Meet Devin, Project Pengyou Online Community Engagement Manager

Devin Nickell

My name is Devin Nickell and I’m starting a brand new career with Project Pengyou as the Online Community Engagement Manager, building bridges between the US and China via a vibrant online network of China alumni. This is the story of how I came to China, fell in love, and decided to stay.

Where it all began…

I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, a mid-sized city in the middle of the United States. The first time I ever thought about China was when my grandfather, who had done some traveling in the Navy, told me stories about “the East.”

Most of those stories were about Japan and China, and I’m sure those stories fueled my desire to know another place and have my own stories to tell.

I started studying Mandarin as a high school junior after a brief affair with a romance language (sorry Spanish, it was nothing personal… let’s catch up some time?). I quickly discovered that learning Mandarin would be an enormous challenge and the thought of ever becoming fluent was unfathomable.

Despite a lack of outlets for my curiosity, I continued studying Chinese. My ears would perk up when any information about China, or even Asia, was offered as a class or mentioned in the news. The more I learned, the more questions I had.

The China in my mind was a three-headed chimera. One head was the ancient philosophers and warring states; another was ominously monolithic with Chairman Mao at the fore; and finally there was modern China, the rising power which was as murky in my mind as the Beijing skyline through the smog. At this point in my relationship with China, I had only surface knowledge, and little experience with cultural exchange.

The China in my mind was a three-headed chimera.

A Fateful Summer….

SLH collage
Memories from Sen Lin Hu, the Chinese language immersion camp

In the summer of 2011, I worked as a counselor and lifeguard at a Chinese immersion camp for kids age 7-18 in Callaway, Minnesota called 森林湖 (Sen Lin Hu). At that point in my Chinese studies, I was not able to communicate, but my amazing and patient coworkers took me under their wing. By the end of the summer I was beginning to be conversational.

Although my sub-par Chinese ability felt crippling at first, working at Sen Lin Hu was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The hours of practice and days of struggling to communicate eventually paid off. It was the crash course I needed to prepare for study abroad and my experiences helped shield me from the culture shock when I landed in Beijing that fall.

Falling in Love with China

The next part of the story will be familiar to most of you.  The first time I came to China, I fell in love.

Not just with traveling, although it was wonderful to visit so many different places in China, but with the the people, the language, the food (drool), and Beijing, the beautiful dynamic city. It was a whirlwind year, full of color, challenges, new friends and growth.

Studying at IES Beijing for two semesters was also among the top decisions I have made. I spent hours in the classroom with the most dedicated and hardworking team of Chinese teachers to ever grace this earth. I scaled mountains and skyscrapers, rode my first overnight train, first taxi, first subway and roamed to the farthest reaches of China.

I took weekend trips to several major cities, followed the Silk Road west to Xinjiang, saw the diversity and natural beauty of Yunnan in the south, and even braved the Dongbei winter to see the awesome ice sculptures of Harbin in the north.

travel in china
Some travel highlights in Yunnan, Chengdu, Xinjiang and more from a year spent in China

Slowly, the chimera in my head morphed into something more tangible, and the little dorm at Beijing Foreign Studies University became a second home.

The Second Time Around

The second time I came to China, I knew this wasn’t just a fling.

After a year of studying Chinese language and culture, I thought my curiosity would be satisfied for a while—but I was wrong. After one semester at home the withdrawal from China became intense. I knew I had to go back to the country that taught me so much about myself and the world and life.

A recent article in Thought Catalog struck a chord in me that made me realize why I initially wanted to return so badly:

There’s no way to describe the way your spirit evolves when you leave everything you know behind and force yourself to use your brain in a real capacity, not on a written test in school. You know you’re thinking differently because you experience it every second of every day inside your head, but how do you communicate that to others?

That is what China had done for me. It had become so much a part of my identity that I knew I could not compartmentalize the experience. At the very least, I knew I needed to return to China to fully cement my language ability and re-affirm that the joy and fulfillment I felt while studying abroad in Beijing was not just a honeymoon phase, but something real and lasting.

Returning last June to be an RA at IES was the best decision I have made thus far.

This time around, I was on the other side of the curtain. I was still learning about China, but in a more practical context. I was troubleshooting problems, nursing homesick students and trying my best to share the city I love with them. The most magical moments were always the last few days of the semester when students started asking “How do I come back to China?”

That was when I realized I wanted to continue sharing China using not just my own voice, but the voices of all those like me who have at times felt like they have no option but to choose one world or the other.

That is where Project Pengyou comes into the picture; we are trying to create a platform for exchange between two countries that will erase the feeling of the US or China ultimatum. China is foreign, but it doesn’t have to be scary, and I am excited to be part of the creation of a network that strives to foster that exchange and humanize China in the eyes of Americans.

So, when people ask me the inevitable question— “How long will you stay?”—the answer is this: I am proud to be a part of the Project Pengyou team, and we still have a lot to accomplish here. I don’t know what the future holds, but for now, I am exactly where I want to be.