As we drive away from the Jia and head towards the airport to return to America, my heart is full but also sad. I sense that I am leaving Shanghai as a different version of myself, enriched with experiences that have opened my heart and my mind even more than I had ever anticipated. Flashes of various memories race through my mind, much like the mini-commercials that flood the walls of the metro system that we have ridden for the past semester. I am overwhelmed when I think that we have traveled to so many places - Suzhou, Tongli, Xi’an, Hong Kong, Tibet, Bangkok and Phuket, Beijing, Fuzhou, and all the various places in Shanghai alone. Some are places that I didn’t even know existed; others were on my bucket list and I can now proudly check them off and feel a great sense of accomplishment. This has now made room for me also to dream a bigger dream for our next adventures.
When I stop to catch a breath and sigh to give my heart a break from the heaviness that it feels, I feel most blessed not from the places that we have seen but from the people we have met. Our souls have invested in students and in the program staff. They have all let us into their life journeys.
On our last day as we prepared to leave Shanghai, Mona (the Chinese teacher and Cultural Activities Director) bought us lunch from the local “French Pancake” house where they sell delicious authentic Chinese food for a reasonable price for the locals. Our final meal of white rice, meat, and vegetables is the perfect dish to end our time in Shanghai. She remembered our food preferences and selected chicken for me and beef for Richard. She also handed us both very thoughtful cards, along with one final gift for me, a precious little red pen holder (Mona loves pens so this seems most appropriate coming from her). We walked to the local phone store to cancel our accounts. This was particularly sad for me because I could vividly remember when Mona took us to the phone store on our first full day in Shanghai. How quickly our time had passed that we had returned to the same place again with my new friend! On the way back to the Jia, we stopped for coffee at a famous local coffee shop called SeeSaw, and enjoyed a final cappuccino together.
Gigi also returned to the Jia today and brought us a mango cake that she only has eaten for her parents’ 60th birthdays. The cake is truly one of the most delectable pastries that has ever touched my palate. Sharing it with Gigi and laughing together as we share stores around our kitchen table one more time also makes the memory even sweeter.
Wang Aiyi, who has cleaned our apartment all semester, also showed up to say goodbye and wish us well. Just as she routinely has done daily, she says “Chi fan! chi fan!” one last time to remind us to eat when we get to the airport. Wang Aiyi doesn’t speak English but I have communicated with her all semester using Google Translate and what I call “Chinese sign language.” Even though we do not speak the same language, I have developed a special friendship with this kind woman. There are more and more stories of staff who have taken us out to dinner, dessert, and/or coffee where we have gathered around a table and shared in rich fellowship. I feel like I have known these people my entire life, but it has only been 4 months.
As we drive away from the Jia, tears stream down not only my face but Richard’s too. Our cups are overflowing. We depart from Shanghai feeling like we have left it a little better than we found it, and this brings us great joy and satisfaction. I sense the Lord whispering, “Well done, my good and faithful ones. Well done!”
Tonight my heart is full. We have finished the semester, had our final banquet, and said goodbye to the students. I am proud of how Richard and I supported this community. And I feel affirmed from their kind words. My cup overfloweth.
It is true. The first couple of months moved slowly but after the EFT, I feel like I have blinked and the semester is over.
The students were so dear. They trusted us. They trusted us with their feelings, their emotions, and their hearts, and they let us into their lives. We learned about their fears, their failures, their triumphs, their families, their passions, and their dreams. Tonight I told them:
Week 9: Beijing in a weekend
I have always dreamed of going to see the Great Wall. I'm not sure exactly why, but I just knew in my heart that I would see it one day. So visiting Beijing was a trip that I was really looking forward to during our time in China. The trip was extra special because we were able to share the experience with 7 students.
Usually students don't want to spend their money on tours because they think that they are too expensive. But if you get a big enough group, the price is reasonable and the convenience is worth it! Many of the sites in Beijing are also not located close together, so having a driver and tour guide are super helpful. We had an amazing tour guide named Andy (WeChat ID: ni420193) who spoke English really well and was so knowledgeable! I HIGHLY recommend him for a tour if you are ever visiting Beijing.
We left Shanghai on Friday around 2pm, and took the bullet train to Beijing, which takes about 4.5 hours. The students bought a 2nd class ticket, and Richard and I bought a 1st class ticket. There is more room in 1st class, and it is very comfortable. Websites say that most foreigners buy 1st class tickets. There's another level of comfort in business class, but we felt that 1st class was sufficient.
