A Summer in China, An Experience of a Lifetime

September 08, 2008

I have a unique alarm clock. Every morning, a young man on a bicycle rides slowly down the road, attached to his handlebars is a megaphone that repeats the same sentence over and over. He is selling umbrellas. Every morning, I wait for his call, like a child waiting for a neighbor friend to come out and play. This serves as a reminder that another day has begun in Shanghai, another page in my travel book.

As part of my internship, I was asked to write a report for both Timken and Mount Union about my experiences in China. However, instead of writing a mere list of facts in paragraph form, I wanted this report to be a memoir, a swan song to the institution that taught me to enjoy the small moments, because they are the true definition of the liberal arts experience and a thank you to those who made this trip a reality. Part of my paper will be dedicated to discussing my experience as an intern at Timken; the other half will describe my experience as a volunteer at migrant school.
It has been an interesting summer and with half of the week spent on a lofty floor of a modern skyscraper, working for a fortune 500 company, and the other half of the week in a three room schoolhouse with a dirt floor and 50 kindergarteners. Yet like the Chinese yin yang symbol, these “opposite” parts of self are extremely complementary and share common themes: the kindness of the people, the daily challenges, and the idea that laughter is an international language. Both of these experiences have equally and uniquely changed my life.

It was a personal goal to not be, “An American in China”, but to completely immerse myself in the culture that surrounds me, not a spectator. This meant eating the food, learning the language and being an active visitor, not merely a sponge…hoping to somehow passively “soak” up the culture by remaining stationary. In retrospect, the one of the most active ways I reached this goal was through my internship with the Timken Company. My internship focused on Timken’s Global Citizenship initiative and I was given the responsibility of auditing Timken China on their Global Citizenship tasks.

After hearing about my initial responsibilities of the company, I came across my first postgrad life lesson. One’s college education is not a graduation mortarboard, in which one throws in the air at graduation, but your fingerprint, a unique aspect in the book of your life, that will be with you where ever life experiences take you. I could not believe that I was across the world and I was basically continuing my experience as a member of Janus, the Social Responsibility Group at Mount Union. My passions at Mount Union continue to be my life passions.

One of the aspects of my internship that I enjoyed the most was the amount of trust and respect given to me by the Timken employees. I never felt that I was anything less than a Timken colleague. The staff was welcoming and seemed excited about my project and my life experiences. I remember the first day; sitting at my desk overlooking the Shanghai skyline and thinking, what an adventure life is…I could not even imagine a year ago that life would take me here.

One of my favorite Timken memories occurred during my first week. I sat working on my report when out of the corner of my eye; I saw a group of other Timken interns nervously approaching me. They quietly asked if I would like to join them for lunch, and I nearly leaped out of my chair to hug them. I was so excited to be included in something as simple as a lunch break. It was one of the most special experiences to sit with a group of interns my age and share life stories. This experience alone sums up my internship at Timken, that I was included; I felt that I was a cherished member of the staff and treated as an equal.

My internship is now almost finished and I am putting the finishing touches on my report. With each paragraph I write, I feel the ghost of my undergrad experience. When I write about Environmental Policy, I can hear Dr. McNaught’s discussion on Global Warming, when I research the role of government in Asia; I refer to my notes from Dr. Saha’s class. When I speak about college at an American institution to my friends and other interns, I am reminded of my experiences of a Preview Guide. Mount Union has followed me to China.

This weekend, I participated in Junior Achievement, a global program that teaches students all over the world lessons on trade, business and economics. The lessons are presented in a dynamic and engaging manner in which the students (aged kindergarten to 6th grade) play an active role in this learning process. Timken is a huge sponsor of Junior Achievement in China and plays a large role in the undertaking of these events. I was both touched and surprised by how active Timken was in the activities during the day. So often, companies merely attach their names to a cause strictly for PR’s sake. However, Timken was Junior Achievement. They planned the program, taught the lessons, assisted the children and even cleaned up afterward. They are an essential piece to the success of the JA program. The staff was passionate and enthusiastic, even with the weather reaching almost 100 degrees on their Saturday off. It is refreshing to see Timken taking such a committed approach to being a “community company”.
In conclusion, my internship at Timken was both inspiring and eye opening. I learned how important it is to partake in experiences that are out of the “box” that you have put yourself in. Too often, undergraduates are desperately seeking a career that ideally matches the undergraduate degree. However, life teaches us that it is not what your degree is that matters; it is how you apply past knowledge to current endeavors (Postgrad Lesson Number Two). The Timken internship gave me a chance to jump outside my “psychology major” box and try something different. I found that there are some extremely unique ties to psychology and business. I express gratitude I feel for this experience and for the friends and connections I have made through Timken. Timken shares the vision of my world student approach, they don’t merely want to be an American company in China, they want to improve the community and become an active community member, something that other companies can learn from.

I still remember pulling off the highway of busy Shanghai … tucked back away from the factories and super malls is a sleepy unnamed village and a migrant school. I found this school via email, because the head teacher was desperately looking for an English speaking volunteer. When we pulled in front of the alleyway that leads to the school, we were met by the schoolmaster, Jane. At 80 years old, it was her dream to start an English school for migrant children in the village, to gives these children a chance to learn a language that many of their parents do not speak. The school is free of cost; there are no paid teachers, no flashy bulletin boards, and no toys. And yet, the students are excited, enthusiastic and diligent learners; they learn to learn, not for stickers, candy and recess. It was so refreshing to see children passionate about learning. They sing the alphabet so loudly that Jane has to close the windows as not to disturb the neighbors.
I cannot verbalize what an amazing experience this has been. I believe one of the greatest miracles in life is participating in the learning process. To watch a “Eureka!” moment and know that you contributed to their realization of the concept is an unbelievable blessing. One of my favorite memories is when a little girl literally jumped out of her seat because she remembered the word “purple” from last week’s lesson.
Volunteering at the school has humbled me and made me realize that education does not take powerpoints, computers and DVD’s…it takes a teacher, passion and a chalkboard. These children will never know the amount that I have learned from them…I received the true lesson.
As with all great experiences, I cannot believe that my time in China is coming to an end. In the US awaits my new school, new apartment and new life in different area of the country…another chapter in my life book. I can still remember my first steps off the airplane when it finally hit me that I am on the opposite side of the world. Now, I make the long journey back…a different person from when I stepped off the plane.
I often wonder what I will tell my friends and family when they ask, “How was your trip?’ What will I say to them to sum up three months that have been spent across the world? How can I begin to tell the laughter I’ve shared with new friends, the unique experience of tasting chicken feet, the smell of dumplings…the joy of giving directions in Chinese to a taxi driver and then arriving where I intended.  I will probably smile at them and simply say, “Good”, hoping that somehow I can find a better word to epitomize this adventure.
As my trip comes to a close, I find myself shutting my eyes and breathing in, as if this process will somehow save my experiences into my long term memory. So that someday, when I am back in the US, stuck in a traffic jam or daydreaming on a Sunday afternoon, I can drift back the summer in Shanghai.

Thank You. Thank You Mount Union for teaching me that the best life lessons occur out of the classroom. Thank You Timken for giving me the opportunity to have an internship that has inspired me. Thank You to my family for giving me wings and the confidence to travel. Thank You to my new friends, you will never know the special place I have for you in my heart.

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