Anyone who has travelled knows that travel changes you. Yet how often do we take the time to really reflect on exactly how a new place has expanded our perspective?
For students undertaking a two-week trip to China as part of an international field-study course, writing a paper about their experience provided an opportunity not only to record their itinerary, but to meditate on their responses to a culture so different from their own. For Aaron Eelhart, a third-year general sciences student at the University of Lethbridge, the personal reflection and photo essay he wrote also earned him this year’s Michael Chan Prize in Asian Studies.
To understand Eelhart’s experiences, his own words are the best source.
“In elementary and high school, I had been taught that China was a backward country. I was essentially taught that China was two things: a competitor and an oppressed country controlled by a brutal regime. It is beyond doubt that these teachings were based in some truth for the time, but I have learned that China is a country far too rich in culture and history to be defined by any singular thing,” wrote Eelhart in his reflection paper.
In spite of taking the mandatory preparation class (Global Mental Health with U of L professor Dr. Bonnie Lee), Eelhart says he still found himself incredulous upon touching down in the new country.
“It was like landing on an alien planet, really. It was a huge culture shock, but it was very exciting,” he says.
Besides visiting Shanghai and Nanjing as part of the field study, Eelhart and some of his fellow students also booked a four-day tour package to see Beijing and sites like the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Not only was it his first time in China, but it was his first time travelling outside the country since he was eight years old.
In his reflection paper, Eelhart meditated particularly on the language differences.
“I had to laugh at myself during my stay as it allowed me to remember what it feels like to be illiterate. I have been able to read English since I was very young, but Chinese characters are something I do not understand in the slightest,” he wrote.
He was also impressed by how well his Chinese counterparts spoke English.
“I did not know enough Mandarin to engage in even the simplest of conversations. The whole experience at Fudan [the university that the students visited] really made me respect the ability to speak multiple languages,” he explained.
For a student working two jobs to support his education, the Chan Award really means a lot.
“It helps me big time this semester. The $1,000 that I got as a prize went straight toward my tuition,” says Eelhart.
The trip itself made him eager to go back as soon as he can.
“Barring unforeseen circumstances, I will return to China. There is so much happening there, and I want to be a part of it. My experience has taught me that the world is a much larger place than I previously realized. It is a big, beautiful world out there. I want to experience it.”