Rexroad Simons



Stanford in Beijing, Autumn Quarter 2014-15
Major: International Relations
College year while abroad: Junior


Why did you choose to study abroad in Beijing?

I first started taking Mandarin back in first grade when I was in Minnesota, so by the time I got to Stanford I more or less already knew that studying aboard in China was at some point in my future. I was able to tour the country for two weeks when I was a junior in high school, but that was really only an appetizer for all that the country has to offer. 3 months at Peking University would provide the ultimate immersion experience and allow me to both drastically improve my Chinese proficiency while exploring the boundaries of my comfort zone and really experiencing a culture other than my own for the first time.

What were your expectations before you went and how did those change once you arrived in Beijing? 

Like others, I really had no idea what to expect when I stepped off my plane in Beijing. I had only spent two days in the city prior to that point, so while I knew a little about the major attractions, PKU was a completely foreign land. In general, I felt that it was going to be a whirlwind experience, and I was definitely correct on that point. I think in many ways I expected China to be just like it was when I visited back in high school, but it was amazing to see just how much a country could change in just a few short years. Whether it was the hundreds of new buildings, new stores, new faces, and in many ways with the Beijing accent a new language, China was just the kind of boundary-pushing abroad experience that I was looking for.  

What were some of the academic benefits from studying abroad in Beijing?

For anyone interested in international relations or the global economy, China is probably the place to be to truly witness how the balance of power is shifting in the world. The program at PKU worked perfectly with my IR major and many of the courses offered were extremely similar to ones that I would have taken back on campus. But, they had the added benefit of actually being applicable to the changes and trends that I was able to witness around the city. PKU is also one of the most important universities in all of Asia, so the resources that were available from the library to the Stanford Center made it feel like we really hadn’t left the Farm. One of the great opportunities we had through the program was the course taught by our visiting professor from Stanford Scott Rozelle. His class focused on changes in the rural economic structure in China, but we soon learned just how much these small changes could impact the larger economy. And, with an economics background, it was also interesting to learn how a controlled capitalistic economy worked in practice. I took a lot of things for granted when it came to economics because of the amount of freedom we have in the U.S. with a completely capitalist driven economy, so seeing how Chinese communism interacted with Western free market practices was a unique opportunity to say the least.  

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it?

My biggest challenge was less of a specific moment and more of a sentiment that I think everyone on the trip had at one point or another. The character of the program means that you are spending most of your time with your fellow Stanford travelers. Tight hostel rooms, dorm accommodations on Straddie and Heron, and the fact that you are all taking the same classes together all adds up to not getting very much down or alone time. I think everyone got to a point on the trip where they really just wanted some space and maybe had a hard time finding it. This was a very important lesson for us to all learn- how and when to take time for ourselves and how to respect others’ need to do the same.

What did you learn about yourself while you were studying abroad? 

I learned that you really have to put yourself out there in order to get the most out of your experience aboard. One of the mistakes that I made on my prior China trip was not trying enough to interact with the locals and speak as much Mandarin as possible, but this experience made me realize how much the time and effort I’ve put into Mandarin has paid off. There’s an app similar to Uber called didi dache where you can request taxis at any point around the city using your voice. However, the cab drivers only know you’re voice, so often when they came to pick me up they would speed right by because they later said I sounded like a local on the phone, not a foreigner. That’s what over a decade of Chinese classes gets you I guess. You have to be able to trust yourself and know that you will make mistakes with any foreign language, and that locals really appreciate it when you make the effort to try and communicate. Pushing you’re boundaries is the only way to get the most out of any experience, and you’ll always really be pleased with the results. 

What was the most challenging experience you encountered while you were abroad and what did you learn from it? 

