Meet Olivia, Project Pengyou Summer Intern


Hi, I’m Olivia Robertson, senior at the University of Michigan, and Project Pengyou Summer 2015 intern.

Culture Shock

My initial exposure to China lacked intention. In 2008, I accompanied my Mom on a business trip that took us through Beijing, Tianjin, Chengdu, and Shanghai. I was a shy middle school kid and China was out of my comfort zone. The stares I got from strangers on the street made me want to disappear, I was jetlagged, frequently sick, and so afraid of not being able to use chopsticks that I feigned a lack of appetite at multiple meals.

A typical scene from a rural village, where lack of infrastructure results in garbage being dumped near water systems.

My mom is an urban planner, so she took me to the countryside to survey open fields slated for development where I saw beautiful landscapes, but also peasant laborers living in poverty. I could not imagine these fields becoming towers housing thousands of people. The harsh villages lacking charm and environmental degradation changed my understanding of life in China. There is a lot of high-level dialogue surrounding the economic repercussions of China’s development, but I had seen the toll it took on individuals. After the trip, I saw China’s transformation from a rural to urban society with new eyes and fed my curiosity through exposure to my mother’s work.

When Chinese was offered my senior year of high school, I eagerly signed up. I had taken French and Latin, but hadn’t felt engaged. At first it seemed counterintuitive starting over with a language as difficult as Chinese, however I discovered the key to my desire to learn the language was the personal interest I had developed in the society and culture. Although the class was mostly basic pronunciation, through it I had the opportunity to travel back to China. With my class, we toured Shanghai, Xi’an, and Beijing, hitting all the typical stops by bus. I was happy to be back in China, but felt confined; I craved to go where a tour bus wouldn’t.

 Open Doors and Opportunities

I continued to study Chinese in college. For four semesters I dutifully attended class, turned in homework assignments, and studied for vocab quizzes, but ultimately felt frustrated that Chinese still seemed so unattainable in the setting I was in. My friends were reading poetry in Spanish, learning history in French. I felt so far behind, but the shock and excitement of that first trip to China remained with me, so I stuck with it.

My Chinese goals went from abstract to concrete during the fall of my sophomore year when I decided to study abroad. I started to feel uneasy while planning for the upcoming year. The looming commitment of signing a housing lease when I still didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life felt daunting. The idea to study abroad solidified when I realized the obvious– to get a fresh perspective, I needed a change of location. I wanted an international experience, and being abroad could turn Chinese from homework assignments to open doors. I was excited to travel on my own to Beijing and pursue the challenge and self-discovery that were missing from my college life so far.

Home Away from Home

I spent my junior year abroad in Beijing with IES, and decided to live in a homestay with a family that spoke no English. When I packed my bags to move in with my host family, I had not been told where they lived or how to get from there to class the next morning. Would I have to take the bus? Walk? What would I do if I got lost? How was I going to find my way back without the use of English? My safety net of American friends was a twenty minute walk away; it was a challenge.

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Me and my host brother, nicknamed Dudu, enjoying dinner out.

In the morning, my host mom and brother, Dudu rushed off before 7 AM to catch the bus, and I often didn’t see them until evening. After dinner, I would help Dudu with his English homework before heading off to finish my own. Most days we had too much on our minds to have real conversations, but occasionally my host mom would ask me about my parents or how we did something differently in America, and a simple question would lead to a full conversation. I knew they spoke slowly to me, and likely had to stifle laughter at my mistakes, but their patience helped me build confidence in my language abilities.

While I expected to have to adapt to life with my host family, I never anticipated how at home I would come to feel with people I had just met. I stopped being shy about my host mom seeing me run off late to class or wake up late from a night out. I was a little shocked when the tables turned, and I would suddenly see this woman I barely knew walking around in her pajamas, or strictly reprimanding her son to do homework or behave (when you are living with a twelve year old ‘Little Emperor’ (小皇帝), you are going to see some temper tantrums). In the end, it was these moments of intimacy that were the hardest to adjust to, but gave me a strong sense of accomplishment in how I adapted.

Life in the Big City

Me participating in a welcoming ceremony in a village in rural Guizhou.

As my year abroad was coming to a close, I knew I was not quite ready to go home. I wanted to challenge myself by seeing what living in Beijing was like on my own, without the help of a program designed to ease the transition. I eventually found housing, obtained a new visa, had many frustrating conversations in broken Chinese at my new Chinese bank, paid rent, moved everything I had accumulated over eight months across town, and gained a sense of pride. After a summer interning at Project Pengyou, I will soon return home, carrying with me the valuable lesson of the many doors that open when you go abroad, and that living abroad (during college and beyond) is actually quite accessible.

Each time I venture out to a new part of Beijing with friends, the sprawling city of tens of millions of people feels more personal. I love knowing the streets of Beijing, facing the daily challenges of urban living in stride, feeling like a regular at restaurants or shops. I was intimidated in the past, but now I can laugh at myself if I make a cultural gaff. It’s been exhausting and frustrating at times but also addictive. As much as I miss the comforts of home, I will miss the discoveries and challenges of living in Beijing.