EAST COUNTY — Sarah Schoeffel’s summer proved to be a non-stop lesson in culture.
Rather than visiting relatives, lounging at the beach or embarking on other local endeavors, the 16-year-old tested her language skills in Beijing, away from everything she held familiar.
“I thought it was going to be a challenge, but I was up to facing that challenge,” said Schoeffel, who has traveled extensively with her parents, Dr. Kim and Sally Schoeffel, veterans of the U.S. Air Force. “I just really enjoy learning foreign languages because I really enjoy learning about other cultures and interacting with other people in their language.”
Schoeffel returned Aug. 12 from China, where she spent the last seven weeks immersed in the Chinese language and culture through the NSLI-Y Scholarship program.
With two years of Spanish under her belt, Schoeffel decided last school year it was time to add another language.
“I had signed up for French,” she said. “I asked for a schedule change when I (learned Chinese would be offered). Chinese seemed like a new language. China is a growing nation. We do so much trading with them. It was useful to learn, and it’s respectful to learn their language.”
In the class of Lingfei Yi at Braden River High School, Schoeffel began learning phonetics, then words, then sentence structure. She’d had Chinese lessons for a few months when she decided to apply for the NSLI-Y Scholarship, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, which would allow her to spend seven weeks attending classes at the Beijing Camford Royal School. She’d also live with a Chinese family on the weekends.
“The experience seemed like something I had to try for,” Schoeffel said. “If I hadn’t tried for it, it wouldn’t have happened.”
After a lengthy and intense application process, Schoeffel and her family were thrilled when they learned she’d been chosen for the program. Schoeffel’s parents helped her get ready, filling out paperwork, packing and attending to other check-list items before Schoeffel’s orientation June 25 to 27, in Washington, D.C. As soon as school let out, Schoeffel started working on her summer assignments for her advanced placement classes, because she knew she’d be exhausted upon her return one week before the start of school.
And, after several late nights, she was off to the nation’s capitol, where 29 other students nationwide joined her. Students learned about their trip and each other before boarding a plane to Tokyo and, then, to Beijing for their studies.
Although American students lived on the same hall at Camford Royal School, each stayed with three Chinese students in dorms. Their schedules, Sarah said, varied greatly, so she didn’t get to spend much time with her Chinese roommates, but the experience still was neat.
“I felt like our cultures were being combined,” Schoeffel said, noting at the end of each week there was a talent show in which both Chinese summer camp students and Americans participated.
Each day, Schoeffel and her American classmates spent at least four hours in language classes, as well as lessons in music, paper cutting, conversation and other work. In the evenings, they’d play soccer with a local shopkeeper or find other things to do.
Although Schoeffel spent much of her time in the classroom while in China, she and the other students also got plenty of hands-on lessons. Schoeffel toured sites such as the Forbidden City, Tianamen Square and the Great Wall of China.
“I took so many pictures,” Schoeffel said, laughing. “I definitely think experiencing these places and seeing them helps me understand what they are, because reading about them from a book doesn’t allow you to grasp everything.
I really enjoyed the Great Wall,” she said. “You see pictures and you think it’s not as grand as it is. The mere fact you can see it from space is (impressive). After each set of stairs you climbed, you were exhausted.”
When they were outside the school’s walls, few people spoke English, Schoeffel said, so she and her friends had to practice their newfound Chinese language skills to get food, buy souvenirs or get directions.
“We’d have to use all the Chinese we knew to buy something or to order something,” Schoeffel said. “Some of us were more experienced than others, but it was still nerve-wracking.”
Now back home, Schoeffel said she’s glad to be back with her friends and family — and grateful for everyone who contributed to help make her trip possible — but she does miss the friends she made in China, as well as her Chinese host family.
With the help of her host sister, she’s signed up on QQ, which is similar to Facebook, to keep in touch. Schoeffel said she’s eager to go back to the country one day.
“I want to be able to thank them more for everything they’ve done for me and show them that gratitude in their own language,” Schoeffel said.
“I just want to broaden my knowledge of the language and the culture,” she said. “I don’t want to lose what I learned there.”
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Sarah Schoeffel said she saw the opportunity in China as a chance to truly experience the culture. So, when it came to eating some of the country’s more unique offerings, Schoeffel didn’t shy away — even when she was dared to eat sheep testicles.
She also tried octopus, cow’s throat and goose liver, among other items.
“I wanted to experience each moment,” she said. “Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have tried (some of) it.”
BLUE SKY BLUES
Sarah Schoeffel said she didn’t realize the smog in Beijing was so intense until one day she climbed a mountain near the school. She and her fellow students could see the smog hovering over the city. “It was rare to even see a blue sky,” Schoeffel said. “That’s one thing I cherish here. When you only see it once in a while, it makes it all the more special.”