As part of her spring Student Ambassador project duties, Emma Zubak, a nominee of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS), wrote a long-form reflective essay about her experience studying in China last summer courtesy of the Wanxiang Group Corporation


Emma Zubak, Chicago Public Schools/Wanxiang Group

In summer of 2018, I was given the amazing opportunity to travel to China on a full scholarship through the Hangzhou WanXiang Company with 23 other CPS students. Although I had gone to Beijing once before, I was excited to explore the cities of Hangzhou and Shanghai, as well as revisit Beijing.

Beijing was just as beautiful this time around as the first time I went. My favorite place we visited in Beijing was the Summer Palace. In Chinese, the Summer Palace is called 颐和园 (Yiheyuan), meaning “The Garden of Restful Peace.” Here is where the emperor and his family used to spend their summers. If you have ever visited the Summer Palace, you know that the scenery perfectly fits its English meaning. The two things that stood out to me most were the architecture and the nature. The buildings generally had a dark red and blue color scheme; this was especially interesting to me because many of the other places we visited in China utilized the same colors. What I later learned was that Beijing predominantly uses five colors in its architecture meant to symbolize the relationship between earth, water, fire, metal, and wood. The red that I saw in the buildings of the Summer Palace symbolizes good fortune and prosperity, which is why it is often seen at large events like weddings. Blue, on the other hand, symbolizes heaven. I felt that the color schemes present in most of Beijing’s historical sites with specific underlying meanings was one of the most interesting things about the city. In addition to the architecture, the natural scenery present at the Summer Palace made it such an unforgettable place to visit. I loved standing on the bridge overlooking the lake dotted with little boats. The water was bluer than anything I’ve seen in Chicago, and it sparkled as it reflected the sunlight. Someday, I hope to go back and be able to ride in those boats.

Image taken during boat ride at Summer Palace

Image taken during boat ride at Summer Palace











After our three days in Beijing, we took a bullet train to Hangzhou, where we spent most of our time. I can say that this part of my trip specifically was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. When we arrived, we were greeted by our six ambassadors, who were college students at Hangzhou Wanxiang Polytechnic, where our on-campus hotel was located. The ambassadors were not only our guides through their school and the city of Hangzhou, but also our friends and kind faces we could always look to for help. I will never forget Jakie for his generosity and hospitality throughout our three weeks in the city. Hangzhou was where we visited the West Lake. Our tour guide from that day told us that just-married Chinese couples often honeymoon to the West Lake, and I could see why. Surrounded by a huge lake, bridges and vibrant nature, I felt very relaxed. What’s more, the people at the West Lake all had a common characteristic – they all looked very happy to be there. Seeing so many happy people made me enjoy the West Lake even more. The weather on the day we went to the West Lake was not too sunny. I enjoyed the ride on the golf cart around the lake because 1) up until that point, I had never been on a golf cart 2) it allowed us to see the entire lake, which was huge!

Emma (right), Image taken in Hangzhou

Image taken in Hangzhou

















Emma, with her host family in Hangzhou

My favorite experience from Hangzhou was my visit with the host family. When I went to Beijing my first time in China, I stayed with a host family over the weekends I was there for a total of four days. This time, I was only able to spend the day with my host family, but many of the things I learned were the same. I learned that Chinese families are incredibly warm and caring for their guests.

Being with my host family made me feel at home because in Bosnia, where my family is from, they treat their guests in a similar courteous manner.

The mom of the host family went out of her way to make sure we had what we needed and were comfortable. She took my friends Allison, Osasehre, and I, as well as her two children to go see Jurassic World in Chinese. It was cool to see a movie I’ve known and loved translated into a different language. I also think this was helpful in improving my Chinese because I used my knowledge of the storyline, as well as the English subtitles, to expand upon my vocabulary. After that, she took us to a Starbucks, where we all got drinks that aren’t served in the U.S. It was interesting to see that despite the globalization of Starbucks, there are still some differences depending on what region of the world the Starbucks is located in.

During my stay in Hangzhou, I also attended a variety of seminars on Chinese culture, art, clean energy science, etc, as well as went on field trips to museums, factories, and dams. I enjoyed going to Nongfu Springs Facility, the top provider of bottled water in China. I observed that this plant, just like American factories, utilized the assembly line to guarantee efficiency of product making. Although it is said that Henry Ford first developed the assembly line in 1920s America, the concept actually dates back to the period between 259-210 BC, when Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huangdi used it to create clay figurines. At the Nongfu Springs facility, we had the opportunity to taste test drinks. Many of the drinks resembled Gatorade flavors that I commonly buy here in the U.S.

Image taken at Nongfu Springs facility in Hangzhou


Leaving Hangzhou was an extremely bittersweet moment for all of us, students and teachers alike. Although us high

Pearl Tower, taken during Emma’s trip to Shanghai

schoolers were excited to return home in a few days, we were sad to leave behind the people and places we had grown to love. At the closing ceremony, the students from the U.S. performed Count on Me by Bruno Mars, as well as the Chinese song 朋友, or friend, to symbolize our everlasting friendship with the students of Wanxiang. Because we spent the majority of our trip here, Hangzhou was also where I became closest with the other CPS students on my trip. My roommate Shannon and I, although having been in the same Chinese class for a year, did not become close until this trip. I left the city of Hangzhou having met so many amazing friends from schools halfway across my city and halfway across the world.

The last place we visited was Shanghai. Shanghai was the most modern of the three cities, adorned with neon lights and gleaming buildings. Shanghai provided a sharp contrast from the older feel of Beijing. The most memorable place we visited in Shanghai was the oriental Pearl TV Tower. The tower, being a rich purple color, stood out against the other buildings of the Shanghai landscape. The building itself kind of looked like two giant purple golf balls vertically attached by a long column. In addition to the color, another interesting thing about this building was the transparent glass area that allowed you to overlook the whole city of Shanghai. This reminded me of the Skydeck at the Willis Tower in Chicago. I watched as people with a fear of heights were dragged out onto the platform by their friends to take photos they surely would not regret taking. I was even able take some of my own photos – and with the transparent floor and wall, the camera could easily capture the river and the beautiful city of Shanghai behind me.

Self portrait of Emma, taken inside the Pearl Tower overlooking the city.


I learned a lot about myself while in China. Being away from my family for a month, I learned that I am capable of taking care of myself in a foreign country. I also learned important lessons about advancing my knowledge in the Chinese language. I admit that I am sometimes a perfectionist, which means that I can be afraid of making mistakes. However, being in China and getting the chance to speak with locals taught me that making mistakes helps you learn.

I also learned that I have a strong desire to spend a semester of college studying in China. This dream was inspired by our visit to NYU in Shanghai, which has multiple programs for international students in which they can spend part of their schooling in Shanghai studying Chinese and other subjects. I am beyond thankful to have been given this opportunity to travel abroad in summer of 2018, and will forever cherish the photos, memories, and friends I was able to bring back with me.