China Experience Awakens Passion
Nick Winn, a senior with a double major in economics and Chinese, recently returned from a five-month study abroad experience in China. He says it changed not only his view of China, but also his career direction.
Winn won a $5,000 Freeman-Asia scholarship, which enabled him to study Chinese at Beijing (Peking) University. "Whenever I hear stereotypes, I want to go and find out the truth behind them," he says, in explaining why he chose to study in China. "We have a lot of stereotypes about China. I wanted to see for myself."
Winn was one of five Willamette University students to study in Beijing last semester. He lived in one of the international dorms on campus, which exposed him to students from all over the world. "There were students in my building from everywhere - Rwanda, Bulgaria, Venezuela, Japan, Korea, France, Spain," he says. "It was one of the poorer buildings and the living conditions weren't good. The bathrooms were repulsive and the halls smelled ripe. I could have upgraded to another dorm, but I loved the community there. We had communal bathrooms and kept our room doors open so it was easy to meet and talk with new people."
When he wasn't studying Chinese language at Beijing University, Winn and fellow international students explored other parts of China. "We traveled everywhere in China except the southeast corner of the country," he says. "My language classes gave me more confidence to speak Chinese. I planned trips, got plane tickets, traveled on busses, rented hotel rooms. I learned that we could easily travel on our own. Things I thought were impossible, I learned I could do."
One memorable side trip involved a four-day horseback tour of the Himalayan foothills. "It was like Lord of the Rings," he says, describing the intriguing countryside. "There were all these rocks and waterfalls and mountains and trees. There were Tibetan villages on mountainsides where people raised yaks. At one point, the fog closed in and we couldn't find our friend. It was amazing, like we were in Modor [the dark land] from Lord of the Rings."
Another adventure put Winn, who was videotaping his travels as part of his scholarship project, inside a Chinese jail. Winn and his travel companions were hiking along a mountain road outside of the city of Beijing. "We could see this green temple in the distance that wasn't on the map," he explains. "We went down there and I was videotaping the temple. Suddenly this guy came up, shouting in Chinese. It turns out we were on a Chinese military base."
The students ended up being questioned by military and then civilian police for nine hours over a two-day period. "There were times during the questioning that I felt a bit nervous," he admits. "But they were very nice to us. They gave us hot water. At one point, they gave me a military jacket to wear and brought over a heater because I was cold."
Once the authorities were satisfied that the students weren't spies, they deleted the pictures the boys had taken and released them. "Afterward, I realized that we'd committed a pretty serious offense," he says rather sheepishly. "We'd videotaped a military base. In many places in the world that would be considered treason or conspiracy. If China is a police state, it's certainly a nice police state. The experience actually relieved a lot of fears I'd had about accidentally breaking laws in China. I'd gone through it and it wasn't that bad."
He adds, "I also grew to love the international community in China. Our international dorm gave us a base of people with different perspectives. Talking to these people and listening to their life experiences makes what you read in a book or hear on the news real. For instance, my roommate, who was from India, spent two nights explaining the Indian-Pakistan relationship. It was like having a live history book."
Winn says he was impressed with the uncomplaining nature of the Chinese people. "The Chinese people put up with a lot more than Americans, but they don't complain about it and that's a very noble attitude," he says. He tells a story about riding in a hot train car and asking the man next to the window if he'd mind if they opened the window. "The man said, 'You can't do that.' The train attendant came by and we asked if it was okay to open the window and he said yes. The Chinese passenger was willing to suffer with the heat and not even ask. I'm intrigued with that attitude. It's like 'we'll get by.' They never seem upset or unhappy. Here in America, if people aren't getting their way, they complain like crazy."
In addition to vivid memories and impressions of China, perhaps the most important thing Winn brought back from his adventures in China is a new career direction. "Since I've come back, I've picked up a second major in Chinese studies," he says. He plans to pursue an internship with an international company. "I want a career in international trade or international business. I've fallen in love with this international stuff. Now I can't get enough of it."