Diary of a Year in China

Among the students returning to campus for the new school year is one who has been farther away, for longer, than nearly everyone else.

Axidi Iglesias '19 spent nine months last year more than 6,700 miles removed from campus in China with School Year Abroad (SYA). She and Brooks' other 2017-2018 SYA scholar Nick Miller '19 (who lived and studied in Spain) have returned with amazing experiences that they're happy to share. Read on for the first installment of a two-part series sharing details about each of the transformative trips — in their own words.

A longtime goal

I found out about Brooks through a program called A Better Chance. When A Better Chance scholars came to my middle school [in California] and spoke about their experiences at their private boarding schools, they all talked about SYA. Some had gone to Spain, and I told myself then and there: I was going to study abroad in high school. ... When I was younger, my parents were convinced I spoke a language unknown to mankind, with my squeaking-high voice going at the speed of lightning. My uncle apparently foretold my future because he would argue that I was speaking Chinese. How did he know that at the age of 16 I'd be studying abroad in Beijing?

Growing up speaking Spanish, it stood out as an easy choice when picking a language to study [when I came to Brooks]. Though difficult, learning Chinese intrigued me. I couldn't believe I'd be able to increase the number of people I could communicate with by billions! In my Chinese history class, my passion for China's rapid industrialization, culture, language and its people skyrocketed. I knew if I wanted to truly understand these concepts, I had to go to China for myself.

Learn about Brooks School's Exchange program, offering students the opportunity to study in Botswana, Hungary, Morocco, Peru, Scotland and Spain.

New home away from home

I stayed with a host family. My host dad, Pan Wei, is an engineer for a petroleum company based in Houston. My host mother, Hanjing, is a lawyer. My host sister (shown below) is 10-years-old and her name was Pan Zhimo, or "Mandy." I had the sweetest host grandmother, whom I called "nainai," what you call your grandmother from your dad's side. (After SYA was over in May and I returned home to Santa Ana, California, my host mother and host sister came to stay with my family and me for a week.)

Initial adjustments

Going to the bathroom proved to be surprisingly challenging. Not only are China's public bathrooms not very clean, they are also squat toilets. Even our academic building had squat toilets! It was hard to adjust at first, but once I completely mastered them, I was no longer afraid to use the open ones with no door or partitions, and I felt like I'd accomplished something!

A day in the life

Every day of the week, my alarm went off at 6:45 a.m. I snooze, and on occasion, my host mother had to knock on my door to make sure I was awake. I would throw on my uniform — a pair of sweatpants and a tee-shirt bearing "海外学年"(School Year Abroad) and go to the kitchen for the usual Chinese breakfast: rice porridge, bread, and fruit. Once I was ready for the school day, I said goodbye to my host family and left the apartment. The instant I stepped out of my building, the breeze of fresh air (or not so fresh in Beijing's case) hit me and I was ready to start a new day.

I always walked past my building security guards and said "Good morning" (早上好) to them. As I stepped onto the street, I looked both ways to make it across to the sidewalk. I am not kidding: The street outside my complex was about a car's width and just trying to cross that distance I was almost hit a few times by a young biker, a rickshaw, a car, and a grandpa riding a motorcycle with his grandchild on the back. Once I crossed the 15 feet safely, I walked for a ten minutes to get to school and often ran into friends who lived near me. I often bought a coffee or coconut milk, which was sold at a corner stand.

At school, I took Honors classes: English, Pre-Calculus, AP Environmental Science, Chinese History, and three classes of Chinese — one being a smaller class with two other kids who were about the same level as I was in Chinese, so we could really practice our speaking skills.

Every day before lunch, we had five classes and then there was lunch — everyone's favorite class. We were able to choose from the various Chinese dishes offered. My favorite was red bean buns, cabbage, tofu, and white rice. If the line is not long, I made my own spicy stir-fry and topped it off with the best sesame sauce ever.

After school, I tried to go to the gym but if it was a Monday, I took calligraphy classes with the most amazing wisest, old man ever. On Tuesdays, AP Environmental Science had lab days, which tended to be cool because if we were not measuring the fecal form in Beijing's canal water, then we were exploring the different types of plants found on our campus and conducting experiments.

On Wednesdays, I taught English to the staff at the Holiday Inn near school, and it was very rewarding because what I taught them was directly applied into their jobs. On Wednesday nights I often went to the pop dance class offered at my gym and was able to talk to other people (and answer their many questions about America). I was both amused and flattered by people who complimented my Chinese because I only had to say one word of Chinese and I was praised for being fluent. On Thursdays, I usually choose to workout and return home early to wash clothes. After I was done hanging it on the balcony, I talked to my host mother for hours at a time about my day, and everything happening in our lives.

Fridays were half days, so students were free for the entirety of the afternoon to go out and explore everything Beijing had to offer. The schedule enabled SYA China students to truly immerse themselves in the city of Beijing because we had a fantastic amount of free time to explore, try new things (like jump rope team, shown above), and discover more and more about the culture surrounding us. Various clubs also met on Friday afternoons. I would go to the Bilingual Club, where SYA students get to know the Chinese students from erfuzhong (the school we were in) while practicing our language skills.

On Saturdays I taught English to a young boy, and really enjoyed it. My favorite thing to do every day, however, was going home early and talk to my family. Living with a Chinese host family in Beijing, I was really able to understand Chinese culture at a deeper level and put my language skills to the test.

The highlights

I loved traveling. Out of the 34 provinces in China, I was able to live in the municipality of Beijing and visit the provinces Hebei, Heilongjiang, Shanghai, Shanxi, Shandong, Hong Kong, Gansu, and Yunnan.

Priceless takeaways

What I learned about myself in China continued a process that I began when I arrived at Brooks School. I had grown up with palm trees and sun in California, and the big oaks with changing leaves and the coldness of Massachusetts was a real change. Culture shock hit me like a brick because I had always been in classrooms with people who looked like me. My grades suffered, and I transitioned from a straight A student to a B student. I missed home a lot but I knew it was in my own hands to make the most out of my experience. I changed my attitude and soon enough, I saw the results I wanted. My grades flourished and being able to gain new experiences in a new place, with new people. I became more confident and sure of my goals and myself.

Chinese was one of my passions and I wanted to learn it hands-on, outside of the classroom. At Brooks, I gained a desire to explore the world and expand my horizons. I was given the opportunity to go to China and I went for it.

China taught me that self-growth doesn't mean realizing who you are when you find yourself in a new place, but being able to reflect on where you have been to be at the place where you find yourself today.

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