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Home > PHC Senior Matt Boehm Spends Ten Months in China

PHC Senior Matt Boehm Spends Ten Months in China

September 25th, 2009

By J. Cate Pilgrim

CONTACT:  David Halbrook
Patrick Henry College
(540) 441-8722

Boehm atop the Great Wall of China

Have you ever been 7,000 miles from home, trying not to die from some mysterious disease? Matt Boehm has. Last year, while studying Chinese in northwestern Beijing through a language immersion program, Boehm became ill. For several days he lay on his bed, overcome by a pernicious fever. He’d missed classes, but he wasn’t expecting any of his classmates to come looking for him.

They didn’t know where he lived.

Even if they had, he doubted they would be able to pinpoint his small room on the thirteenth floor of a high-rise apartment.  Boehm realized he was alone and invisible, a semi-delusional sick foreigner in a city of 13 million people.  “The worst part wasn’t the illness. It was that I was completely and utterly alone,” Boehm recalls. Fortunately, his body got rid of the fever and Boehm was able to resume his study of Mandarin.

A senior at PHC, Boehm, 22, traveled to China last September when he was awarded the Boren Scholarship from the National Security Education Program.  The year-long scholarship requires recipients to study “critical need” languages, such as Arabic, Russian, Chinese or Farsi, and then complete a year of government service work. Boehm chose Mandarin because he had studied it briefly at the University of Kansas before coming to PHC.

Although Chinese is a language composed of over 40,000 characters, the average native speaker only uses about 3,500 to 5,000 characters. By the end of his ten-month stay in Beijing, Boehm had learned upwards of 1,500 characters and was able to converse with the locals.

In the classroom, Boehm’s teacher taught from a textbook—the same one used by Wheaton College—but focused on oral competency. Boehm recalls how she would force students to speak in Chinese, sometimes for four hours at a time.

“We would bring in a map of Beijing and ask how to get to some ancient temple. Or talk about the French system of government. We got to let the language soak in,” says Boehm. He admits he may not know the words for all the basic colors, but Boehm can talk confidently about the Internet, technology, politics, and food.

Matt Boehm (R) and a Buddhist monk at the Llama Temple in Beijing

Outside of the classroom, Boehm was eager to experience the culture and local cuisine, even when it included starfish, grubs, tripe, and all manner of intestinal soups. The program paid for his food, so he became a regular at the local tea shops and restaurants, where he practiced conversing in Chinese.

“The food was excellent, especially the fried rice,” Boehm says. “I miss it, although I don’t miss the coagulated blood or barbequed scorpions.”

In addition to culinary adventures, Boehm made it a point to travel. During the U.S. New Year’s season, he visited friends in Shanghai who were visiting from the Jiangsu Province. Over Chinese New Year’s, he backpacked down to Shenzhen, utilizing local commuter trains. He saw Hong Kong and visited Macau, which is known as “the Las Vegas of the Orient.” At one point he flew to Taipei, Taiwan, to check out the temples, museums, hot springs, and night markets.

And as for his health, Boehm fell ill on one other occasion, after a trip to Inner Mongolia. “I think I ate some bad hot-pot that time.”

Boehm values the time he spent in Beijing. “At the end of the course I still had a few months left on my visa; I didn’t want to leave.” What he missed most about the U.S. was consistent fellowship with other believers. “The ex-pat communities were so fluid, with people leaving and coming, it was difficult to put down roots or have accountability with other Christians,” Boehm said.

Boehm is currently interning with the Metropolitan Police Department, but at some point hopes to return to China and continue his studies.