I have realized that I suddenly dropped this blog at one point, and I had meant to pick it up again or to at least write a conclusion. With the busy-ness of the last month of the semester, I didn’t have time and too much was happening for me to sit down and describe it all online. But I thought it would be most appropriate to share my reflections on my study abroad experience and how I have changed as a person over a year since I first went to China. Now that time has passed and I am (mostly) over my reverse culture shock, I feel that I can now define just what it was like to go and study in another country.
I am still in some disbelief that I actually left the United States and lived in Asia for four months. I’m not sure why that is, but it just is. I didn’t get to see, experience, and do everything I had hoped to do, but the things, people, and places I did, met, and saw were pleasant surprises and unique moments. I never had the opportunity to go outside of Beijing Province to, say, Inner Mongolia or Shanghai, but I did get to visit a Chinese kindergarten on a military base – how many foreigners can say they did that? I may not have visited the famous hutongs in the older parts of Beijing, but I did rub shoulders with some of the upper echelons of Chinese society at the Beijing Concert Hall, and I met an internationally-recognized astronomer who is also the curator of the Beijing Planetarium. And although I never tried hot pot, I made friends with locals who were very kind to invite me into their homes and cook delicious meals for me; I got to experience authentic Mongolian cuisine and homemade Chinese meals. I shopped in Chinese grocery stores and markets, wore Chinese-brand clothes, watched Chinese television, and spent time chatting with my Chinese friends. The geographer in me has been satisfied that I got to see and experience real, daily life in China. I may not have seen all the historical sites and tell you what they were like, but I can tell you what China is right now on the street. That’s the China I was most intimate with.
After arriving in Beijing, things at first were more difficult because I was not well-prepared as I normally like to be. This was the first time I left North America and was away from home for more than three months, and I didn’t know what to expect, nor what to pack besides the basics. In a foreign country where you stick out worse than sore thumb and barely speak the language, the things you normally didn’t have to worry about before suddenly become the biggest concerns. Perhaps it was fortuitous, then, that I got so sick when I arrived at Capital Normal University and had extra help from Catherine, my student coordinator. I tend to have a quick adaptative response to new surroundings, so I think that kept me from panicking and I just absorbed my initial surroundings. I think things calmed down for me at the beginning once I found English-speakers (including one of my teachers) and found where I could buy supplies and food; knowing where my next meal is helps me establish a routine and keeps me from going crazy.
I won’t sugarcoat my experience and pretend that every single moment was the time of my life. There were certainly times when I was really frustrated, really lonely, really stressed, really embarrassed and really confused. And I had one of the scariest times of my life where I had briefly wondered if I would die so far away from home. Now I think I know how immigrants to the United States feel. It’s annoying when you can’t read street or building signs, or the little “Sale!” signs in grocery stores, but it’s frustrating and scary to struggle to tell someone what is wrong with you and you don’t know the words or phrases to make them understand. It’s embarrasing when you try to ask someone a question or order food, and you’re struggling to find the words and pronounce them correctly. And it’s depressing, angering, and very embarrassing when you are speaking enough to get what you want, and that person mocks you and invites their friends to leer at you, an alien in their world.
Through these experiences, I have come to appreciate just how wonderfully diverse and modern the United States is where we aren’t shocked to see a person with different skin color, and where we can get quality health care. I am someone who suffers from occasional irritable bowel syndrome and am sensitive to heat sickness; to be in a country where both these conditions simply do not exist is terrifying when you have a possible medical emergency and you’re met with blank stares, confusion, or even laughter. An entire ethnicity of people are different from others not just because of their food, houses, clothes, and languages but the many whys behind each one. I did not know that the Chinese have an entirely different perspective on the temperature and weather, so how could I make them understand that people can get sick or even die from being in the heat?
Of course it is difficult to be in another country and culture, but the difficulties, the frustrations, and the scares are, I feel, a part of life and a part of learning and maturing. I now appreciate what my troubles in China have taught me, but thankfully they have not overshadowed all the good times and all the good things, people, and places I came to know. While some Chinese looked at me like a strange creature to be gawked and laughed at, I was deeply touched by the many people who were generous and open-hearted towards me. I am particularly blessed to have met Maggie Zhang, her husband, and her daughter Nina, my student coordinator Catherine, and my language partner Lisa and her parents. I wish I could return the generosity they have shown towards me, and I am forever grateful for their friendship, their help, and their company. Getting to know so many students from around the world was my biggest surprise, though. I had expected to meet and befriend locals, but I did not expect to make friends with my fellow international students. Through them, I not only learned about China but about their countries, their lives, and their cultures. This experience, to me, was like the savory second course of a delicious meal.
There are things I miss about China: the food, the people I met there, walking to nearby stores, fresh produce, getting around on public transportation, and seemingly little things like sweaters, packages of toilet paper with handles, that Iced Tangerine flavor of Gatorade, hanging up laundry to dry, and sidewalks fully shaded by trees. I came back to JC Penney catering only to teens and no sweaters for sale anywhere, having to walk everywhere or wait for a ride, big box stores at the edge of town, no social life, and suddenly bland American food, for the most part. But longing for certain things and learning to adapt is also a part of life and a part of maturing. As a result, I have been experimenting with new ingredients when I cook, and I try to buy more locally-grown produce at small stores. I look at the clothes and jewelry I bought in China and am making a change in my fashion choices. And I am trying to change some of my habits in the hopes of bettering myself and making my life simpler and more efficient.
China has changed me. I was pushed out of my comfort zone in more ways than I can count, in particular my social abilities. I came out of my shell, unfortunately, only at the end of the semester, so I had missed many opportunities to make more friends, go on more outings, and most of all, to further practice my Chinese. I have also become more outspoken and more assertive (sometimes to a fault!), and to better express myself (in English, at least). Without a doubt, I have certainly become more adventurous in my eating habits as well as little things that used to make me a bit nervous; riding public transportation, handling money at the check-out, crossing the street, and ordering food. I’ve actually been working on these through the past decade, but there is no room for nerves in a big city where the streets are crammed with traffic and you can’t cook food in your dorm. I look back on these now and have a good chuckle; I guess I was shier – or more anti-social – than I thought!
One of my professors at Cortland, Dr. Hunter, remarked that when I come back from China, my room would feel smaller to me now that I’ve experienced a larger world out there. Funnily enough, he was right! One of my frustrations in coming back to the United States is coming back to a literally small bedroom in a small city. A small life? I hope not! Right now, I feel I am stuck here and stagnating when I know there are places to see and things to do. I have definitely been humbled in those four months. To see how different humans can be from one another, but also how similar they are has been a sort of overarching theme to my Chinese Adventure. I actually became even more patriotic while in China, and while I am near the point of jingoism at times, I realized I also learned a great deal about my own country and have pondered the things we need to change here in the United States; I am thankful that a dip into a Chinese lifestyle has given me that necessary perspective. I know I want to go out there in the world and see more of it and my own country and do something. Mentally and emotionally, I am ready to set sail again, and once I get my things in order, I’ll be off again.