We stayed in the Wangfujing area and ate at The Cheesecake Factory on Friday night. It was delicious! Our tour guide Andy and our driver picked us up from our hotel early (8am) on Saturday morning and we had a very full day visiting all the iconic sites: Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Great Wall. I was amazed by how big all the sites were! It took over an hour to drive to the Great Wall from the main city. In the evening, we walked through the Olympic Village as well.
The following morning we were picked up at our hotel again and went on a rickshaw ride through town. Then we enjoyed lunch prepared by a local family and did some shopping before heading out to the Temple of Heaven. I was impressed that we saw so much in just one weekend. We were also lucky because the air quality was fairly good and the sky was pretty clear. We didn't have to wear masks at all!
Quick tips when traveling to Beijing:
1) GET A TOUR GUIDE & DRIVER: Trust me on this one. Book a tour guide and driver. You will not be sorry! It's so convenient and truly helpful to have someone show you the way and teach you about all the sites.
2) TOBOGGAN DOWN THE WALL: I was surprised how much I enjoyed tobogganing down the Great Wall. It was so fun! They take a picture of you on the way down, and it's only $5 so we bought it. It captured the Wall behind us - so fun!
3) SPEND AT LEAST A WEEKEND THERE: I was really surprised that you could see all the iconic sites in Beijing in one weekend! I think there would be plenty to do if we stayed longer, but it might be good to know that you can do so much in one weekend.
WEEK 8: Post-Tibet
After returning from Tibet, we looked forward to spending the week in Shanghai and taking a break from travel the following weekend. I have found that it is best to travel one week and then to stay local the next week in order to maintain some level of balance. We have also really enjoyed breathing normally in Shanghai again after living at such a high elevation while in Tibet last week.
This week was all about getting back into the rhythm of classes and enjoying spending time with friends on the weekend. We were really blessed to visit Mona (one of the staff members) in her home which is outside of the city. It was refreshing to be in someone's home, and Mona was so dear to make homemade dumplings and a very delicious lunch for us. I always tell Mona that she is my pretty and smart friend, so she wrote that I am hers in Chinese calligraphy for me.
Kendall (our RA) also helped us find "Charlie's," which is a burger joint in the Kerry Center. Sometimes a good 'ol American burger, fries, and milkshake is what a girl needs. Thank you, Kendall!
Week 7: Tibet EFT
Monday, 10/22: Left Shanghai and headed to Xining
Tuesday, 10/23: Visited a mosque and monastery in Xining and then got on the train to Tibet
We left on Monday and took a plane to Xi'an, which took about 2.5 hours and then another flight to Xining. We spent one night in Xining and then visited a mosque and a monastery the next day before getting on a train for 21 hours heading toward Tibet. Yes. That was not a typo - 21 hours! My number one praise is that we have all acclimated to the altitude well. There are complaints of headaches and nausea but nothing major. We are at about 11,450 feet, and the highest point during our train ride was over 16,000 feet! I can feel my lungs working hard.
Tuesday, 10/23 - Wednesday, 10/24: Journey on the Train, Arriving in Lhasa
On the train, the staff reserved hard sleeper cars for us, which means that we all had a bed! This was wonderful. It was tight quarters with 6 beds to a room, but we made it work.
Once in Lhasa, we were super spoiled staying at the St. Regis. We were supposed to start our first night with a simple dinner at the hotel but about 15 plates came out! After dinner we went straight to bed to rest before a full day of sightseeing the next day.
Thursday, 10/25: Norbulingka Palace and Sera Monastery
Two comfortable buses along with English-speaking tour guides came to pick us up this morning. The staff have done an amazing job organizing the hotels, meals, and tours. Today we visited Norbulingka Palace, which was the summer palace for the 7th-14th Dalai Lamas. We also visited the Sera Monastery, one of the 3 famous Tibetan Buddhist monasteries in Tibet. Over 90% of the people here are Tibetan Buddhists.
For dinner this evening, we had a traditional Tibetan meal, which consisted of a lot of yak dishes, and we enjoyed a show by some musicians and singers at the restaurant after dinner. For the last song, the performers invited us up and we all enjoyed dancing together.
