“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.”
– Cesare Pavese
In China, I have found it fascinating to witness how I can be a foreigner, a 外国人wàiguó rén, yet still feel often enough like I have not tread so far as I actually have. Every day, I have class where the teachers speak exclusively in Chinese, but the moment a break occurs, my cohorts and I revert to English. I have come to feel the trap of being a foreigner, being set in one’s ways. It is a struggle to keep myself from speaking English all the time, and I often fail. I spend much of my time speaking with other Americans in my program for hours in English. Call it a defense against homesickness, a flirtation with familiarity, but the blunt fact is that it is hard to make the most of this short experience as an expatriate.
Out of the people I know who study abroad, not many people go to a country as foreign as China. Many go to Australia, Great Britain, Spain, or maybe Ireland. Often, many of these students do not have to deal with what I have to: they can go out into the streets of Brisbane and talk to anyone they want, or go to a play or the movies in London without any language barrier. Though I am here in Beijing to study Chinese, there is a problem with the fact that I had not studied Chinese much before coming. Therefore, I cannot just go and make Chinese friends because the conversation would be over very soon!
Though, this is good because I am learning a lot about the language, it has made my experience far different, than if I had decided to study abroad somewhere in Europe. It is very easy to get around and do things in Beijing, and my Chinese is good enough for most common situations that arise, but I often feel separated from the city. I know I am an American, the Beijingers know I am, and that is something so evident here in China, whereas if I were in Europe, I would not look so foreign. It is a struggle sometimes because the environment is so foreign, and I am so foreign from the environment. Here in Beijing, it is tough reminding myself that I need to be studying Chinese. I tend to withdraw into myself and the small American corners of the city, as a natural way of trying to make myself feel comfortable. It is like I need to try tricking myself into being lost in Beijing sometimes, because only when I stop watching American shows and start listening to Chinese music, do I really take advantage of my experience here.
The brutality of travel can be mitigated and overcame, as long as I make the most of everything. Becoming a foreign recluse, hiding from Beijing is not a way to experience the city at all. Exploration, living with an adventurous mindset – that is where growth is sowed. To trust strangers and live with only the bare essentials has long-term benefits, that one cannot gain from trying to remain cozy at home. You learn the most from falling down. Staying off-balance in a foreign land will teach me so much about who I am, who other people are, and the relationship between me and them.
My biggest hope is that my Chinese language will grow, so that I can make more use of the study abroad experience and maximize everything about spending a semester in Beijing. I have had a great time here already – I can only imagine how great it can be if I can communicate better! As my Chinese teacher would say, “好好学习!” (Study well!)