By Daniel Socha
From the minute we arrived in Chengdu, our friends at Sichuan University greeted us with open arms, endless hospitality and a great eagerness to exchange ideas. For me, the most transformative part of my experience in the summer immersion program came from the relationships made and conversations had with the diverse group of students from Sichuan University. In one conversation over a spicy meal with two Sichuan students, I was surprised to learn that there is a large array of language dialects in China. The students I was with – one from Chengdu and the other from Beijing – expressed that they would rather speak to one another in English because of the difficulty in understanding each others’ dialects. And, later in the meal, these same students explained to me that, along with the large range in diversity of language, China is rich in diversity of cultural practice.
Going to China, I was not conscious of the homogenized way that I had imagined Chinese culture based on a limited set of personal experiences. The Sichuan Immersion Program opened my eyes to the diversity within China, while teaching me that “culture” is a hard thing to define… and that maybe “culture” is not the most important thing to find. Before embarking on this study abroad experience, I had pictured myself discovering what Chinese culture was all about. But through conversations, cups of tea, interactions at restaurants and wechat messages, what I discovered is that there is no singular, neatly-packed Chinese “culture.”And rather, what was most eye-opening was to hear from Sichuan students about their lived experiences. Eager to share our experiences with one another, students told me about many things, from struggles of high school to their political ideas. Listening to students talk about their lived experiences challenged my preconceived notions and changed the way I think about China.