Guest Article: Sydney Gorman
As a young woman of mixed heritage, I had the unique experience of absorbing two cultures growing up: American culture and Chinese culture. I spent a great deal of time with my Chinese family; understanding the importance of the Moon and Chinese New Year festivals, applying a certain familial structure of respect, and learning that moon cakes weren’t exactly the greatest thing to eat. However, I didn’t begin to speak Chinese until I took it as a class being offered for the first time my sophomore year of high school.
I knew that I had family that still remained in China even after both my grandparents had fled to escape Mao’s Communist regime. I also knew that there was a complex family history between both of my grandparents. My grandmother’s father had been a general under reform leader Sun Yat-Sen, who had been looking to put an end to the hierarchy of the Qing Dynasty. My grandfather’s mother had been one of the remaining descendants of that same dynasty, desperately trying to cling to power. As you can imagine, I became more intrigued by the idea of visiting China and meeting the other members of my Chinese family and hearing their perspectives on their family histories.
The opportunity to study abroad came with my acceptance to the University of Illinois as a Global Studies Major. My junior year, through the Alliance for Global Education program in Beijing, China, I spent the Fall 2011 semester experiencing a whole new side to my culture, speaking Chinese to native speakers, and interacting with the Soo and Dan families.
When I met my grandmother’s half-brother, and his wife for the first time, there was definitely a language gap—most of the time I was unable to get across what I actually wanted to say. But they were very patient with me and extremely hospitable and treated me like family. They took me out to dinner and did everything they could to make sure I was comfortable and safe in Beijing, in spite of having only met me a few times during my stay. However, each time my Chinese had improved and our conversations became more in-depth.
Similarly, I met with my grandfather’s family while my parents came to visit in China. Most of the family could not speak English, so we mostly relied on my grandfather’s brother, Soo Shao-Zhi, to translate some of the more complex dialogue. Again, the entire family took us out to dinner for Beijing roast duck and treated us like we saw them all the time. It was a wonderful experience.
I think the biggest realization that I had such a caring family was when I became sick; the moment I informed my mother’s cousin of my illness, they took me to the family doctor and purchased medicine for me to take. During the week they repeatedly checked on me to make sure that I was doing well.
I asked both Dan Gong-Pu and Soo Shao-Zhi to tell me about their lives prior to the Communist takeover; I don’t think that I could have ever come up with a story as fascinating as the one told to me firsthand by my family. One day I hope to compile all of their stories and share them with the world.
While my experience is unique to me, I believe that people can find out more about themselves in one semester abroad in China then in many years. It is important to make your own story and to be able to share it with others. I hope that if you have the opportunity to study abroad, you take it immediately! You never know what sort of adventures you might end up having when you are in a new place. I hope my journey with the Alliance for Global Education inspires you to create your own story.