Friday, 10/26: Potala Palace
Today we visited the Potala Palace which is where the 14th Dalai Lama resides before being exiled to India. The palace is at 13,000 feet so the altitude gain is challenging. Some websites say that it has 300-400 steps to climb to the top. The palace has over 1,000 rooms and we only saw 18% of them. Over 90% of the Tibetan people practice Tibetan Buddhism. The palace is filled with so many Buddha statues as well as lots of strong smells from incense burning and yak butter candles. Yes. That’s right. Yak butter. The city is filled with so many people all chanting and spinning prayer wheels and smoking or spitting 🙊
After the visit to the palace, we had another Tibetan meal at a local restaurant and then headed to an art school where underprivileged people come to learn a trade. They make Buddha sculptures from copper or other metals and also carve wooden art and paint tankas. The students drew a Buddha and stamped a Buddhist mantra. I learned that only 9 years of school are compulsory for young people in Tibet but only 60% of them attend because their families can not afford supplies. Before 1989, our tour guide said that school was all free but now families have to provide certain supplies.
I didn’t feel very well after all of our activities this afternoon so I came back to the hotel around 4pm while the others went to the marketplace to bargain for souvenirs. I think that the day and all the smells just wore on me and I needed rest. And my stomach is not happy for some reason - I think it’s from all the travel and eating out. Tibet is interesting but also challenging in many ways. I know that this is an unforgettable trip that many will never be able to experience. We are all grateful for the opportunity.
Saturday, 10/27: Yamdrok Lake Day
This was my favorite day in Tibet. Although the bus ride was long and windy, the destination was spectacular. It was so wonderful to be outdoors in the fresh air! It was also a treat to meet Tibetan mastiffs, hold a baby goat, and to sit on a Tibetan yak at stops along the way. When in Tibet...
At one point along the drive up to the mountain, the tour guide said that we should consider going to the bathroom outdoors since the bathrooms would not be as nice at our next stop. Wow! I did not take her up on that, but that gives you an idea of what the restrooms are like here. Most of them are squatties, and we need to bring our own toilet paper and antibacterial sanitizer or wipes. But this is just a small sacrifice that is quickly forgotten after seeing the beauty of Tibet and learning from its culture and people.
Sunday, 10/28: Long Day of Travel Back to Shanghai
We left the hotel in Lhasa by noon and returned back home to Shanghai at about 1am. It was a long journey home, and there is much to unpack from our suitcases and our hearts and minds. How blessed we were to be one of the few in this world who can say that they have visited Tibet! Thank you, Pepperdine!
week 6: midterms & EFT (TIBET) PREP
My week started off a little challenging because I was not feeling well. I was frustrated by this because I had just gotten over the stomach flu from the other week. I am certain that the travel to Xi'an and all the poor air and constant smoke blown in my face from all the locals triggered my sinus congestion. After reaching out to friends for prayer and resting, I began to feel better as soon as Tuesday of this week. Praise God!
The students have been very stressed because midterms took place this week. I spent a lot of time meeting with them to encourage them and also to advise them with their academic plans as well. Many of them still have questions about their majors and their undergraduate pathways. I enjoy advising them and getting to know them all better during these appointments.
Besides getting through midterms, we are preparing for our upcoming EFT (educational field trip) to Tibet. Many of us watched "Seven Year in Tibet," and we have also received many orientations from the program staff about how to pack and knowledge about the culture and customs of the area. We are all concerned about elevation sickness but are also praying for our trip to run smoothly and safely. We leave on Monday, Oct. 22 and will return to Shanghai on the 29th.
Terra cotta soldiers: Imagine being the farm workers who were digging for a water well and uncovered the site where over 6,000 soldiers were discovered! Over 38 square miles of this historic monument have been excavated since 1974. The site is known as the 8th wonder of the world. It has been a dream of mine to see the terra cotta soldiers in person, so it was breathtaking to be in Xi'an to realize this dream.
Big Wild Goose Pagoda: We were fortunate to visit the Big Wild Goose Pagoda around noon and be present for the daily water fountain show. Beautiful!
The Ancient City Wall: Built in the 14th century and still truly impressive, the ancient city wall is an outstanding site to visit in the middle of the city.
week 5: Associate dean visits
The Associate Dean of International Programs, Dr. Ron Cox, visited the Shanghai Program this week. We enjoyed seeing a familiar face from home. He shared a devotional with us during Convo, and Richard and I were able to spend some time with him as well.
