Meet Karisma, Project Pengyou Intern

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Leaving your family, your house, your friends, your city, your security, and basically everything you know to be true at age 18 is probably the craziest thing you could do. But every year so many college-bound students in America choose to embark on this (can we agree, pretty insane?) journey. I did this at age 17, completely naïve, and totally unprepared; picture me jumping into Lake Michigan in late November, catching a cold, and then legally being too young to buy myself the medicine I desperately needed. Nevertheless, I was desperate to leave small town life behind.

East, Middle, West

Utah Arches National Park

My dad was from the east coast, my mother from the west, and I was born in a small town in Southern California. Early in my life my parents decided to meet in the midwest of the U.S. They didn’t stay together long, and my dad ended up in Denver. Now I sometimes live with him in Northern California, so you can imagine why the “hometown” question gives me panic attacks.

I grew up in the suburbs of Indianapolis and the Colorado mountains. I spent my summers hiking in the southwest desert and exhausting myself on California beaches. My parents also helped facilitate this nomadic lifestyle of mine. A “visit home” always involves stopping in many places including (but not necessarily limited to) Chicago, San Francisco, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, and Denver. I know so many parts of America intimately. I never considered any one place my home, I just knew that I was a traveler. My mom was a fan of the cross country road trip, so adventure and adaptation were what I came to value above all else. Naturally, I was drawn to the exciting life of the windy city, where my story begins.

Chasing Chicago Pavements

My dad and I at Bates Beach in California

No one in my family had really gone to university, I was the oldest child, and if you haven’t picked up on this yet, I had a tendency to make some pretty brash decisions. I had no real guidance and my pioneer mindset led me to make many mistakes in my freshman year. Unfortunately, the friends I made were not for the long term. I quickly saw the person I was becoming was not actually a person I enjoyed spending time with, and became uncomfortable seeing my actions mirrored in those I surrounded myself with. While trying to keep up with my friends who never seemed to go to class or do anything other than partying, I lost sight of what I actually came to school to do. I wanted to discover what it was to have an identity outside of my parents’ dictation, to be an adult – a fully formed person that I could present to my peers, but I still had the urge to call my mom and cry once a day. When my best friend was dismissed from our university for poor grades, it was the wake-up call I needed.

In my second year of college I wanted a fresh start. I left toxic friendships behind, determined to focus on my studies and nothing else. I felt that I had outgrown the people and places of even the once unbelievable Chicago. I had no more ties in the city. I decided to return to my roots for motivation. I knew I wanted to travel, I knew I had more to see in the world. I had a newfound drive to push harder, to prove everyone wrong with my success. I was completely devoted to making a name that would speak for itself. I wanted to embrace an opportunity that would tell everyone I had changed for the better, much, much better.

My mother and I always seemed to find ourselves in our excursions across the country, and I firmly believed a change of setting was the solution to all problems. I would leave for a year to fill my life with the rich stories and images of the world. To come back changed and informed all while proving my worth. I spoke French and Spanish, so naturally I applied for a program that would take me to Italy and China. The real appeal of the program was that I could create a comparative research study of my choice and examine my fascinations and curiosities in both Europe and Asia. It was literally the best of both worlds.

From Rome to Beijing – Diving into the Unknown

Spoleto, Italy

Where Mediterranean beaches and rolling Italian countrysides had colored the movies and stories of my childhood, China was a blank space. I knew nothing about the culture or the history, but a part of me was inexplicably excited for the unknown. I assumed everything would come naturally in Europe and I would quickly find the sense of identity and purpose I was looking for. This was not the case. I had trouble finding my place in the long standing, famous histories of Rome. I was uncomfortable and constantly confronted with difficulties. I didn’t feel that I was growing or improving because I didn’t feel like myself. I was stuck in the same cycles of immaturity and irresponsibility from freshman year that I was trying to overcome.

China was another adventure entirely.

Arriving in Beijing I was instantly soothed by the lights of the Chinese characters shining in the haze all over the city and seemingly holding so much promise. China is a magnificent red. The smells, the sights, the fog, it’s all red. It feels like walking around in a dream. You are greeted with a mirrored curiosity in everyone’s eyes. You see the magic of the meals, colorful, enticing plates spinning around the lazy-susan styled table, magic in the patterns of traffic, magic in the complicated, history-filled alleyways, and in the tall, twisting skyscrapers. China casts its spell and you become entranced with the enigma of the preserved ancient culture and the thriving, modern energy. You want to make everyone aware of this world you can no longer believe you were oblivious to.

Three Pagodas of Chongsheng Temple in Yunnan, China

In fact, the biggest difficulty was trying to explain to everyone what China has quickly become within my identity. My family could easily see I was doing well as my grades improved and my smiles became more genuine. The frustrated calls home became more and more rare. My mother has always been my best friend and travel confidant, but she just couldn’t grasp what was so great about this weird, distant country that had never held any attraction for our family. I was scared before coming, convinced a country so foreign would be infinitely difficult. A language that had no recognition would be impossible. I quickly found comfort in the welcoming, patient spirit of China.

As a vegetarian I sometimes struggle searching for food I can eat. I stumbled upon an entirely vegetarian ramen restaurant, but was dismayed to find the entire menu in Chinese characters with no photos or English. I decided to point randomly to a line of what seemed like coded nonsense. It ended up being the best meal I had in Beijing. I returned several times after this happy accident, and after watching me struggle through translation app conversations and frustratingly horrible pronunciations of the few words I knew,  the fúwùyuán (waitress) surprised me with an iPad instead of the regular paper menu. They opened a file and showed me that they had begun creating a photo diary of every meal I tried, listing the date and a picture from each of my visits. I could now easily select from all of my favorites that I already knew and loved. It was little displays of kindness and understanding like this that inspired my deep adoration for China.

Bungee Jumping at Qing Long Xia Park!

China, finally, gave me a fresh start. Completely new experiences and a world of possibilities and challenges overwhelmed me. I never really chose China, I let China choose me. I had no expectations entering the country, just a fear of something completely unknown.  I didn’t know anything about China. It’s beautiful to go to a country you have cultivated an adoration for over a number of years, but it’s wild and exciting to have an experience in a place that you learn from every day. This is what I found in China, that I have not found in any of the 40 some cities, 30 countries, and 4 continents I have visited in the past year.  Everything about this country encourages you to explore. You start to love your small victories. You order food correctly and you realize it really isn’t that difficult. You lean in to the smells and shouts on the streets. You find your favorite place and a familiar face. You smile and laugh more and more, and soon a place that was utterly strange and unfamiliar to you becomes your home. You stop holding your breath and you love it.