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Study Abroad with the School for International Training (SIT)

Choose from Nontraditional Destinations

Study Abroad with SIT with locals in a village in China.
Study Abroad with SIT and teach children in China.
Villagers in Xishuangbanna at work; Children at play in a Bulang minority village, Xishuangbanna.

Communist country?" my mother pleaded over the phone. After months of pouring through study abroad information, I had finally decided to study abroad with the School for International Training (SIT) in Yunnan province, China. As an anthropology major, SIT's combination of homestays, language and culture training, travel, and intensive fieldwork appealed to me. The difficulty was in choosing only one of 70 programs. However, Yunnan's cultural diversity, spicy food, and temperate weather, along with SIT's experience, convinced me that I had to study in China, Communist or not.

Before I left, I devoured books and articles and photographs about China, while my grandmother tried to fatten me up. During World War II, my grandfather was stationed in Kunming — the same city where I would study — and became so malnourished that he lost all his teeth. My grandmother worried that China had not changed much since then. Kunming, however, proved to be a modern city, complete with skyscrapers, McDonald's, and even Wal-Mart. I could sip a cappuccino in the morning, eat pizza for lunch, and in the afternoon buy a movie on DVD that was still in American theaters. My host sister spoke excellent English, so my lack of Chinese posed no problems. Any thoughts of culture shock vanished.

But after several weeks of culture and language courses in Kunming, things got more complicated: we were to travel around Yunnan to any destination that interested us. The academic directors, Sam Mitchell and Lu Yuan, had carefully guided us up to that point. Now, we had to purchase our own bus tickets to our chosen destination, find accommodation and food, and return to Kunming within five days. This required both language and cultural skills.

My friends and I decided to visit Xishuangbanna, the southernmost prefecture in Yunnan, to trek through rice paddies, Dai minority villages, and tropical rainforests.

As our bus roared away from Kunming, we saw postcard-esque visions of swaying palm-trees, beautiful Dai woman bathing in rivers, and golden-haired monkeys. Soon we were writhing through roller-coaster-like twists and turns on bumpy, dirt roads so narrow that part of the bus often hung off the road, dangling precariously over the mountainside. Despite the uncomfortable — even frightening — journey, we arrived safely in Xishuangbanna 18 hours after our departure. With no difficulty, we found food and affordable accommodation, explored the local markets, and drank pineapple beer with local workers.

The next day, we caught a mini-bus to a town several hours away, near the borders with Myanmar and Laos. The town, which was actually two cross-streets with a few scattered buildings, was our last stop before a 60-km trek into rice paddies, villages, and jungles unknown to our guidebook writers. We trekked through spectacular scenery and withstood curious stares until dusk, when a young man approached us offering a room for the night. He led us to a village of about 20 bamboo huts where dirt-clad children scampered to look at us while chickens and pigs sauntered about.

After a quick tour of the village and its Theravada temple, we ate a simple meal of rice, cabbage, and eggs with our hosts. We drank baijiu (Chinese spirits), chatted in Chinese, and listened to the wild drums of a party nearby until time for bed. My hosts, a family of four, had no running water or electricity. When I asked my hostess where the bathroom was, she replied, "Suibian" ("wherever").

The next day, as we continued our trek, we met people who not only spoke no Mandarin, but who spoke no Chinese at all. Instead, they spoke local minority languages, such as Dai and Lahu. Although I had studied Chinese history and culture before coming to study in Yunnan, I was astonished by the mosaic of cultures I found.

While my readings on China initially had helped me to adjust, I ultimately experienced deep culture shock. No amount of reading could have prepared me for actually living there. But culture shock was part of the experience, something I could not prevent and something I now value.

In China, I learned as much about my own culture — if not more — than I did about Chinese culture. Every day I en-countered situations that made me question what I take for granted as "natural." I suddenly realized that certain aspects of my life were distinctly American — they were not simply part of life.

Prostitution and ethnic relations in Xishuangbanna became the subject of my honors thesis, "Marketing Difference: Dai/Han Ethnic Relations in a Tourist Paradise." I'm currently back in China, teaching English, traveling, and preparing for graduate school, where I hope to continue to study Chinese anthropology and history.

Study Abroad with SIT

Despite the culture shock — or because of it — studying in nontraditional destinations provides a unique, valuable experience. SIT offers a range of programs in nontraditional destinations that include a month-long fieldwork component — ideal for anthropology, sociology, ecology, and other field-based majors.

SIT's Yunnan program required no previous Mandarin. Other programs I found in China required proficiency in Mandarin. If your object of study in China is to improve your Mandarin, perhaps one of these programs would suit you better. While SIT's program offers excellent training in both language and cultures, some students found it too culturally intense. My own experiences in Yunnan made me rush back as soon as I could. Contact the School for International Training.

Lesley Turnbull, a Houston native, recently graduated from the Univ. of Texas-Austin with a B.A. in anthropology and history. Before heading off to graduate school next fall, she plans to travel in Southeast Asia, China, Korea, and Mongolia.


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