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Balancing Life in China – School, Faith, Internship, Travel

By Connor B., Gonzaga University, TBC Fall 2019 Semester Abroad Student

Life abroad is busy. I think this is especially true in my case. At The Beijing Center, I am taking 7 courses and am an intern with the Foreign Commercial Services of the US Embassy. Yeah…crazy, right? Coming into this semester I didn’t expect there to be much “study” in my study abroad, but my role as a student has become core to my experience here in Beijing.

Let me rewind a bit. My name is Connor Brachtl and I am a Junior at Gonzaga University. I’m majoring in Business Administration and concentrating in Law and Economics. Before coming to China, I didn’t speak a lick of Chinese, have never been to China, and didn’t have a strong grasp of Chinese culture or history. My main goal coming into this semester was to find a personal connection with China and develop an understanding of how and why China became the country it is today. To accomplish this goal, I told myself that I had to buckle down and take my time here seriously. I added on an extra Chinese class for fun (doesn’t count for any major requirement) and applied to be an intern with the US Embassy. In retrospect, this was a very risky move on my part! However, my time here thus far has been immensely rewarding.

Coursework at The Beijing Center has been very manageable. Most courses only meet once a week for two and a half hour periods, which means homework is due on a week-by-week basis. In my case, this meant that I didn’t have much pressure to get an assignment done in less than a week. There are a few outlier courses (in my situation, Chinese), but I find that there is plenty of time to finish schoolwork during the week when all my big assignments can be done on the weekend. I’ve never been someone who can sit down for too long, but I surprisingly have come to enjoy having each class once a week for a longer period. Teachers are generally understanding and give one or two breaks during the class period. I must say, the caliber of teachers at The Beijing Center has been a pleasant surprise. It’s been a joy getting to know each of my teachers and learning from the deep wisdom they each possess.

As a Catholic, I was admittedly worried about continuing my faith life in China. I had heard that the situation with religion was tense and that there weren’t many opportunities to attend mass. Early on, we had a priest who worked with TBC but was relocated back to the United States within a few weeks into the semester. Once he left, I was left with no other choice but to find mass off-campus. I spoke with TBC staff and they offered to show me a church near our school. They took me to Wangfujing Church, which offers several Chinese services and an English service every Sunday. Since then, I’ve attended mass nearly every Sunday and even gone to Chinese services. I thought that mass would be different due to political constrictions in China, but any differences from mass back home are hardly noticeable. It’s been truly inspiring seeing the blend of Chinese culture with the Catholic faith, as well as seeing a strong faith community here despite the political conditions. There are plenty of opportunities to continue one’s faith life in China.

Interning with the Foreign Commercial Services at the US Embassy has been a pretty awesome experience. I work about 12 hours a week and make a 35-minute commute three days a week from campus via the metro. My intern duties include data analytics, editing, taking notes at business meetings, and research projects. Recently, I was asked to research niche markets in China that U.S. products can capitalize on. I am also occasionally allowed to attend Embassy-related events. For example, a few weeks ago I heard the US Ambassador speak to head business representatives based in Beijing.

It’s been invaluable working alongside American Diplomats and Chinese citizens in my office, and particularly interesting seeing the blend of cultures unfold in my workplace. Also, with the Trade War occurring and China being in the spotlight of U.S. trade relations, it’s been a fascinating time to be at the Beijing Embassy. Perhaps my favorite part about working at the Embassy is the commissary which includes all my favorite American snacks. Not necessarily great for my diet, but a nice way to stay in touch with my home culture. Overall, as someone interested in a career in law or government this has been a wonderful supplement to my time in Beijing.

Well, I think you get the point that I’m a busy guy. However, I swear I have fun too! In my free time, I’ve spent a lot of time exploring Beijing and embarking on adventures outside of the city. For Golden Week, I traveled with one of TBC’s Chinese roommates to Shanghai, Nanjing, and Hangzhou. This was a very budget-friendly and fun adventure. Over 6 days I spent about $500 on food, housing (Airbnb), and transportation (bullet trains). We took full advantage of our time in each city and spent every waking moment on our feet exploring the many wonders that China holds.

I also had the opportunity to take a weekend trip to Huangshan (the Yellow Mountains) with some TBC friends. This was once again a budget-friendly and wild adventure. A week before arriving in Huangshan, some of my friends asked me what I wanted to do on the weekend. I suggested that we travel somewhere outside of Beijing. When asked where, I said that the Yellow Mountains (which a friend recommended to me) sounded like a cool spot to visit. Please note that I had no idea where the Yellow Mountains were or what they looked like. Over the next two days, my friends found a good hotel and affordable train tickets, only costing about 150 dollars in total. On Friday, we took a train to Huangshan and spent the night in a small town nestled in an expansive bamboo forest.

Saturday morning, we woke up bright and early at 5:00 am to take a bus to the foot of the mountain. We arrived at a ski lift that supposedly took us to the top of the mountain but strangely there were no peaks in sight. I decided to throw fate to the wind and go along with the travel itinerary that my friends made. As we ascended, I began to realize why I couldn’t see any peaks from the base of the mountain. It’s because they’re so high up! When we made it to the top, we were above the clouds! Surrounding me, were strange trees (long and flat), sharp mountain peaks, and expansive valleys. The ski lift transitioned us directly into a hiking path, so naturally, we began treading up the mountain. Soon enough we were met with a breathtaking view of spectacular rock formations. After a few seconds of soaking up the view, I was hit with a realization. I was at the place where the movie Avatar (the blue people one) was based in!

We spent the rest of the day hiking up peaks, exploring caves, walking alongside cliff-faces, going down into canyons, and trudging back up into the mountains. At the end of the day, we took a lift down and made our way back to our hotel. Sunday morning, we took a train back to Beijing and I made it back in time to finish all of my homework. Going into this weekend excursion, I had no idea where my travels would take me. In the end, I was able to experience perhaps the most beautiful natural landscape I’ve ever seen. 

Here in Beijing, life is busy, but it doesn’t come without adventure. I’m proud to say that I’ve forged great friendships, learned a ton, seen a lot, and grown a whole lot. Some of the things I’ve seen or heard here have been deeply challenging and difficult to accept. However, it’s in these moments where I find that I’ve matured the most. Every day I’m thankful for this opportunity and glad that I pushed against the grain by choosing to go to China instead of more popular paths (i.e. studying in Europe). Thanks to The Beijing Center staff, Ansel (my Chinese roommate), my friends, family, and everyone else who helped make this happen.