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Indiana University Bloomington
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Hutton Honors College

 — Indiana University

English and East Asian languages and literature (Chinese) major Patrick Spencer, a Bloomington native, spent his junior year (2000-2001) abroad in Beijing, China. He studied at Tsinghua University through the Inter-University Program for Chinese Language Studies, a program administered by the University of California at Berkeley and sponsored by a university coalition, of which IU's graduate school is a member.

There is truth to the platitude that it isn't the destination that is important, but the route that one takes to get there. To say my goals for studying abroad were purely academic would be skewing the truth; studying Chinese took me to China. But just as from studying Chinese language, I have gained new insights into China's cultural and historical legacy, so too, in going to China have I gleaned more than just the ability to speak a foreign language.

I remember arriving in Beijing. I was awestruck. Tiananmen Square on my left, the Forbidden City on my right, a giant-sized portrait of a deified Mao Zedong looking down on me from above. It seemed unreal. So many times had these images been a part of montages in books and on television, I had become accustomed to representations of this amazing place, but had never taken in "the real thing."

It was all so surreal, so wondrous, these impressions were unforgettable. A week into my trip abroad, here is what I wrote as my first journal entry: "I am for the first time in my life truly alone. Alone not just in the sense that I don't have anybody to rely and depend on, but in that I am in a country where I can barely communicate with anyone, and beyond that, I don't have a cultural clue how to follow that old traveler's phrase: 'When in Rome, do what the Romans do.' I am a stranger here. I wear the marks in every sense of the word. It is in the way that I look, it is in my inability to communicate with people, it is in the way I carry myself. Sure, I am nervous, and rather timid. But, the fact is, I am excited. I am finding in China a new kind of engagement; it permeates every minute of my time. All these activities in my life that I have taken for granted, those that even no longer warrant the classification of 'activity,' those things like buying a soda or taking a bus, the regimens of everyday life, have now become the instruments of my engagement. Ironically, my vehicle is Chinese; until this point, my studies have been so figurative. It is so strange to actually hear people use this language that I have been studying for so long in American classrooms as their everyday mode of communication, as I use English."

As I discovered, the world indeed is a large place; and there I was amidst a part of it completely and totally alien to me. With the passing of each day, however, I would make more and larger strides toward acquainting myself with my surroundings. On my first day in Beijing, it is embarrassing to admit, I wandered barely beyond the reaches of my dormitory. But in the weeks to come, I would explore the campus and its neighboring parts, and eventually I would learn to take the taxi, bus, and the subway; my willingness to explore would grow and so too would the scope of my explorations. While I would never see the metropolitan city of Beijing in its entirety, I would, as my language skills improved and my experiences accrued, reach a point where I would find stability in my surroundings.

Along with this new-found stability, China, this 5,000-year-old civilization, this place that I had once described as "wondrous," for me would begin to lose its novelty. The mundane would replace the wondrous; the regimens of daily life would resume. I would change, as would others toward me. I would find a solid orientation among the hubbub of everything. At this point, my Chinese, alone, had not only become more fluent, but the timidity in my voice had disappeared. People were responsive to these changes that had taken place in me. I found that less and less were people asking me where I was from; less and less were people responding with emphatic flatteries of my Chinese at a simple utterance of a Ni hao (hello). In a way, I felt like I was "home." The language, people, and culture were merely another set of circumstances; I adapted to them and once again was as emotionally and mentally sturdy as I had been the day I had left.

In this manner, I found that being abroad has empowered me. I have a new confidence in myself. If I am capable of taking a place like China, adapting to it, and making it my home away from home, I feel as if anything is possible.

I am once again back in Bloomington, Ind., my home since birth, and nothing has changed. But at the same time everything has.