I remember the first time flying alone and not a single word could summarize the feeling. It was my first taste of independence into the “real world” and like many incoming college students this realization was a frightening one. Will I miss my flight or know how to ask for directions? These were just a few of the many taunting questions racing through my brain. But as the nerves slowly started to slip away, I began to develop a sense of identity. Characteristics that I never knew existed blossomed and at that moment in my life I knew I could understand anything in the world, I just had to take the time to ask.
Study abroad has quite the same effect. When preparing to study abroad there is always an advisor or representative holding your hand along the way, but once you step off the plane and into your host country you are no longer dependent on anyone. To quote Cesare Pavese, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off-balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
When I arrived in China my life was off-balance and I felt as if America was an entirely different planet. I quickly noticed that single-file lines did not exist and every time I wanted to buy tickets or groceries people would constantly cut in front of me. Public restrooms didn’t have toilet paper, drying machines were rare, and most social media sites were off-limits. So why has this summer been the best one to date?
Instead of saying, “that’s not how we do it in America,” I thought to myself that there must be a reason for doing it this way. For example, sustainability plays a significant role in Chinese culture and was the root explanation for many of the differences I experienced. Many people ride bikes to reduce their carbon footprint and public buildings do not provide toilet paper because it forces everyone to consciously think about waste management. Even at my host university, Beijing Foreign Studies, there is a limit on the amount of electricity each dorm room can use per month. In China, air conditioning is a luxury that is used sparingly and wisely, but in America air conditioning is placed in almost every building. Another conservation method is the way the Chinese do laundry. Here, I have to air dry my clothes because most places only have a washer in order to conserve energy. At first I hated the idea of air drying my clothes, but now I love it and have plans to continue this back home.
In addition to sustainable practices, I’ve noticed that in every province dancing is a reoccurring theme. From Monks dancing in Tibet to the Famous Face-Changing Opera acts in Sichuan, the Chinese enjoy this beautiful art form. In Inner Mongolia the local people even taught us how to dance, sing, and wrestle. Apparently, wrestling, archery, and horse races are daily recreational activities in the grassland region. But in the more urban areas of China, ping-pong and “Tī jiànzi, 踢毽子”are the main sports. Tī jiànzi consists of two or more players kicking a heavy puck with a feather. The puck must never touch the ground which makes for an interesting game. Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds. Although I never knew such a sport existed, it is now one of my favorite ways to pass the time with my Chinese friends. But this is exactly why students travel abroad- to learn. It doesn’t have to be sports or dancing, you can learn the politics, history, or food of your host country, but learn as much as you can during study abroad.
Everything I learned thus far won’t be forgotten when I return to the states, because the second half of study abroad is utilizing the information in life back home and educating others. After studying for a month in China I’ve come to appreciate the little things in life. Never again will I complain about air conditioning or waiting in the longest line at the grocery store. But more importantly, I have learned valuable lessons from my friends in China that not only better myself, but others. I never knew two cultures could be this contrasting but it’s because I took the time to forget familiarities and understand the culture on a higher level. Chinese traditions and daily routines have become a part of my identity and I am continuing to evolve as a person and accept all the differences that make this world unique. I’m constantly reminded, even though “that’s not how we do it in America,” it does not make it the wrong way.