Journey to Chengdu
Written by Livia Ledbetter
Brooke Henderson sits in a study room at Marston Science Library, but her mind is 8,249 miles away in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China. Henderson, a 19-year-old international studies and journalism sophomore from Coral Springs, studied abroad this past summer with the “UF in Chengdu” program. “I think [study abroad] is good for personal growth,” Henderson asserted. “I’m not someone who likes to go places alone. I’ve just never been alone; someone’s always been there.” Her interest in the trip comes from her family. She is black, but has some Chinese heritage from her mother’s side; her family believes they are of the Hakka ethnicity, one of at least 56 Chinese ethnic groups. The UF-sponsored program is open to all students with a minimum 3.0 GPA. Henderson was in the six-week program, where she lived in a dorm in a university.
Henderson had taken a year of Chinese prior to applying, but while abroad, her acquisition of the language underwent a transformation. “You really build up your vocabulary and you learn to work with what limited vocabulary you do have,” Henderson said. Students in the program took a conversational Chinese course. Their teacher, Dung Laoshi, never uttered a single word of English in the classroom. “Our class was centered on functionality and sounding as native as possible,” Henderson said. They were taught standard Mandarin; however, Dung Laoshi taught the Sichuanese Mandarin accent in lessons as well. Sichuan province has a distinct accent that Henderson describes as
being difficult for even native Chinese speakers to understand. This is due to tonal differences: the Sichuanese accent adds an extra tone and pronounces many of standard Mandarin’s tones differently. Their class also did presentations once a week, where they would conversationally speak in Chinese. Henderson was worried about not having enough chances to speak Chinese. However, as the trip progressed, she and her classmates became more secure with the language. “I feel like I’m a lot more fluent and comfortable in speaking, and if I don’t know the words, I’m comfortable getting around it,” Henderson affirms. “I have a solid foundation now.”
Students had three to four hours of language class in the morning, usually starting at 8 a.m., then a culture class at around 3 p.m. This course focused on writing traditional characters in ink, the history of the region and cooking. Also, Chinese college students studying how to teach Chinese would come in and talk to the UF students. The scariest aspect of the trip was getting used to the “normal little adult things,” which posed the biggest challenges to her, such as the ATM eating her card or having to travel alone. Henderson found the contrast between Chinese and American culture interesting. Some of the differences include free expression of bodily functions, an intense shopping atmosphere and shock over foreigners. “We would see kids squatting on the sidewalk and that would be normal,” Henderson stated. Henderson said she saw Kai dang ku, or open-crotch pants, throughout China. Infants and toddlers, as old as 3, wear pants with a missing crotch, freely
urinating or defecating whenever the urge came. “That’s very shocking to us in American culture,” she remarked. “They say it’s better for the environment—that’s my point, they’re more environmentally conscious than us. I don’t know if the point of the pants is to be environmentally aware, but it is something that has that benefit.” Henderson stressed caution when shopping in China. She visited Chunxi Road, a highly developed and large shopping center with over 700 shops. Merchants would often chase tourists down and pull them inside. China has a big bargaining culture as well. Dung Laoshi told her students to always try to bargain prices down to a third or even fourth of the going amount. Taxi drivers would also try to hustle tourists by taking the longer routes to destinations. Regardless, the Chinese were very receptive to tourists. One coffee shop Henderson and her group frequently visited had their menu duplicated in English for tourists. However, their kindness did not stop them from staring. “They were very confused by me, especially because my hair is curly,” Henderson divulged. “Little kids would look at me and gasp because they were just confused. Then I would tell them that my grandmother is from Hong Kong, and they would be even more confused.” Chinese natives would often take photos of tourists – it is socially acceptable there. It was funny to Henderson at first, but it soon became frustrating. “People put their camera right into your face, don’t say anything and then walk away,” she frustratingly revealed. “Sometimes whole crowds would follow me.”