Matt Colbert - 2015 Program Participant

The Three Pagodas of Dali, Yunnan, China

The Three Pagodas of Dali, Yunnan, China - We spent our first week in China doing orientation in this beautiful city.

Why did you decide to study abroad?

I have always been interested in the word beyond my immediate grasp. To see what other cultures and lifestyles there were elsewhere, to experience this firsthand as opposed to learning about it in a book, or being presented with the misconstrued images through forms of media. I have always loved languages and, after studying Spanish and then moving onto Chinese, I knew that I really wanted to get out and live somewhere where I could utilize these skills. I am also an international and intercultural studies major, and while it's a requirement to go abroad, I had always planned to.

Why did you choose IES Abroad in China?

As I have been studying Chinese, I learned more about the culture through my teachers, and knew while it is incredibly different, different is good because it stretches your brain and pushes your levels of comfort. My college only offered a program in Beijing, China, and it did not have as many cultural aspects as I hoped to have. I also do not like big cities, let alone one such as Beijing, at such a size, population, and of course the reputation for haze. I searched for programs that were located in smaller cities, but were also developed enough to make daily-life still enjoyable to the level that I am used to. I also was looking for a program that had a focus on the development of China economically, but primarily environmentally.

The IES Abroad Kunming program definitely hit the spot on all of these notions. I took a core course on regionalism throughout Southeast Asia, an economics course on China's development, an environmental course focused on the different issues within China and the Greater Mekong Subregion (strongly focusing on hydroelectric dam development on the river), and of course an intensive Chinese language course.

People sitting on a bench while hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge in China

Our breakfast spot at the Halfway Guesthouse while hiking Tiger Leaping Gorge

What was your favorite part about Kunming?

Kunming, Yunnan, China is situated in southern-central China, one of the most biodiverse provinces as well as ethnically diverse areas, compared to other regions throughout China. While the friction of distance is much greater in China than here in the U.S. (in the sense of time to reach a certain distance), traveling by train is incredibly easy and a great way to meet new people and practice your Chinese. The city has many different places that you can go on day-trips as well as weekend trips (i.e. Tiger Leaping Gorge, Stone Forest, Luoping Flower Fields, etc). Kunming is also known as the city of "eternal spring," and it truly lived up to its name, by being warm almost the entire semester that I was there and encouraging me to get outside and explore the city.

What made your program unique?

The type of academic work and how we went about learning.

How did your trips outside the classroom help bring your coursework to life?

Our first week in China, for orientation, we traveled to Dali (a city five hours north of Kunming), where we became closer with one another while traveling the city and beginning our studies. We stayed at an artist-designed hotel that we more or less filled up, except for a few rooms, so felt we had the place to ourselves. While we had classroom lessons there, we also went on a day-trip to bike to the lake below the city, taking pit stops here and there to learn about the local ethnicity, take a look at the architecture, examine the invasive species in the lake and how they were introduced to solve a pollution problem (yet caused another one!), the rice industry, and the differences between the different Southeast Asian states.

At the end of the semester we went on a two-week adventure through the Southeast Asian states we had been learning about during the semester, allowing us to visualize that which we had read and discussed in class. The adventure included traveling by foot over the border into Vietnam, after a night learning about the culture of those traveling over the border daily to trade goods and future potential developments to increase this practice, meeting with U.S. ambassadors and professors at local universities in northern and southern Vietnam, and traveling with Vietnamese students into the Mekong Delta to discuss the implications of climate change and what they knew of it. We also gave student presentations at different destinations to not only see the beauty of the countries but also learn more about their histories.

Poshui Jie, the Water Splashing Festival of the Dai Ethnicity in Xishuang Banna, Yunnan

Poshui Jie, the Water Splashing Festival of the Dai Ethnicity in Xishuang Banna, Yunnan

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

Our RA was incredibly helpful in all things regarding the city. She had studied in the same program we were in and returned for the year, so she had a vast knowledge of all things to do in the city, from parks to go and hang out in, malls to shop in, restaurants to eat at, clubs to join (dance teams, rugby, soccer), and how to get around the city and get to destinations outside of the city.

Our student program coordinator had also been in China for awhile, and his knowledge of the language and culture was incredibly influential. Not only did he coordinate great programs for us to go on, if we wished, but he was also always up for fun here and there, playing ping pong after classes or going out to dinner. We were always able to pick his brains for ways to say different things or learn new vocabulary.

Our program director had an even greater amount of experience in the country, living there for the past 10 years and creating the program himself. He was also a professional on the topics that we were learning. He and the student program coordinator together had a blog focusing on the different issues throughout Southeast Asia and development of all sorts. We were always able to wander into his office and chitchat about a recent development that we found interesting and pick his brain to see how he viewed them, while at the same time not pushing his views onto us, but explaining to us why he felt so (normally he was right, in my head).

