By Laura Demanski, AM'94, adapted from The Core magazine
Photo courtesy of James Wasserman/The Core

In his time as one of the first College students to take classes at the University’s new Center in Beijing in 2010, Alexander Kramarczuk taught English to Chinese grade-schoolers, visited archaeological sites, and took a 27-hour train ride into the country’s welcoming rural heartland.

Like most UChicago students in the College's East Asian Civilizations program, which moved to the new Center in 2010, Kramarczuk, then a third-year, found China a richly diverse and complex nation.

"The idea of China," Kramarczuk says, "is beyond any one person's grasp. It's just too much. That's what I like, though. What good is life if you know everything?"

The quest to understand China from the inside took second-year Karissa Woienski in different directions. She blogged and wrote essays about her China experiences, all while endearing herself to regulars at a Beijing skating rink.

Both Woienski and Kramarczuk say they left with more questions about China than answers. But both say they’ll be back.

Seeing ‘a slice of life being acted out’

Kramarczuk, a probable sociology major, spent his first eight weeks in Beijing taking the Princeton in Beijing language program, in which students must pledge to speak only Chinese for the duration. "You break the pledge, you go home," he says.

With a month to fill before East Asian Civilizations started, he emailed China-related nonprofits looking for ways to see more of the country, as more than a tourist. The Seattle-based China Tomorrow Education Foundation came through with an opportunity to teach English to third-graders in Shidong, a town of about 700 people in an autonomous region of the southwest called Guizhou.

Kramarczuk grew to love the one-street town of 700 people, where rice and pig farming are the main occupations.

"The people in Shidong attach very quickly, and they're very kind, very lively, very emotional," he says. "It's like a small American town in the concentration of the culture. You can really see a slice of life being acted out. Because they're a minority people, their culture is different from what I've experienced in Beijing."

Unexpected turn leads to more discovery

In Shidong's elementary school, Kramarczuk and his friend taught third- and fourth-graders who were just starting to speak English. "It was very basic: country names, animal names, food. We also did pronunciation classes with the teachers for about a week."

Their stay was cut short after a couple of weeks because of a law, unknown to them and town officials, that forbids distributing any printed materials not preapproved by the government. Their English vocabulary sheets fell afoul of the regulation, and the two Americans were asked to leave the county a week or so short of their planned departure.

Back in Beijing, Kramarczuk’s imagination was captured by comparative literature professor Tamara Chin's lectures about the Han dynasty and the Silk Road trade route. He approached guest lecturer Guo Wu, a Chinese archaeologist, about a current dig and received an invitation to visit. In mid-October Chan took the entire class on a three-day field trip to Xi'an, west of Beijing, to see up close the city that was China's ancient capital. After the field trip, Kramarczuk pressed on further west to Xinjiang to join Guo's team as they excavated a first-millennium Buddhist grotto near Turpan.

If he was less certain than ever about what China is, he was also more captivated by the conundrums he'd witnessed: the recent breakneck pace of change versus the country's "irreplaceable, glorious past" and the homogenization of the capital city versus the "special spark or spirit that hasn't been broken" that struck him in the west.

Immersing herself in Chinese

As well traveled as Kramarczuk was, Woienski was uncontested as its most prolific chronicler. From August to December, her personal blog about the trip, Dreaming in Chinese, amassed more than 50 detailed updates. A Montana native with hopes to pursue a career in the Foreign Service, Woienski had her tuition partially funded by a Gilman Scholarship, which requires recipients to share their experiences abroad with other students, which spurred her to create a blog.

In addition to her blog updates, Woienski contributed a blithe and bonny day-in-the-life essay to the Center in Beijing's website.

Woienski, a double major in political science and East Asian languages, arrived in Beijing early in September with one year of Mandarin under her belt. It was barely enough; she found even basic communication challenging. Early on she relied on a dictionary and dogged practice, keeping a handwritten diary in Chinese. "Everyone says immersion is the best way to learn a language," she thought. "Now that I'm here, it's kind of like, OK, I'm immersed, now what?"

She was assigned a Renmin University student as a language partner—in reality, more of a mentor or coach—she was relieved to feel less need to practice on random strangers. Within months, she was making puns and jokes in Chinese. "The best one," she says, "was when a classmate who doesn't speak Chinese was trying to buy something and I explained to the salesperson, 'He's very cheap and a lot of trouble.'"

Skating proves a universal language

Before classes began, Woienski made a point of locating an ice rink where she could keep up with her figure skating—and, it turned out, exercise her conversational Chinese with other skaters. "Even if we're not having lengthy conversations, thanks to my limited Chinese," she says, "we're still friends—or kindred spirits, as Anne of Green Gables would say!"

Woienski earned the studious attention of the tiniest skaters, whom she sometimes noticed following her lead. "I did a sit spin. They did sit spins. I did a loop jump. They both did loops. I did a lutz. They both did lutzes," she wrote on her blog. "They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

The rink quickly became something special: a place where Woienski was a regular. It was there she felt most woven into everyday life in Beijing: "Having the common ground of figure skating has been so great for getting to meet Beijingers."

Like Kramarczuk, Woienski left China with a paradoxical sense that more familiarity brought less understanding. "I feel like I need some time away from the country to think about everything I experienced here," she says. "Every aspect of living here teaches me something."

Originally published on July 5, 2011.