Whitman as Other: reflections from orientation camp

Rensi Ke

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In my sophomore year at Shantou University in China, I was chosen as an exchange student for Whitman’s China Sherwood Scholar Program. In my senior year, I finally  came to  Whitman.  The Interntional Student Orientation Camp in Oregon kicked off my long-awaited Whitman experience.

Instead of feeling proudly old among a group of first-year students, I started asking myself if I am really a  senior  as soon as I saw my camp peers. I should say that almost all of them looked much more mature than their Chinese contempories. They, in turn,  also felt surprised that I indeed have spent three years at university.

They had every reason to be suspicious: since the first meal at the camp. I had been asking what the names of foods  were in English, who the celebrity mentioned was, where the  home countries of my newly-made friends were located since the English names of those countries made no sense to my Chinese brain.

Although people say there are no stupid questions,  it is  pretty hard for me to believe that those questions were smart and interesting.  By the evening, I had lost all courage to “hang out” with my younger friends. I decided to “hang out” with the other seven empty beds in the cottage, reading The Last Town On Earth, and feeling like the last person on earth.

It was not until a few days ago that I realized what had made me quiet and gloomy. When I was talking to my “junior brothers and sisters ” (at my  university, students tend to  address an older student as a “senior  brother/sister”, and  to a younger  student, a “junior brother/sister”) via QQ,  I came back to my old self again.

When I was “teaching” them about  my Whitman adventures, a feeling of superiority sneaked in.  I was startled by my  “confidence” as a “senior sister,” which I also found in my “senior brothers and sisters” when they were talking about their “experience.”

I began to rethink about the concept of “age” as the cause of my culture shock.  In Chinese culture,  people generally gain more power as they get older. The elders are highly respected, which  is of course a double-sided coin.  While it is pleasing for me to give my seat to the elders on the bus, it is often annoying for me to  “yield” to them unconditionally, only to make them feel powerful.

The culture shock I encountered since the orientation camp made me realize that I have been subconsciouly  pursuing the power of age: I felt that I should have been the center of the conversation and known most since I am the “oldest.” What I didn’t know is that there are a lot of students at this college who  might be biologically one to three years  younger than I, but might be three  to even more years intellectually older than I.

What the heck is it about age?

Learning in a new culture is like growing up again.  Two weeks after leaving the International Student Orientation Camp,  I finally opened my mind to a new way of living: living like  a child, filled with curiosity, free from shyness. Yes, the door opens slowly, but after all it opens.

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