On May 13, 2012, I left JFK International Airport and embarked on my three-month journey to China. My first month would be spent teaching English in the southern city of Hangzhou, considered to be one of China’s “smaller” cities — with a metropolitan population of a mere 14 million people. While I was there, I was able to travel around Zhejiang Province. I met middle school and high school students and taught them about what my life is like in America.

Naturally, like any true-blue fan, I took this opportunity to give a 20-minute presentation about Michigan football and why there’s truly no place like Ann Arbor. I cannot even begin to express how fulfilling it is to hear a chorus of 300 young Chinese students practicing their English by chanting in unison, “Go Blue!” and “Oh how I hate Ohio State.” There are now approximately 3,000 students roaming Southern China who, for some inexplicable reason, hate everything about Ohio. Perhaps I abused my privileges, but I digress.

I was never worried about my month in Hangzhou because I knew that meeting new students eager to learn about my culture would never get old, and, quite frankly, it never did. However, I was afraid of June 15, the day I would move to Beijing and start my intensive two-month Chinese learning program through China Educational Tours.

CET Beijing is a well-respected language program that has been known to produce stellar results for those seeking to learn Chinese. I’m a Chinese minor and have been studying Chinese at the University for the past two years. My Chinese was dreadful and desperately needed the help. Part of me hoped that perhaps they would just connect a wire to the back of my brain and somehow inject the language into me without actually having to work too hard. Instead, I was forced to adjust to the infamous “language pledge.” This pledge, part of what makes CET so renowned, is a signed document prohibiting any student from speaking English in or outside of the classroom for the entirety of the two-month program. If caught three times breaking the pledge, the student is sent home without a refund and with an unavoidable “Fail” on their transcript. Quite intimidating to say the very least.

I knew the pledge would be difficult, but I had no idea what was in store for me. As someone who seriously enjoys expressing himself — perhaps too much — I felt constantly suffocated once the pledge started. This pledge, combined with a daily five hours of class and five to six hours of homework per night, created quite a tall mountain for me to climb. I found myself going crazy and instead of embracing the language and culture, I just entered a terribly depressed and lonely state. Days seemed like entire weeks, and the concept of surviving for two months seemed entirely implausible.

After desperately trying to tackle this problem on my own, as I always had before, I began to realize that this obstacle would not be overcome alone — I needed help. I needed to reach out to my friends and family for the support.

Luckily for me, my sister Kait lived abroad in Thailand for two years and understood the challenges associated with living away from home. I sought her advice and asked how to overcome this feeling of being alone in a country of 1.3 billion people. She gave me the best advice that anyone could have ever given me: Go for a walk with no destination.

At first I didn’t really understand this concept and waved it off as an irrational fix to a bigger problem. But one day, I tried it. I put on some sneakers, left my map of Beijing in my room and packed a couple bottles of water. After all, it was about 100 degrees outside and, combined with a particularly high pollution rating that day, walking was certainly going to be difficult.

Soon after I started my walk, I started to immerse myself in the language. I began soaking in more of the minor details of Chinese culture and learning more about normal everyday life in China. This truly was a turning point in my trip.

After that first walk with no destination, I began going on personal adventures every day after class. Considering that a ride on Beijing’s incredibly convenient subway is a mere 30 cents, I took advantage of this asset as much I could. Every day, I made it a goal to go to a different subway stop; pretty soon, I had a decent understanding of Beijing’s geography. Some stops were boring, some were eye-opening, but every experience helped me become a stronger person.

Within the coming months, many students will be embarking on their own study abroad experience. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Realize that you are not the only one who has had a bad day because of missing friends, family, school or maybe just a slice of pizza.

When you take off the armor, embrace your vulnerability, and allow yourself to soak in a foreign culture, you will learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible. When I went to China, I learned a lot about the language, the people and the culture, but the thing I learned most was about myself and how I handled a particularly challenging obstacle. I can only hope that others will take my sister’s advice and discover more about themselves as I discovered more about myself.

Patrick Maillet can be reached at maillet@umich.edu.

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