By: Jerrad Solberg
Though China is a far-away place to many, it became close to me through an experience that challenged me and opened my eyes to new opportunities and perspectives. My initial interest in traveling abroad was motivated by a mentor of mine named Andrea, of Disability Services on campus at St. Cloud State University (SCSU). She encouraged me to take it on and break the barriers often placed on me with cerebral palsy. My strong interest in language and cultural studies had been exercised through school with French, so I felt encouraged to take on some Chinese, which is often regarded as the hardest language.
Another big influence in my life was my Grandma, who shared stories of visiting places like the Great Wall in 2013 at the age of 76. I had even seen some glass chopsticks at her house from China that she gifted me to keep as an heirloom to pass on. She sparked my desire to pursue adventures overseas as she did. However, financial concerns were hindering my capacity to travel. The solution to this problem was found when Andrea connected me with Kathy Johnson, director of the Confucius Institute at SCSU. She shared with me the potential to apply for a Hanban sponsored scholarship, which covered the gap and allowed me to realize my dream of going abroad to study in China for a two-week program in May of 2018.
Many cultural barriers surely existed, but the people I met helped me feel welcomed and were also interested in hearing my stories of life in America.
In preparing for my journey, I quickly found that some small, yet important, details still needed to be taken care of. Paperwork and packing are struggles we all have to face. The support of my father really helped with the passport information, but I gathered together all of my supplies myself. I was ready to take the jump, for as Laozi said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Leaving my father and mother at the airport was difficult, but they trusted the team of fellow students and faculty leaders I had with me, knowing that it would be a rewarding adventure to pay dividends in the future.
When I arrived in China, my senses were overwhelmed with an array of feelings in a place so different from home. For the first time, I was around so many people unlike me, with foods I had never tasted and speaking in a language truly foreign to my ears. I quickly found why so many say it is the hardest language to pick up. Many cultural barriers surely existed, but the people I met helped me feel welcomed and were also interested in hearing my stories of life in America. I genuinely felt like a celebrity and superstar, the many Chinese students we connected with also helping me get around and wanting to take pictures with me. There were a few particular challenges. The roads were sometimes rough to walk on with my walker and there were lots of steps everywhere we went, including on the University campuses, the Great Wall, and the Temple of Heaven. However, these obstacles did not stop me, and it even brought me closer to the student group around me; they were always lending a helping hand.
The most influential relationship I developed during my time there was with my host brother, Zhiguo or “Ziggy”, which is the English name I gave him. We connected when we were at Jilin Normal University in Siping for a few days of cultural activities and connecting with students. He did not know a lot of English, which made for some difficulties in communication but also drew us closer in teaching one another patience in understanding differences. I used whatever means I could to build bridges, whether it be a digital translator or my own form of body language. I immediately felt welcomed into their home with an assortment of gifts presented, including a calligraphy set, a special ginseng present, and lots of Chinese candy. The best experience we had together was preparing dumplings for a big family dinner. They made me feel like a royal king, and I was truly honored. It was a wonderful feast of so many flavors, with seaweed noodles and “baozi” among the many dishes served with the dumplings. They were also very encouraging of my efforts with the language, teaching me fruit names like xiangjiao, xigua, juzi, and pingguo, along with the basic dialogue. I could see the joy in their faces when I would express appreciation afterward with a heartfelt “xiexie”. It was a fulfilling time with them and very hard to leave.
One evening, our group went together to a basketball game on campus that was planned for us, but we did not expect what we found. It was a packed gym of students who were there to watch a championship game for their season, and we were to be part of the halftime show. Their teams were very talented, including my host brother Zhiguo who towered over most of us. Though our group was not too athletically inclined, we gathered together to take them on in a short scrimmage. Towards the end, my good friend called a time-out and ushered me into the game for the last highlight shot. I missed a couple of times but persevered to put it. Great cheers from the whole stadium of Chinese students erupted, and the players on both sides gave each other big high-fives. It was a special moment that I will never forget, and the small gifts I presented Zhiguo afterward, though meaningful, could not fully express my gratitude towards his hospitality and friendship.
Towards the end of our time in Siping, we had a great feast of lamb together, which included some dancing led by Zhiguo, who really invested himself in us and sought to learn from our group. It was a great time of celebration to culminate our short stay. Leaving them the last morning was not easy, but I have been able to stay in touch thanks to WeChat. I hope I will be able to reconnect with them someday soon.
I went to China not knowing what to expect, but what I found there were true, meaningful friendships with people I never thought I would be able to connect with.
On our last day in China, we also had the opportunity to visit Shepherd’s Field Children’s Village (SFCV) in Langfang, a small development area in Hebei not far from Beijing. Seeing many children there with a variety of disabilities but expressing great joy in interacting with us was powerful. We sang and danced together, and we even were able to see them practice their performance for Children’s Day. One particular child I met, Jason, had the same condition as me. It was great to shake hands and walk along together for a bit near the playground, though we could not understand one another through spoken language. I was told as I left that he expressed simple thanks for playing with him, which I responded in turn and was emotionally moved.
I went to China not knowing what to expect, but what I found there were true, meaningful friendships with people I never thought I would be able to connect with. I was surprised how open they were to interact with me, as we taught one another bits of our respective cultures. It was also a nice surprise to see at the start of this year that two students we met in Beijing at the Beijing Institute of Petrochemical and Technology (BIPT) had come over to SCSU for study abroad. We are able to continue building our friendship in people-to-people exchanges with mutual cultural understanding here. In the future, I hope it is possible to return to China for continued study to further challenge myself. With my major in cybersecurity, there is much potential in this area in regards to US-China relations, particularly if I were to connect with a government position in collaboration with China. Also, although my Grandma passed away this year, I know she would be proud of me, as she expressed to me in her final moments how she loved that I am willing to take on new adventures. Her lasting impact will continue with me as I see what is next as my China story carries on.