My name is Sarah Geilman. I graduated from Brigham Young University in 2019 with a degree in Mandarin Chinese after spending 18 months in Taipei, Taiwan learning Mandarin as a missionary for my church. I also lived in China for 10 months while studying abroad at Nanjing University and completing an internship in Shanghai teaching underprivileged children as part of The Language Flagship Program. I was a Gilman scholar during my school year abroad in China from the fall of 2017 to the summer of 2018.
One of the most common things I heard before studying abroad in China was the misconception that China was underdeveloped or developed. We see pictures of people living in the Chinese countryside with their conical hats tending their rice fields and think of it as underdeveloped. But with China’s booming economy and presence on the world stage, many believe it is a fully developed country, while in fact, China is still considered developing. While living in China for 10 months, I found this balance fascinating. I could go from city to city relatively inexpensively while traveling between 100-200 mph on a bullet train. I could rent a bike through an app on my phone and ride it around the city for under 1USD per ride. At the same time, many streets were filled with elderly people who made their living selling vegetables in little baskets on the side of the road, yet to pay for the vegetables, you could scan a QR code printed on a piece of paper that was stuck to a pole behind them. China is such a unique country with its immense technological advancements and social, economic, and other struggles. After living in China, the status of its development was much clearer.
Aside from correcting misconceptions, I have realized since returning home just how much my time abroad has impacted those around me. There have been little things (like translating random Chinese lines for friends that appear in TV shows and movies) but there have also been major things that have affected my family and those I interact with each day.
One of the biggest things I’ve been able to do is help teach my family, especially my husband and son, all about a language and culture that they knew very little about. I’ve been able to incorporate homemade Chinese food into the meals we eat. At bedtime, we sing songs and read books in English and Chinese. Although he is still young, I am doing my best to teach my son how to treat all people, and especially those who look and act differently than he does, with respect and kindness.
I have also been shocked by how many times my experience abroad has come into play in my everyday interactions. There have been numerous times while going about my daily life that I will come across people who either only speaks Chinese, or speak very little English, and I am able to translate for them or help them find what they need. For instance, at the grocery store about a year ago, I overheard a lady speaking with her daughter and noted that she was confused about how to purchase her produce. In China, most grocery stores have a stand in the produce section where a worker will weigh and bag up your produce for you so that the cashier only has to scan them and not weigh the items or type in the numerical code as we do here in the States. Because I had experienced this myself in China (and had been very confused the first time I tried to buy fruit in the check-out line only to be told I had to go back to the produce section), from the little bit of the conversation I overheard I immediately understood her confusion and was able to not only help her with what to do but do so in her own native tongue! I have also been surprised in our college town how many people I have met in our apartment complex who are from either Taiwan or China. I have not only been able to assist them through language and cultural barriers but also have had the opportunity to be their friend in a land that is so foreign to them. What a blessing it has been to help someone else simply by having an understanding of their language and culture. Do not underestimate what your time abroad can mean not only to you and your life but also to the many people you will come across now and in the future!