He has also been incredibly helpful after leaving the program, offering help with recommendation letters and brainstorming with us for our senior thesis. I was lucky enough to be there for both his and our student coordinator's last semester with the program, but I can guarantee that they have chosen phenomenal replacements; they both know the extent of the program's importance to the students and also to themselves, wanting to continue to legacy of such an incredible program and abroad learning experience for students such as me.

Our head Chinese language teacher was incredible, he hosted a student in his home for the semester and was always pushing our language abilities. He was a great source to learn about Chinese traditions and customs, and of course the "do's and don'ts" while in China that we did not know before coming to the country, without being condescending and telling us we were wrong and impolite. He was understanding that it was the difference in our cultures that held us back from knowing the right way to approach a certain situation, and explained and taught us what the differences were that we hadn't learned yet.

Hiking in the countryside of Sappa, Vietnam

We spent our first day in Vietnam hiking through the countryside of Sappa

What's do you wish you could change about your experience?

Applied to live in a homestay earlier than I did. Half of the students in the program received a homestay family, 10, while the other half were in dorms. While the dorm life was great and incredibly flexible, I would have loved to live with a family to push my language skills everyday.

Get out into the city more. I found that toward the end of the semester, I hadn't really explored all the corners of the city. But once I realized this my friends and I truly pushed to explore more, taking buses as far as we wanted then hopping out to walk around, then we’d find a restaurant to eat in and find our way home.

What was a typical day like for you as an international student in China?

Weekday: Wake up around 7:30 a.m., walk downstairs and out onto the street our dorms were on, and make my daily visit to the Baozi (steamed buns) Shop. Get breakfast for 7 Yuan ($1), cross the street to the university's campus. go to Chinese class for an hour and a half, go to our center's library/study room do some homework, then go down to my one-on-one Chinese lesson, where I spoke with a local Chinese professor on my recent chapter entirely in Chinese for 45 minutes. Meet up with my classmates and go to the dining hall ($1/meal) or a nearby restaurant for lunch ($3) before returning to the building for an afternoon class (either regionalism, economics, or environmental).

After class I would battle it out with our student programs coordinator on our program's ping pong table for a few hours before heading out and exploring the city in search of a new restaurant to eat at. Then I would return to the dorms to complete readings and Chinese homework, and if we didn't have much, hung out in the RA living room (our lounge open to all students) watching movies or tv shows before bed.

Weekends: I either went on adventures outside of the city to go on a hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge or check out the pandas in Chengdu or hung around the city and visited nearby lakes or went biking into the mountains surrounding the city. I would spend the nights going out to bars to meet other internationals or locals to practice our Chinese and make new friends, and maybe make our way to the club district in the city for some hours of dancing.

What is one of your most memorable moments from your time in China?

During the Chinese Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) we were given a week of free time to explore as we wished. I had worked in Guilin the summer before and took two of my friends with me to visit the city and my old boss, before traveling back by train and choosing to make a pit-stop in Luoping. While it is known for its waterfalls, our timing was perfect for the blooming of the rapeseed flowers. We started walking along the riverside and walking up next to the multiple levels of waterfalls before coming up into an area where we were surrounded by yellow flowers everywhere. We took the train home that night and the next day our program all went on a trip to southern Yunnan to learn about the local ethnic minorities and their interactions with the government and how development has affected them.

Tell us more about your accommodation. What did you like best about it?

I lived in a dorm room with one other student on our program. We both had a desk and shared the room and the bathroom. I'm a simple person so I would have been happy with anything. Our setup was the classic dorm room like back in the states, maybe a little smaller but we were only there for sleeping. If we weren't sleeping, we were spending our time hanging out in the dorm's lounge with the other dorm students and any homestay students that hadn't returned home yet.

I really enjoyed living in the dorms because I always had my classmates around me and we'd go on explorations of the city together and practice Chinese with locals together. And I had the choice of going out on solo adventures if I wanted my space and some alone time. Some of the most fun I had was in our lounge too, whether it was after class and no one wanted to do homework but chill and talk, walk a movie, or have a spontaneous dance party when we didn't want to go to the club.

How has studying abroad in China impacted your life?

The program greatly expanded my knowledge on the region and all the issues that are happening there, and how governments, people, organizations, etc. are going about fixing them. My language skills have improved incredibly as we were taking intensive courses and practicing what we were learning almost everyday.

It has opened my eyes up to the possible work opportunities available throughout the region, while also giving me the connections that will help me get those jobs and positions if I choose to pursue them. It has also strengthened my desire to focus my studies on the area and the topics that we covered in the classes. While before my semester abroad I did not do much outside-of-class learning (self-learning/researching,) it has brought about a greater interest and desire to continue to learn about the region and the different things occurring there.