Entering the Black Hole: Month #1 in China

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Hello!  My name is Tarrajna Walsh, and I am a senior from Loyola University Chicago in the United States.  I am studying abroad for a semester at The Beijing Center located on the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing, China.  Almost exactly a month ago today I arrived at the Beijing airport–my first time on Chinese soil!  I was fortunate enough to have had a direct flight from Chicago, and about 12 hours later (my flight was two hours earlier than anticipated!), I spied my first glimpse of the Asian continent.  I had a middle seat, so I had to lean forward and crane my neck to get a look out the window without appearing to be staring at my neighbor.  When I saw the tan colored hue of a jagged mountain range far below, a feeling of excitement mixed with anxiety washed over me.  What in the world had I gotten myself into?  Flying to China may as well have been flying to the moon.  Though I had seen pictures of Chinese cities and rural landscapes, watched Chinese films, and met with many people who had been to China in the months leading up to my own trip, I had a very abstract grasp of China.  I even had difficulty imagining what it would look like.  Needless to say, as we prepared for landing, I felt instead as if we were flying into a black hole.

Since arriving in Beijing, I have been overwhelmed with new impressions and experiences.  That is the joy of traveling, especially to a place where you do not speak the language.  Everything is a new–and often challenging–experience.  The most perfunctory aspects of daily life at home–shopping, ordering food, going to the bathroom–become the most challenging experiences while abroad.

Before arriving, I heard many things about China.  I was told that the food is very delicious, and very different than Chinese food in the States.  After being here for a month, I would have to agree.  Chinese food in the U.S. mainly derives from the Cantonese region of southern China, whereas there are many diverse regions reflected in the food here in China, such as Sichuanese (spicy!), Hunanese, Hui, Tibetan, etc.  I also imagined a relatively heterogeneous population, as compared to the diversity of ethnicity and nationality in U.S. metropolitan areas.  Although the vast majority of Chinese people are Han Chinese, there are many different ethnicities and sub-cultures represented as well.  For example, while on our two-week excursion along the ancient Silk Road Route into western China (more about that in another post!), I encountered a wide diversity of people.  There were many Hui Muslim people in Lanzhou, Gansu, identifiable by a round, white cap worn by men, and a hejab worn by women.  We also met Tibetan Chinese in Xia’he, Gansu, located on an outer cusp of the Tibetan Plateau.

An immediate impression I had of China–well, Beijing at least–upon arrival was that it is very dirty.  That impression has not really changed, although the subway is impressively clean (especially compared with Chicago’s El).  Another impression/expectation I had was that people would not be particularly friendly toward strangers.  I have been pleasantly surprised to find that in many cases I was wrong.  Shopkeepers, waiters/waitresses, and random passersby have been very cheerful, patient, and friendly many times when I needed help.  And as with any city, there are the not-so-friendly people as well.  But by far my greatest impression of people in China has been their curiosity about foreigners.  Especially while traveling along the Silk Road, my colleagues and I were asked numerous times to take photos with strangers, stared at, talked about in Chinese, and generally scrutinized.  Coming from the diversity of the United States, this was at first a surprising and unsettling experience, but we soon learned to enjoy it, especially after realizing that people were as curious about us as we were about them and their nation.  We soon coined the expression #Chinafamous, and were lamenting that we would lose this special attention upon our return to our respective countries.

One major observation I have made since arriving here is how crucial food is to identity.  I would not consider myself anywhere close to being a foodie, and yet even I have felt the pangs of being away from one’s home cuisine and comfort food.  Though Chinese food offers a wide variety and can be extremely delicious, there are some moments when I really miss one of my home staple foods: tacos.  I know the exact taco place I will visit for my first meal when I get home.  Nonetheless, this is Beijing and there are reportedly several authentic taco shops here, though I have yet to seek them out.  On the flip-side, one aspect of China I already know will be missed when I leave are the jianbing: a burrito-like food consisting of batter made from millet spread over a round griddle, with an egg cracked over it and cooked in, lettuce, sauce, spice, some yet-unidentified crunchy thing, and meat of your choice all rolled in.  Mostly all the study-abroad students in my program, myself included, eat this for lunch every day.  It costs about $1.50 and is absolutely delicious.  Yes, $1.50.  Food here is much cheaper than the U.S., and there is no tipping.  Yet another reason it will be difficult to go back.

After returning from our Silk Road excursion, we launched right into classes.  I am taking Intensive Chinese four times a week for almost three hours each day.  My professor is an excellent teacher, and only speaks in Chinese.  This is really challenging!!  There are some days after class when I head straight back to my dorm (well, after a tasty jianbing hot off the griddle) and take a nap.  Three hours of Chinese can be mentally exhausting, but overall I can already see that I am making much faster progress here than back home, simply due to the immersion experience.  All my classes are quite engaging, and I am confident that I will have a far greater understanding of Chinese culture, history, and society than before arriving.  Nonetheless, China is a huge nation with a vast history.  I feel strongly that one semester here will only reveal the tip of what promises to be a tremendous iceberg.

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