The 14-hour flight from Washington, D.C., to Beijing was the first time Josh Martin had ever flown. It was also the first time he’d been out of the country, and pretty much the first time he had ever really traveled at all, except for the away games that occasionally took him out of state during his four years as an infielder for the baseball team at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU).
And his arrival in the Chinese capital – home to somewhere around 20 million people who speak a language entirely foreign to his own – was the first time the Crozet, Va., native had been to a big city.
“That as a really big eye-opener for me,” Martin says. “I really had no clue what to expect.”
He certainly wasn’t alone. Trip leader Myrrl Byler estimates that about one-third of the last EMU group he led to China was flying for the first time, and the experience often represents students’ first time outside the United States. Byler, director of the Mennonite Partners in China program (a partnership between several church mission boards and Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and development non-profit), has led three-week cross-cultural study trips to China every May since 2004. In 2012, math professor Leah Boyer was the faculty co-leader of the trip.
The curriculum includes an introduction to written and conversational Chinese, lectures on Chinese culture, tai chi classes, a several-day homestay with a Chinese family, and plenty of interaction with Chinese university students.
After some sightseeing in Beijing, Byler takes the group to a “smaller” Chinese city where they spend the majority of their time. In May 2012, the group went west to Nanchong, a Chinese city populated by around 1 million in Sichuan province. (Nanchong also rates “small” by another metric useful for assessing Chinese cities: it has just one McDonald’s).
With the enormous language and culture barriers, the unfamiliar food and the sometimes overwhelming attention that the group can attract from curious Chinese people with little exposure to foreigners, Byler says the trip forces students far out of their comfort zones. The homestay in particular, he says, can cause particular anxiety, although many of the students end up looking back on the experience as one of the highlights of the trip.
“You had to build patience,” says Valerie Burton ’10 Moore, who went on the China cross-cultural in the summer of 2010. “You just had to relax.”
New food experiences were among the things that placed demands on Moore’s patience and, ultimately, widened her horizons. These included all kinds of seafood, noodles for breakfast, unusual (from her American perspective) preparations of chicken, pork, duck and lamb, unfamiliar vegetables and dishes so spicy her nose broke out in a sweat. While she likely wouldn’t have tried these foods if the decision had been up to her, Moore eventually came around, and after returning home, resisted eating American “Chinese” food for more than a year – not wanting to tarnish the memory of the actual, real Chinese food she’d come to enjoy.
Moore, a four-year member of the EMU soccer team, also says the attention she and the other students received from Chinese people took some getting used to.
“They almost treated us like celebrities,” she says. “They were gawking all the time.”
The American students’ height was often an object of great interest, as were those with blonde or red hair. EMU senior Jennifer Blankenship, who went on the 2012 China cross-cultural, recalls Chinese people often crowding around members of her group, asking for autographs, or even pushing babies into the students’ arms for photo ops.
“Everybody wanted pictures with us wherever we went,” says Blankenship, a four-year member of the EMU basketball team.
At least one basketball or volleyball game is usually on the agenda during the group’s visits to Chinese high schools and universities – often the Chinese school’s varsity team versus an ad-hoc team of cross-cultural students – as when Blankenship and a few other students played basketball against a Chinese team in Nanchong. Blankenship says the court was surrounded by hundreds of fans – more than typically attend her games at EMU – and the atmosphere was electric.
“When I made a good pass or basket, everyone went crazy,” she says.
The attention wasn’t all positive, however. Dirty looks from men sometimes made female students feel uncomfortable, and Blankenship says some vendors tried to take advantage of the students’ naïveté by ripping them off. Blankenship, who is white, says the experience gave her insight into how minorities in the United States might feel when they are subject to discrimination based on skin color or unfamiliarity with American culture.
Blankenship, Moore and Martin all say one reason they chose the China cross-cultural was because it happens during the summer, when it didn’t interfere with their sports schedules. (Numerous athletes have been on Byler’s five summer cross-culturals to China, although he is now planning a semester-long trip for the fall of 2013, to be co-led with math professor Deirdre Smeltzer.)
In almost all cases, Byler says, his students have arrived back home with new appreciation for travel and interaction with unfamiliar people and places, after being stretched out of their comfort zones by the trip.
Though he discovered he has a strong anxiety about flying, Martin said he “definitely wants to travel abroad again.”
Martin graduated from EMU after the cross-cultural, and is now working in Harrisonburg. He will start a baseball-coaching job next spring at his alma mater, Western Albemarle High School outside Charlottesville, Va.
Blankenship returned home equally enthusiastic about the experience.
“I want to go back,” she says. “I have to take my future spouse. I want to share that. I can’t imagine only going that one time.”