The most challenging experience I faced while abroad was probably dealing with complex intersections of East and West that currently exists in multiple parts of Chinese culture. One minute Beijing was a completely foreign city on the other side of the world, and the next it was a city filled with Western stores, people wearing the latest brands and McDonalds on every single street corner. In such an international city there is definitely a risk of simply reverting back to old habits and just eating burgers or going to the same stores you would back in the U.S. or Europe, but the real Beijing and the real abroad experience was much harder to find, but also much more rewarding. Walking around a hutong (small neighborhood) on the outskirts of town with no other foreigners in sight were probably some of the most rewarding experiences I had on the trip, but they were not the “easiest” ones to have. Push your boundaries and you will truly discover all that Beijing has to offer. The intersection between East and West also served to highlight the importance of holding on to your own culture and background as much as possible. It was amazing to be in a culture where history meets modernization in so many places, but it was still disappointing to see just how much of old Beijing is being knocked down to make way for new skyscrapers and shopping malls. My one tip here would be to seek out these local and ancient experiences in Beijing as much as possible before they are gone forever. They truly exemplify what makes China such an amazing place.  

How was your experience living with local families? 

Although we lived in the Shaoyuan international student dorms on campus, we did have the opportunity to interact with the locals through two amazing opportunities: language partners and cooking classes with local families. Every couple of weeks we would head to a local family’s house near campus to learn how to cook traditional Chinese dishes such as dumplings, gong bao ji ding (Kung pao chicken), or fried rice. At the same time, it was an invaluable opportunity to get to know the locals and have a window into their daily lives, even if for a brief moment. These cooking classes were where I finally discovered one of the subtle differences between American and Chinese culture: never leave an empty plate in China, as it sends the message that the host did not cook enough food for you. I had mothers and grandmothers pilling food onto my plate at these dinners to the point that I didn’t need to eat for a week afterwards.  Beyond these formal interactions, it was also amazing to see just how hospitable people were in all parts of China once you made the effort to speak a little Mandarin. I was invited into teashops for meals, taught how to write my name in calligraphy, told stories of Mao and the Communist revolution and given free cab rides all because I said a few words beyond simply Ni Hao. I was a little worried at first how locals would react when I would go off the beaten path into some of the lesser-known areas of the city, but in many cases, they made me feel like I was back home.  

What was the biggest cultural adjustment you had to make? 

I think one of the largest cultural adjustments I needed to make while in China involved the subtle differences between life at Stanford and life at PKU. At the end of the day, we were in a foreign country, so discovering that the tap water could make us sick or the fact that there weren’t too many clear days in Beijing was a bit of a shock at first. But, you gradually assimilate to these changes over time and begin to wonder what are the weird equivalents that exist for visitors to the United States. Each country has their own customs, traditions and rules, but once you master these, it makes life a lot easier. I had no idea that eating everything on your plate at a meal or tipping afterwards was considered insulting, but having a waiter run after me in the street trying to give back some change definitely drove home that point.   

What was your favorite part of your everyday life in Beijing?

My favorite part of “everyday” life in Beijing would probably have to be the early morning treks I would take every Saturday/Sunday to some new part of the city that I wanted to explore. They were great way to clear my head and reflect on the week as a whole, and to really get to practice speaking Mandarin as much as possible. These places were often long cab rides away from Beida, and combined with Beijing traffic, it meant I was stuck in cabs for hours on end at times. To pass the time I got in the habit of talking to the drivers as much as my vocabulary would allow and to my surprise, they were actually some of the most memorable conversations I had on the entire trip.  

What was the most memorable experience you had while you were in Beijing? 

One of the unexpected highlights of the program was a weeklong break that we had almost immediately after arriving in Beijing due to China’s national day on October 1st. Due to visa restrictions, most of the group couldn’t travel outside of China, so we decided to head up to Inner Mongolia to take a 4-day tour of the countryside and get to experience what nomadic life looked like in rural China. We were able to ride horses, camels, learn how to Mongolian wrestle, but the highlight of the trip had to be sleeping in a yurt for one of the nights. It was really just a large tent with a concrete floor that actually fit the entire group in a pattern that looked more like a game of Tetris. Out in the middle of nowhere in Mongolia was completely different that the bustling urban landscape of Beijing and it really drove home the point that there’s so many different experiences that you can have while in China, even if it’s only an hour away by plane.