My days get filled very quickly and easily. Teaching, advising, grading, preparing for classes, spending time with students, preserving time for me and Richard, and then trying to stay connected with family and friends at home -- our days are full! We praise God for this wonderful opportunity and for days filled purpose and good work!
chase sapphire reserve benefits
I am so impressed by the benefits of our Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card! I know that this will sound like a commercial, and trust me, Chase is not endorsing me in any way! But I just have to share with my family and friends how this credit card has really blessed us!
AIRPORT LOUNGE: On the way back from Hong Kong, we were able to wait in an airport lounge. It was beautiful! There were nice bathrooms, showers, charging stations at every seat, comfy chairs and tables! AMAZING! There was also a full buffet, hot entrees, delicious pastries, two espresso makers, endless drinks, even free beer (though I didn't have any)! This was all FREE! Part of our benefits as credit card holders. We could have also brought a couple of guests.
TRAVEL POINTS: We just booked a hotel in Thailand for a trip later on in the semester, and we were able to use some of the points we accrued from making travel purchases. Our hotel ended up being free too! A 5-star oceanfront hotel!
Aside from these recent benefits that we enjoyed, the credit card has also covered our TSA Pre-Check and reimbursed us for $300 worth of travel, which offset the enrollment fee. It also covered four meals at LAX before we left for Shanghai! We were able to treat two students to lunch in the terminal before getting on our plane. I think we had a $60-$80 credit at the restaurant in the terminal. So the benefits really pay off!
If you travel regularly, I highly recommend checking out this credit card.
MY FIRST CONVO TALK
Every Thursday from 10:30am-12pm, our group meets for Convocation ("Convo"), which is a weekly assembly. Our RA's lead the meeting with announcements, we typically have a speaker, and we end with "JIA-firmations," which is a sweet time to affirm someone in the program for something specific they have done.
This past Thursday was the first time that I spoke at Convo. I called out to all my prayer warriors to lift me up in prayer. I had so much that I wanted to say to the students, but I wanted it to STICK. I didn't just want to talk, talk, talk, talk, talk... AND, they had all just returned from our long travel weekend, so the likelihood of them falling asleep if I was not engaging was HIGH! :)
I focused my talk on 3 main points:
1) JUST DO YOU!
2) INVEST IN A MENTOR!
3) DON'T MISS THE RIPPLE EFFECT OF YOUR SHANGHAI EXPERIENCE!
1) JUST DO YOU: This is a message that has been heavy on my heart. I feel like we all tend to have some level of self-doubt. We ask ourselves if we are enough? Will I be good enough? Is someone better at us? Our insecurities tempt us to think less of ourselves…I am not tall enough, blond enough, pretty enough, rich enough…and my message to the students was: JUST DO YOU! YOU ARE ENOUGH. When I feel low and tempted to doubt myself, I reach out to my prayer warriors and ask them for encouragement. Recently, I did this and my dear friend Julia shared these CHRIST-breathed words with me:
“Stella - get behind my eyeballs for just a minute - and I see an astoundingly powerful person of humor, gentle wit, intellect and intuition sent to this earth in your small person. Such an amazing presence you are! Maybe God made you small because if you were big you'd be too intimidating So, as to thinking you are not enough (fill in the blank) just stop that nonsense! God made you perfectly and you are following and seeking him so that's the plan.” [THANK YOU, JULIA!]
I shared this with the students and then asked them to write in their journals about someone in the program. I asked them to start off with: “[NAME], get behind my eyeballs for just a minute…” and they shared what they see. They shared the entries with one another out loud. Tears flowed afterwards and the room was filled with love.
2) INVEST IN A MENTOR: I wanted to be sure to tell the students how valuable it is to intentionally invest in a person in your field of interest who you can learn from, who shares your values, and who can be your cheerleader and open opportunities for them. I encouraged them to think of this now – to email professors who they respect, meet with people in the industries that they are interested in pursuing, to invest in a mentor. Do it now. Not after you graduate. Do it in Shanghai. Do it after. Just do it.
3) DON’T MISS THE RIPPLE EFFECTS: The Shanghai experience will transform the students. No doubt. I encouraged them to consider the ripple effects of this experience. It’s not just one and done – they will be transformed intellectually, spiritually, socially, emotionally…in so many ways. Their actions and decisions made here will impact their futures. I shared this so that they are aware that this is a transformative experience.
After the talk, several students came up to me and asked to spend time with me and others texted me and shared that the message resonated with them. I was so grateful for that! I pray that God uses these words to teach them just one thing. Yes, I pray this is so.