to leaving day. I’m in Chicago O’Hare, drinking 9 am screwdrivers to ease my nerves for the long flight. My future teacher neighbor, a fellow Chicagoan, reaches out to me through the group chat and finds me at the bar. We come to terms with the fact that we will soon be responsible for hundreds of middle schoolers’ english studies. Cut to after the 18 hour flight. We run into someone who is one of the closest people in my life to this day. After a silly introduction, I start singing Earth, Wind, and Fire, and without hesitation, she joins in. Once in Changsha, China, we made friends around the dinner table that very night. I come around to realize these people are my friends for the next year. I remember the sweaty night walks through the city of light in motion, and scenic parks with hidden carnival rides. The mall trips, and ice cream runs. Getting to know them made orientation month is one of the best parts of my China year. You’re learning all about a new culture with 20 other people who are experiencing similar things to you. We all perceived Chinese culture through our individual lenses, formed by experiences and personal philosophies. We discussed and debated our perceptions often. We complained. We prayed. We encouraged and visited each other. Eventually, we cooked for and took care of each other, even through the loss of family members back home. We had sleepovers and lesson planning parties. We drank and made dirty jokes. For me, that was what China was all about.
Even though after orientation month we all went to our separate sites, we kept our relationships alive as ever — and got even closer. You may or may not be like me, knowing my World Teach trip was my destiny; regardless, you can choose to cultivate some of the closest relationships you’ve ever had.
— Michelle Wong, 24, World Teach China Alum, ’17