By Cynthia Wang
During my three months in Beijing, I got sweat on by strangers in subways, learned how to barter with vendors, and nearly got run over by cars while biking—twelve times to be exact. Beijing is a developed city and on par with many Western cities, but living there was still a challenge to me. I was a terrible biker, rusty in Mandarin to say the least, and mostly on my own since I didn’t know anyone in the city. I realized I was in for a real test when I received a job offer in a language I could barely read.
Prior to moving to Beijing for the summer, I had studied Mandarin for about eight years, but had stopped my formal education in high school. Saying that my Mandarin skills were “rusty” was being generous, but I really wanted to study environmental policy in China.
I spent my summer as a policy intern at a Chinese university’s environmental innovation center. I did comparative policy research for them on soil remediation methods and standards in various developed countries. I helped them prepare funding proposal pitches to large companies like IBM and CITIC Group and also did some translating (shoutout to Google Translate for making me look more competent than I really am). Everyone in my company was Chinese, and the other interns were all boys who studied environmental engineering. They were baffled by my liberal arts education in environmental studies: “How do you apply this knowledge in real life?” they asked. “You know, I wish I knew,” I mumbled as I stared blankly down at Chinese soil legislation, trying to figure out what I was doing myself.
During my internship abroad, Deng Xiaoping’s maxim: “crossing the river by feeling for stones” felt particularly applicable. This phrase was originally coined during China’s reform years to describe the uncertain process of moving forward with economic developments. I highly doubt Deng anticipated a university student adopting it as her own life slogan, but it was pretty relevant to my summer in Beijing. I didn’t really know how to navigate the city at first, and every day I crossed my own river by feeling for stones at my internship. Writing papers about concepts I had been introduced to that day, preparing presentations for technologies I didn’t understand at all, and relying heavily on my VPN and Google—it was a confusing time, but my Mandarin improved at a ridiculous pace, and I got to work with some extremely knowledgeable experts in my field of interest.
Beijing is a particularly interesting place as an environmentalist. When daily life is directly affected by pollution, it becomes blatantly clear that something needs to be done. Urgently. I was able to meet and befriend various actors in this field of study and learn from their experiences. A scholar who founded a social enterprise to combat air pollution demonstrated to me the importance of grassroots efforts in changing behavioral patterns of a population, and a young expat who helped produce and host China’s first environmental podcast showed me how simply volunteering your time can lead to great opportunities. They were all in different fields, but everyone was doing something for the environment. The consensus on climate change has led to incredible progress in the China, which gives me hope for the climate movement, especially as our own country is still trying to fight climate change deniers.
During the three months I spent in Asia, I stumbled into plenty of mishaps (including losing all my belongings while backpacking in Japan!). But I’ve learned to embrace these uncomfortable situations. I’m young and willing to take chances on promising opportunities. My summer taught me to accept what I don’t know, live with less, and appreciate more. I think Deng was really spot-on with his stones and river maxim: once you accept the randomness of life, progress will come incrementally.
Cynthia Wang is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where she studies Political Science and Environmental Studies.