Confucius Institute Assistant
WMU graduate student
My phantasmagorical experience in China
Performing for the presidents of the United States and China
was a highlight of Thalea Davis' study abroad experience
I traveled to China in August 2009 to study Mandarin Chinese and other subjects through Western Michigan University’s study abroad programs at Beijing Language and Culture University. I can say unequivocally that those six months contained the most eye-opening experiences I’ve had in my life thus far!
According to Merriam-Webster.com, one definition of phantasmagorical is “a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined.” Another definition: “a bizarre or fantastic combination, collection, or assemblage.” This word comes the closest to fully capturing my experiences in China.
I am working on a double-major in music performance and global and international studies at WMU, with a Chinese minor. I have many interests, and I am always short on time. Also worth noting is that the trip to China I took in fall 2009 was not my first trip to China, nor was it my first trip overseas. I am part of a very large military family; both of my parents were in the Air Force. I’ve had a passport since I was six-months-old.
Before I left for China in August 2009, I had already made plans to overachieve during my stay. In addition to my BLCU program, I had applied as an international guest student at the China Conservatory of Music to study traditional Chinese music and to learn a traditional Chinese instrument called the pipa. This was a venture completely separate from any study abroad program that WMU was offering, which meant that I had to obtain special permissions from various faculty and advisory staff, not to mention a great deal of negotiating with the financial aid department. Everything worked out in the end, and by the beginning of August, I was ready to leave for China.
In early August 2009, I boarded a plane bound for Beijing with a layover in Toronto. I had charged all of my electronics and was mentally preparing for what I like to call the long-haul flight: the flight from North America to Beijing, China, which could take 14 to 17 hours. I was also praying with all of my might that I wouldn’t end up sitting in front of crying baby, which was, unfortunately, the situation I had to endure the last time I had traveled to China. In a way, my prayers were answered. Instead of sitting in front of a crying baby, I sat behind a rambunctious toddler. I endured the long-haul (with my sanity barely intact) and arrived in Beijing in the afternoon. There, I met up with my WMU Chinese language professor and advisor, Dr. Xiaojun Wang, who had been waiting for me and another student, Keara Hopkins, who ended up being my roommate for the fall semester in Beijing.
When we arrived on campus, I was pleased to see that Beijing Language and Culture University is situated on a sprawling campus complete with classroom buildings, restaurants, small gardens, and even a hotel. We stayed in that hotel for the duration of the two-week summer program led by Dr. Wang that I had enrolled in as a precursor to BLCU’s semester program. During Dr. Wang’s short-term program, we took morning intensive language courses and in the afternoons we visited a wide variety of places and attractions, from the Forbidden City to giant shopping districts. The sights in and of themselves were fascinating enough, but, my mere presence within our group also made everyone’s experience extremely interesting. .
When going to touristy attractions in China, a foreigner must understand that most of the tourists at these attractions, especially during the summer, are rural Chinese people—people who live far out in the country where most of them only see foreigners on television, if they happen to own one. Most of the foreigners they see on television are Caucasian. Once in a blue moon will they see a person of African descent. As a black woman nearly six feet in height with black and gold waist-length braids, I was a very exotic-looking person, even by U.S. standards. Based on my previous experience of being in China, I was already mentally prepared for the staring and picture-taking that I was going to be on the receiving end of while traveling with my study abroad group, all of whom were either white or Asian. However, it did not occur to me to warn my classmates of what was to come.
When we visited our very first tourist destination, the Summer Palace, while waiting for our group leader to purchase entrance tickets, a crowd began to circle our group. I noticed what was happening, but it took the rest of my group a while to realize what was going on. After about five minutes, a crowd of about 40 Chinese had circled us, all staring at me. The people in my group became confused and nervous; I told them to relax and wait about more 30 seconds, until one brave soul came up and nervously asked me, “May I have a photo with you?” The moment I smiled and said yes, the floodgates opened, and everyone from Mommy to Uncle Jim, from Grandma to Baby Joe just had to have pictures with me and of me. By the time our group leader came back, she was baffled by the chaos, while most of my group members stared in shock, and I was just chuckling to myself. We spent about 10 minutes letting everyone get a photo until our group leader, thankfully, dragged me out of the crowd. This kind of thing happened a few more times, but my group was very gracious and good-natured about it.
My favorite attraction by far was the Forbidden City—an ancient palatial complex centrally located in Beijing, which has 9,999 rooms. I love the Forbidden City because of this vastness and its stout, majestic façade. Even though most of the rooms were closed when we visited, we were able to see numerous temples, rooms of ancient kings, courtiers, and concubines, and statues and carvings and calligraphy—so many beautiful things. The predominant colors were a powerful combination of red and gold, and the preciseness of the traditional palatial architecture and surrounding areas makes the Forbidden City a magnificent place to visit, even just to sit down on a quiet bench and read Confucian classics.
