Family of Five: Five Months, Five Days in Beijing

Sara Parker, Professor of Political Science at Chabot College
2014-2015 Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar to China

My family has been using the phrase, “Last year at this time…” a lot lately. The memories of our Fulbright semester in China are seared into our memories. In Spring 2015, my husband and our three children, ages 8, 6, and 2 spent a semester in Beijing, where I taught American Government and International Relations at The China Foreign Affairs University. My experiences as a teacher are interwoven with my family’s experiences living on campus, getting to know my students, and temporarily inhabiting their Chinese urban lifestyle.

At 6:30am on our first morning in Beijing we ventured out in sub-zero temperatures in search of food. We identified what appeared to be a popular breakfast joint and tentatively tried out our carefully rehearsed Chinese phrases: “hello”; “that one”; “how much?” Subsequently, we had our first of many experiences abandoning all attempt at speech for the much more effective hand gesture method. As a family of five, we also had our first experience being stared at, photographed, and specially attended to. As the months went on we came to feel a part of the four mega-block radius that defined what we considered our “neighborhood.” Daily frustrations were more than outweighed by our constant delight in small successes.

To my surprise, it was outside of the classroom that I began to build meaningful relationships with my students. Across the semester, almost all of them took me up on my offer of a free lunch out or dinner in my home. Their favorite topics of discussion included American television shows, guns, and, for my female students, the anticipated stress of being a working mom. My children frequently talk about the afternoon they taught a group of my students to play whiffle ball in our apartment courtyard, and the time we had students over to celebrate Cinco de Mayo.

As a community college professor, participating in the Fulbright Program was an incredibly unique and rewarding professional opportunity. At every chance I had in China, I talked about the diversity that defines my college environment and how it serves as a microcosm of the multiculturalism and vibrancy of U.S. democracy. Back at my home institution, I’m proud to be able to bring my firsthand experiences and observations of China to my students, who are every bit as deserving of a world class education as their elite University counterparts.

“One year ago…” will quickly turn into more, but I have no doubt that we’ll not soon forget about walking on the Great Wall, visiting a Panda reserve, or seeing the Terra-cotta Warriors. Who could forget the time someone on the street tried to give us a box of baby chicks? Or how, while visiting Nanjing, my oldest son accidentally fell into a baby pool (much to the amusement of onlookers)? Or the day our children dressed up as monks and meditated in the middle of the living room? We returned home with a newfound sense of adventure and deep appreciation for travel, learning about others, and the intangible returns of new experiences.

Over the last year, I have regularly kept in touch with Chinese students I taught and those I met while giving public lectures. Some of them have even communicated with my American students! One Chinese student said she had learned more about American families in three days she spent with us than in all the classes in her American Studies program. My family certainly holds China close to our hearts. These real personal connections are what defines the Fulbright Program and chip away at the misperceptions we have of one another.