What 5 words would you use to describe your experience? 

My three months in China was an exciting, eye-opening, life-changing, unexpected, and unpredictable experience to say the least.  

What advice would you give to someone who was considering studying abroad in Australia? 

Go for it. Beijing is one of the most interesting, and arguably, one of the most important places in the world right now. And, it’s not as inaccessible as the apparent cultural or language barriers might make it seem. It has the perfect balance of both new and old, East and West, familiar and foreign. If you are considering studying in China, I would definitely recommend taking some Chinese courses while you are Stanford. Not only are they great classes, having at least a base knowledge of the language will make assimilating into Beijing much easier once you arrive.   

If you had to do it all over again what would you do differently? 

If I had the chance to do Beijing all over again, I probably would try to travel a bit more to different regions around China. It’s a tough choice between exploring all that Beijing has to offer and going to another city, but having experienced some of the immense differences that can exist between regions only an hour away, it would have been interesting to see more of some of the lesser know parts of the country or even exploring other countries as well. I had the chance to visit Bangkok for a weekend to visit my uncle on a business trip and it was amazing to see just how different Thailand was from Beijing, especially when I no longer knew the native language. I also regretted not spending more time with the language ambassadors that we had at PKU. I had the chance to see many of them in class or at program-sponsored events, but I wish I had scheduled more time with them to get to learn more about their experiences and see what Beijing meant to them.  

How has the experienced changed or enhanced your future academic and career goals? 

My experience abroad definitely reinforced a desire to study again/work in China for a more extended period of time in the near future. 12 weeks seems like a long time at first, but it fly by before I knew it. This short experience, similar to the one I had back in high school, was only an appetizer for what potentially lies in my future. I also realized the academic value of being able to apply lessons from class within the environment around you. Learning about urbanization in Guomao in Beijing is completely different from actually going to that district and witnessing a huge skyscraper rise up in the same 12 weeks the program lasted. I have taken many courses on Chinese cultural and economics, but I never had to opportunity to see these concepts in action before I came to Beijing. My time there has provided me with new insights that have allowed me to go even further in other classes, ask even more questions and really think about what role China holds in the future of the world. 

What was your favorite food you had in Beijing? 

That’s definitely a tough choice with the amount of food options that you have in Beijing. But, for local dishes I would definitely have to say it was la zi ji from Sichuan province. I really like spicy food, but I was in for a rough ride when I first tried this dish with stir-fried pieces of chicken, peppercorns, sesame, and a boatload of spicy chilies. It was both one of the hottest and most delicious dishes that I tried, and even better, it was available in every single Sichuan restaurants in Beijing, so I got to improve my spicy pain tolerance in the process.  

What was the most valuable item you took with you on the program? 

I didn’t expect how much I would need toilet paper and hand-sanitizer before I got to China but they were definite necessities everyday while I was there. But, I think the most important thing I brought was probably my camera to capture as many memories as possible and, although I didn’t know it at first, the Plecco dictionary app on my phone. It was extremely valuable in translating the one or two new words I would need in a store or a restaurant. And, actually saying the name of something rather than miming or pointing to it was the best way of actually remembering the important words/phrases you needed to use every single day. During finals week, I was glad I finally learned how to order a large vanilla latte with three extra shots of espresso in perfect tones at the local Zoo Coffee as opposed to trying to explain it with the pictures on the menu.  

What was your favorite music/band that you discovered in Beijing?

I discovered just how popular karaoke is in China, so I was able to uncover some old top-40 hits and learn just how bad I can be at butchering some Katy Perry songs on a program outing. I also noticed just how popular K-pop was over there, which was completely unexpected but also enthralling to see just how much locals were obsessed with their favorite groups/songs.
The one western group I discovered was called Dada Life, an EDM act. A group of us went to a set they were playing at a club and they placed bunches of bananas all over the club. We were told they were just for decorations, but later on in the night the group started to throw them out into the crowd, and they were actually a great source of energy that late in the evening. I definitely will always associate their music with bananas from now on.