Hello, my name is Francis Wilson (赖恩诺) and I’m a junior at Western Kentucky University Honors College and Chinese Flagship Program. This is how I ventured beyond rust belt Ohio to write my own story of travel, language study, and bridge-building.
A STORY, A WINDOW TO THE WORLD
From a young age, I was fascinated with the world outside of my home in Akron, Ohio.
I would sit down with my grandfather and listen, captivated as he told me stories of his missionary work abroad. As he spoke, his long, wrinkled fingers turned the yellowing pages of a photo book he had made of his travels in East Asia. The photographs were like windows: before me lay expansive mountain ranges of deep greys and blues on which a long wall meandering up and down; men on wooden boats paddling through river-town alleyways; uniform-clad workers lining up for meals in a commune.
I remember, too, listening as my sister spoke of her service work abroad in the villages of Uganda. Her eyes shone and she gestured enthusiastically as she described her experiences with people so impoverished they lacked clean water to drink, yet despite this adversity still maintained hope and respect. In that moment, I noticed my sister looked older. That trip abroad seemed to have changed her from the young girl I grew up with to a woman with a mission to change the world.
Through these stories, my family gave me a glimpse of the world, sparking a passion and curiosity for travel and foreign language study, and instilling in me a desire to serve others and to help create a better world.
SAYING ‘HELLO’ TO CHALLENGES
By the time I made it to high school, these missionary stories were burned into my memory. It was not until I started to study Chinese language that I began to create a story of my own.
At the bank, in the front seat of my mom’s parked minivan, I sat shaking with excitement. When my mother returned to the car, I told her the news: I had just been accepted off the waiting list for STARTALK, a month-long immersion summer program to study Chinese. I had said ‘yes’ and would be packing my bags and leaving the next day. In that moment, I could see more clearly a path: a future full of traveling and adventure, of cross-cultural exploration, and, hopefully, of self-discovery.
On the first day of class, I stood up—a bit nervous, but thrilled—and spoke my first word in Chinese, responding to my Chinese teacher saying, ‘nihao’ (hello). She made me repeat it again, with clearer intonation. The next word, ‘pengyou’ (friend), I had to repeat a few times to get it right. I felt encouraged by her persistence in helping me speak the words more fluently. My classmates and I finished our first day of class feeling exhausted, but full of enthusiasm to learn more about this new language. To us, China seemed so immense, so rich in culture and tradition.
Throughout the program, and later as I continued my language studies abroad and later at university, I felt a deep sense of purpose in what I was learning. This feeling was refreshing, and helped me to challenge myself, adopting a rigorous work ethic and a thirst for challenge. Studying Chinese was the most difficult task I had set my mind to, yet it motivated me to think harder and work harder in my daily life. Every early morning that I woke up for class, and every long night I spent studying, I challenged myself to meet every new challenge with a calm and confident “nihao”.
TO SHARE STORIES IS TO SHARE KNOWLEDGE
In a small corner on a college campus in Kentucky, chairs scrape the ground as they are pulled in closer, heads lean in to hear the timid voice of a Chinese exchange student telling his experience with air pollution. Students gather, storytelling and sharing a meal as a part of weekly potluck-style discussion of U.S.-China affairs. While it was a small gathering, this one student-led project embodied the spirit of a year’s worth of my Project Pengyou chapter team’s dedication to bridging our campus’s gap in U.S.-China understanding.
In the transition after high school from a gap year abroad in China, to a small-town university in the American South, I learned the power of sharing my own stories of language study and living abroad. A lesson that has propelled me to travel more, think harder, listen deeper, and share what I learn with my new community.
Project Pengyou has not only served as a platform for my peers to connect, but it has become a forum for me to share my stories as well. Whether it be through participating in potluck meal chats, gathering for Earth Day to further educate my campus of US-China sustainability-focussed efforts, or organizing a simple home-cooked meal with exchange student peers, I have been able to share my own experiences in the US-China space. Through sharing, I have begun to feel more connected with my new community, because through storytelling we share a bit of ourselves, and bond over our common curiosity of and love for the world and its diversity.
Reflecting back on a year serving through Project Pengyou at my university, I realize it was this sharing of stories that has aided me in making this southern small-town community my home. I have found that sharing my knowledge and experiences has built bridges between my community and I, connecting us in profoundly deep ways.
Now, I look forward to the years to come, years full of travel, of language learning, of bridge-building through storytelling.