Towards the end of Dr. Wang’s two-week program, we were all working on final projects, while those of us who would remain for BLCU’s semester program were going through the registration process for our fall classes. On top of registration at BLCU, I also had to locate the China Conservatory on my own for registration at that university. Between finding out where to shop for groceries, arranging for Internet access in what would be my new dorm room, buying a cell phone, and moving my belongings from the hotel to my dorm room, which was on the other side of the campus, I was running around doing a billion things at once. Finally, the day of reckoning had come when we all had to take our placement exams for our classes. I did fairly well and was able to skip to higher level courses upon request.
The thing I liked the most about being at BLCU was that I made so many new friends from other countries. I made friends with people from Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Belgium, Holland, England, Russia, Malaysia, Canada, Kazakhstan, Japan, and of course, China. BLCU is a hub for students from all over the world to study Chinese, and it was amazing to be acquainted with so many people with such varying and diverse backgrounds.
In terms of academics, my main grammatical Chinese class was very challenging. Success would require that I go to the bookstore and buy a whole host of new grammatical books for English-speaking Chinese learners. My listening and speaking class was refreshing because our teacher was enthusiastic and had a vested interest in making sure our conversation was properly executed in every way. She was also very helpful and able to explain anything we needed to know clearly in Chinese. My language skills, reading and speaking, advanced greatly from living and studying in China.
It was my Exchange Between Chinese and Western Music history class at the China Conservatory that I found to be most interesting, though it was almost completely unintelligible for the first few months because the class was taught in Chinese to native Chinese speakers. What’s more is that my teacher used a great deal of musical jargon, which I was unfamiliar with because I had learned and spoke basic conversational Chinese. About three months into the class, I realized that the instructor was speaking with a southern Chinese accent, which is why I had an extra difficult time understanding him. By about December, however, I was able to decipher his fast talking, his unfamiliar accent, and a few of the musical terms, and I began to fully appreciate the content of the class. I also took a Traditional Han Chinese folk songs class at the conservatory that was loads of fun. It was so fascinating to learn how typical Chinese melodies differ so much from anything I have ever heard, in terms of tonal progression, the meter, and the lyrics. I made several friends there, and I presented a final project towards the end of the semester about American folk songs.
Out of my entire stay in China, my trip to Inner Mongolia for China’s National Day holiday break (which lasts ten days for everyone in the country) was by far the most phantasmagorical adventure of my study abroad experience. I joined two other Western students for the train and bus trip to the city of Hohhot. Seeing the Chinese countryside we traveled through was like taking a trip out west to mountainous states like Montana, Idaho, and Wyoming. We transferred to a bus after several hours on the train to get to our first destination, which was a massive reservation specifically maintained so tourists can see how the ancient Mongolians lived. It was absolutely breathtaking: rolling green hills and several camps of Mongolian huts, also known as yurts.
We eventually arrived at our campsite, and after a short break we went to the main horse pen and watched a Mongolian wrestling match, which was interesting, if not a little strange. They even invited some of the male audience members to participate. After the show, it was time for a dinner featuring lamb, chicken, and vegetables, and then on to another show, in which a Mongolian man and woman played and sang traditional Mongolian and Chinese songs to techno beats on an electric keyboard. When the performance was over, we headed out for a bonfire dance, which was great fun, until I realized that I had left my retainer on the table in the dining hut. When I went back inside the dining hut to find it, I saw that all of the tables had been cleaned. With help from some of the Korean people who accompanied us on the trip, I had to explain to the cooks to not get rid of any the garbage until I looked through it in the hopes of finding my retainer. After searching for about 15 minutes in the dark, I found the bottom half. By then it had gotten blisteringly cold and dark, so I was forced to postpone my search until the next morning. As soon as the sun came up, I put on my gloves and went back to the trash, and, luckily, found the other piece of my retainer.
We boarded a bus later that day for a six-hour trip to the edge of the Mongolian Desert, where the main attraction was a camel ride through the sand dunes. It was a blast, to say the least. I loved my camel the instant it was chosen for me, although it had some funny quirks, not the least of which was that its front hump was flat and laying to the right side of his body. I just assumed that it meant that either it was very hungry or very thirsty. Also, he stunk very badly, but I loved the ride anyway! After we got off the camels, we took turns sliding down a very tall sand dune on a plastic sled. After spending most of the early afternoon at the desert, we got back on the bus to return to Hohhot for a museum tour and gift shopping.
Out of all of my experiences in China, the most noteworthy was President Obama’s visit China as a part of his Asia tour in fall 2009. The Chinese government had asked BLCU to choose 20 American students to accompany several students from other Chinese colleges to put on a song and dance performance for President Obama and his delegation. I was lucky enough to have made friends with one person who had good connections with one of teachers selecting American students for the performance and I was chosen!
Our rehearsals took place several days over the next couple weeks in a majestic government hall in the middle of Beijing, where the dinner-show was to take place. I met a wide variety of people participating in this show, including Tibetan dancers, Uyghur musicians, and a very famous Chinese pop duo named Yu Quan. On performance day, I was placed at the last minute in the front row of dancers, where I was able to see President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the whole presidential delegation, not to mention Hu Jin Tao, China’s president, along with his presidential delegation. I felt so honored to have participated in that performance.
Studying abroad helped me globalize my degree by immersing myself in a foreign language and culture. To any of you thinking about studying abroad, here’s hoping that you have an even more phantasmagorical experience than I did!