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Austin FREEL FS2014-15, MIT | to China

My time in China was one of the most valuable experiences in my life. Having not traveled much before, this trip really opened my eyes to the fact that the world is composed of different cultures and values. Of course I had been taught this before, and I never doubted it, but seeing the Chinese culture first-hand made me realize that life can be lived in a variety of ways, none of which is necessarily right or wrong. Amongst the cultural differences I saw, perhaps the most interesting to me involved devotion to family and studies. As for the former, the family seems to play a much larger role than in a typical American household. People greatly respect their elders, children often live at home until married, and parents stress the importance of a timely marriage and childbearing. There are also subtle differences that reinforce these values—all meals are family-style and “dating” is less common than in the west, just to name a couple. In terms of studies, it is much clearer in China that test scores directly correspond with future quality of life. The “gaokao”, taken senior year of high school, determines not only what colleges a student can attend, but also what occupations can be reasonably achieved. Whether I agreed or disagreed with these differences, discussing them with my host brother and witnessing them first-hand made me really embrace the concept of culture in general; and thinking consciously about the culture I live in and the subcultures that I have worked or studied within has allowed me to form more informed opinions and has given me the desire to be a proponent of culture change where I see fit.


From an academic learning perspective, the experience was invaluable. Living in a country where all people speak the language you are studying allows you to subconsciously “study” all the time. My few hours of class each day built up my grammar and vocabulary, and then living with the host family and hanging out with friends I had made gave me great contextual experience. As I continue to study now, I realize how important my speaking Chinese on a daily basis is to my growth, and because of this, and because of the friends I have made in Tianjin, I hope to return to China again and again.


Living in China, even if for a short while, has showed me not only that I really enjoy the culture and people, but also that I fit in well there. I made friends at Tianjin University quickly and soon felt at home with my host family. It is for these reasons and more that I feel China is now a home away from home. As a result, I feel an even greater desire now to incorporate China and my increasing fluency in the language into my career plans. This incorporation can take many forms, the most extreme of which could even involve me working in China for some time. However, my most desired position would involve being an engineering manager at a tech company in the U.S. while also serving as a liaison between the U.S. and China divisions of the company, which in today’s technological world is becoming a more valued position as the U.S. and China continue to prove themselves as the world’s main technology hubs and catalysts. Academically, I still want to continue studying computer science in tandem with Mandarin as an undergraduate, but I am now exploring the possibility of post-graduate studies, specifically studies that have a mix of engineering and international business to parallel my career plan.


I now strongly feel that the U.S. and China are two powerhouses that should be working together on technological advancements. In China, I saw many pieces of software that mirror software in the U.S.—WeChat mirrors Facebook, Baidu mirrors Google Search, etc.—and all I could think of was what a waste it is to have separate pieces of software for different parts of the world if the function is the same. One could argue that competition leads to better software, but I feel the more present concern should be the discontinuity that this creates in the world. Especially involving social networks and the transmission of free information, I feel that making the world more connected will not only lead to more efficient technological jumps, but also a more unified world. Of course this is not a task for one person, but I feel now a strong desire to contribute to this cause of uniting the world technologically.


From a personal perspective, I have learned the importance in striving towards something you want and the related importance of not spreading yourself too thin. At MIT and in the workplace, I feel that it is too easy to get caught up in trying to do everything. If I have too much free time, I should be taking another class. If I have less work this weekend than usual, I should get going on that project due in a few weeks. In terms of efficiency, these habits are quite good, however I now feel that coming up for air every once in a while is of utmost importance. This past month not only gave me time to focus solely on Mandarin, it also gave me time to think about what I want to do with my life going forward. I now understand that coming up for air allows one to regain sight of one’s goals and to make small adjustments in the path of life towards these goals. And in regards to not spreading oneself too thin, these short hiatuses also allow one to redefine what is really of importance. So this trip gave me much more than just increased Mandarin proficiency. It opened my eyes to a new culture and way of living, it helped redefine what I value as important, it helped determine what I hope to do in the coming years of my life, and for this, I am eternally grateful.