First a stranger, student finds her way on China trip
Sarah McDougal didn't know the language or anyone in China, but after 41/2 months at a university, she wants to go back.
By JACK BRIERLEY
Published February 9, 2005
ST PETERSBURG - Drooping, Sarah McDougal walked out of a crowded Chinese airport and into the smoggy air.
After a 30-hour flight with stops in Los Angeles and South Korea, the University of South Florida St. Petersburg scholarship student was exhausted and alone on the other side of the world.
She could not speak Chinese.
As she left the Tianjin airport, she began to worry: She had not planned how to get from the airport to Nan Kai University, where she was to stay for the semester.
"I showed a couple of cab drivers the address for my university, but of course it was written in English so they didn't understand it," said McDougal, 24. "I tried telling them the name of the university, but my pronunciation was so bad that they did not have a clue what I was saying."
The drivers would study the university logo.
"One of them recognized it and was able to drop me off about 2 miles away from where I needed to be," McDougal said.
"Unfortunately, I had to drag my bags for the other 2 miles to the university."
The psychology student traveled to China in September on a $5,000 Freeman Asia Scholarship she won last year. McDougal spent 41/2 months at Nan Kai and returned to St. Petersburg last month.
She stayed with other foreign students on the campus in Tianjin, which is about 11/2 hours from Beijing. Nan Kai is one of the top universities directly under the administration of the Ministry of Education of China. Former Prime Minister Zhou Enlai is among its alumni.
McDougal studied Chinese for four hours a day, earning the equivalent of 12 American university credits in the language.
"Everyone was very friendly toward me and I was treated no differently, except for the Chinese liked to say "Hello' a lot. It is the only English a lot of them know, so everywhere I went, people were saying "Hello' to me.
"I thought it was funny at first, but it got kind of old after about three months."
McDougal said the Chinese are more comfortable with a smaller personal space than Westerners. It could be a quirk of necessity on a campus with 27,869 students and in a country with more than 1.3-billion people.
"After I came back, it took a while for me to get used to being further away from people in conversation," McDougal said.
The biggest misconception Westerners have is about the food, she said.
"The food there was very much the same as what you would eat in a Chinese restaurant here," she said. "I came back and everybody expected me to have eaten dog and horse, but it's not like that. There is only one province in China that does eat dog and even the rest of China thinks it's a little strange."
During her stay, McDougal took a four-day trip to Inner Mongolia, the homeland of conqueror Genghis Khan and the most barren place McDougal said she has ever seen.
"There would be a small village surrounded by absolutely nothing for miles."
Inner Mongolia, which borders Russia, is China's third-largest province. It contains desert and vast grasslands, and is a major agricultural region.
Unlike many students who choose to study abroad in Europe, McDougal chose China as an alternative. According to the Institute of International Education, about 6 percent of students who study abroad travel to east and southeast Asia compared to the 60 percent who travel to Europe.
"Everybody goes to Europe, so organizations are practically throwing money at anyone who wants to go to Asia and has a valid reason," she said.
"I think it is a better experience and by doing it, you really get to experience a completely different way of living."
The Freeman Asia Scholarship awards about 500 grants a year, ranging from $1,000 to $7,000, depending on the length of the stay and financial need.
McDougal received the award based in part on her desire to study in China, her financial need and her grades. The organization also takes into account how relevant the trip would be to a student's proposed major.
McDougal's main interest is cross-cultural psychology.
"Its main focus is comparing and contrasting the main differences between Eastern and Western peoples and cultures," she said."
Recipients have to promote going to Asia to study once they return. Since being back, McDougal has talked to college business classes about traveling to China.
McDougal's future plans include additional trips to China and perhaps beyond.
"I would like to go back to travel around a bit more, maybe travel to Russia on the Trans-Siberian/Mongolian Railroad."
McDougal's advice to anyone who wants to travel to Asia:
"Do lots and lots of research, make contact with people who have been before and ask them lots of questions."
And of course, make sure that you have transportation from the airport.
For information about the Freeman Asia Scholarship program, visit www.iie.org/programs/freeman-asia/
[Last modified February 9, 2005, 00:44:18]
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