Beijing Girl in a Wisconsin World with Tiantian Dong ‘21
By Madison Kobe ’18
As each day brings us closer to Spring Break, which marks the halfway point of the spring semester, many of us are making vacation plans that include sandy beaches, warm shores, and friends and families. Seniors may be preparing for the home stretch of their last semester or applying for summer internships. Meanwhile, Tiantian Dong ’21 is reflecting on her first year in an American school and getting ready for starring in her third production at Carthage College. I met with Tiantian to hear more about her experience pioneering an exchange program and everything it means for her future.
What program did you use to exchange into an American school?
I used a government program in China that works to bring students to Western schools. Our government pays the tuition for us, but we have to pay the housing fee ourselves. I went to Beijing Dance Academy, so the program is through them. The program is for one year.
So you live on campus?
Yes, I live on campus.
And are you coming back next year?
After this semester, yes.
How long have you been in America?
I arrived in September, so it has been about 6 months now.
What are you studying at Carthage?
I’m studying Music Theatre. I study Music Theatre at Beijing Dance Academy, too. I’ll be looking for a career back in China, though, because I have to go back after the year because of the program. But Music Theatre is very American, so I hope I can come back. And I hope to continue my education and possibly get my Master’s degree from here, but we’ll see!
What made you interested in coming to school in the US?
This was actually the first year our school participated in the program. This was the first time they sent us out, so I am very lucky. Because it was the first time, we didn’t really have a choice of which school we could exchange to. But I love it. I would really like to be here longer, and I’m very happy to be here. And I think that’s because of my major. Music Theatre is a very American genre of art. So I think I can learn something original and more professional here, and dive into this area more deeply. And that’s something that I was also supposed to do and what I’ve always wanted to do.
What made you interested in Music Theatre in the first place?
Well, I started learning dance when I was four years old, so I really love dancing. And at the same time I really love singing as well, but I didn’t get to study it until I went to high school. I just love dancing and singing, and I love the stage; I enjoy standing in the spotlight, telling the story and playing the character, to experience different characteristics of a character. I think that’s amazing, being able to dive deep into a character. The way Music Theatre uses singing and dancing and acting to express emotions, instead of just talking and talking. I love that I can use these skills as tools to develop my character; it’s a very cool thing and I really enjoy it.
What has been the most exciting part of coming to America?
Since I got here, I’ve already participated in two musical shows. I was in Disney’s The Little Mermaid and The Wild Party, and the dance concert, Vanishing Point, but that wasn’t musical; and I will be in the mainstage musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, as well. Back in China, we might not be able to rehearse as may original Broadway musicals, so being able to participate in two already is very cool and very meaningful for me. The way we rehearse here is very different than in China. I think the way it is done here is much more professional and effective, so hopefully I will be able to take this experience and bring it back to China and use it there and spread the way of teaching there. And I think it will help motivate and develop the musicals in China.
What are some challenges you have faced as an exchange student?
I always want to say language, but sometimes I feel like if I can deal with it and I’m getting better with this part of everyday life, then it’s not a challenge, you know? I’m dealing with it and I’m getting better, it’s getting much better, especially in the last six months. When I first went to a Music History course, I was so confused. I couldn’t tell what we were talking about, and everyone was speaking so quickly, and the content was too difficult. It is still a challenge, but it is getting much better. The biggest thing is still the culture difference, I think. When I first walked into my residence hall, I noted that there were boys and girls living in the same dorm. That is never going to happen in China! We have two totally different individual buildings for boys and girls; and boys are forbidden to enter the girls’ dorm and the girls are forbidden to enter the boys’. So that was a very big difference, and I cannot get used it or accept it.
Is there a single experience that you are excited to share with your family in China?
I think the biggest one is that I was a part of the Student Spotlight last month. Firstly because I gave a performance in the student auditorium, and it was an amazing experience for me, because it was the first time I was singing and playing the piano at the same time. I have given a lot of performances before, but not in this way. It was a totally new way for me to perform. Secondly because I was performing some original songs, and it was the first time I shared my original songs in such a public place. It was scary, but more exciting than anything. It was a big challenge because I had to speak English to introduce myself and introduce each song, and I try to be funny because I feel that is the style for American shows. I tried some various ways to make fun or throw in a joke; I think that’s the way Americans perform and I love it. Overall it was a challenge, but after performing my friends who went to see my show and give me positive feedback said that it was good. And I recorded it on video and sent it to my mother and family. It was a really great experience for me.
How do you think the experience of being an exchange student will change your outlook of the world?
Because I’m learning American originals and Music Theatre, it did changed me and taught me a lot about what Musical Theatre is, and it learned more about how a musical is brought all together. A musical combines a variety of things and you have to perfect all these different parts to bring a musical to life, and Americans know how to do this effectively. Carthage knows how to make their students professionals; individual music lessons, individual dance classes, and a wide range of dance genres help cover all the types of dance we will need. We get to combine these elements in the Musical Theatre Workshop productions. Carthage helps their students develop and grow their repertoire and prepares the students for the professional world. It has definitely changed my world view! This is the first time I have left China. I can see where America excels in some areas that China does not. For example, the education system; honestly, I prefer the American system and concept. Here, professors and students are more like friends, the environment in the classroom is relaxed, and there is more discussion rather than lecture. This allows the students to be more creative and to participate in discussion. That’s very cool! Also, in the American system, students can select which courses they want to take to grow themselves. In China, we chose half of our classes, but the rest are determined for us and arranged. I don’t think that is a very effective way to let the students grow.
Given the opportunity, would you like to visit another country in the future?
Europe. I don’t know why but I have a good feeling about Barcelona. Maybe because of my personality; I don’t really like a noisy environment. When I was growing up I always wanted to go to Europe, and I thought, after I was a famous singer or performer, that’s where I would spend the rest of my life; a quiet place. America seems like a more suitable for teenagers or students to study and strengthen ourselves.