The Alliance students just arrived in China two weeks ago, so I decided it would be a good time to reflect on my experience in China and how things have changed since I’ve been back home.
It was just over a year ago that I left for my Asian adventure. I was nervous, scared and unsure of what to expect out of my seven moths in China. While in China I had a lot of great times, made amazing friends and ate some really good food. Even the hard times (broken computers, getting stranded on mountains) now make amazing stories. I will admit, the last few weeks in China, I was ready to go home. I missed my family, friends, and most especially the familiar. Living in China can be hard and I was ready for things to be easy again. I didn’t want to have to argue with the fuwuyuans in Chinese about fixing the internet, I didn’t want to have to change tables in a restaurant because the sweaty shirtless men at the table next to me were chain smoking and I definitely didn’t want to have to study Chinese ever again.
When I boarded the plane home I was excited, exhausted and nervous. How much are things supposed to cost in the US? How do you order something in English again?? As I landed in Seattle I was overwhelmed. Everyone was so tall and so… white. I could understand all of the conversations and read all of the signs, and even though everything should have felt familiar it felt… strange. It was too easy.
When my mom picked me up at the airport it almost felt like coming home after a normal semester of college, but there was something distinctly different. I arrived home and sunk into my giant bed and never wanted to get out. I didn’t belong here did I? I belonged back in China… but when I was in China I never belonged there either. I always stuck out: my lack of fluency, my white skin, my direct personality. I definitely didn’t belong in China… but I didn’t belong here either. I wished I was surrounded by my Alliance friends. They understood my China jokes and Chinglish phrases, they shared my experience and they would understand what I was going through.
The next evening my family and I went out to a Mexican restaurant. I absolutely love Mexican food, and I had been craving fajitas since I ate them at La Bamba for my birthday in Beijing. But when I got the food, everything tasted bland to me. I solved the situation by dumping a whole bowl of salsa over the entire thing. The most awkward aspect was that I had forgotten how to order things in English. I was so used to asking for things in Chinese that when I returned I would directly translate the Chinese into English “Please give me..” No. That’s not right. “I want a…” No.. that sounds rude. What was I supposed to say again?! I also told the Mexican waiter xie xie when he gave me my food. What is happening to me?? Did I forget how to speak English?
I was only home for six days in Seattle before I had to leave again, and I have to say it was a hard six days. I felt lazy, I had no desire to go out or do anything, but yet I had so much to do to get ready for school! I knew that there was such a thing as reverse culture shock, but I always laughed the idea off. I’ve lived in the US my entire life! Leaving for seven months won’t change anything right? Wrong.
Joe told me that I might have some trouble coming back to the US since I had been in China for so long. Every day in China was new and exciting and I was constantly forced to think in another language. Apparently, once you place yourself back in the familiar after months and months of living in the new and strange, the brain slips into a minor depression from lack of stimuli. I mainly felt like I was cheating. It shouldn’t be this easy should it? I should be practicing my Chinese and struggling to communicate to accomplish the most basic tasks. But with only six days at home, before I could even wrap my head around the idea of being back in the US, it was already time to head back to school.
Arriving back at GW after a semester away was also a little strange. I wasn’t used to seeing all of these people around campus that I knew! In China, if I spotted an acquaintance I would immediately run over and start up a conversation. After all, I only knew so many people in China… But what was I supposed to do when I walked past someone who lived on my floor freshman year? What about Someone I had a class with a year ago? I didn’t know.
Let’s say I do start up a conversation with someone. Then comes the dreaded question: “How was China??!”. How do I even begin to answer that question? “Amazing! challenging, enlightening, delicious, life-changing”… I settled on the neutral “Oh… really great!”. I could have a 10-hour long conversation about how much China has changed my life, but every conversation was the same.
Even my roommates who had also studied abroad didn’t seem to understand my experience. Two of my roommates studied abroad in Spain, and while I admire the fact that they took area studies courses in Spanish and one roommate had a home stay, it was a very different type of study abroad experience. They didn’t seem to have the heavy academic course load I did in China, nor the difficult adjustment I seemed to be having; granted, they had been home for three months while I was still in China. One of my roommates even told me she was bored in Spain. I never had time to be bored in China; I didn’t even have time to sleep!
I felt like I needed to seek out other people who had studied abroad in China- other people who would understand. While I eventually settled back into the routine of life, I still find myself making immediate connections with people who have an interest in China. It has sort of taken over my life! It wasn’t until this semester that I made friends with a few Chinese majors and minors in my classes who had studied abroad either last spring or fall. It is always such a relief to talk about my experiences with these friends because I feel like they are the only people who understand my past life in China and are interested in all of my crazy stories! Earlier this semester I made hotpot with a friend who studied abroad on a different program in Beijing, and that same friend has even introduced me to Chinese tv shows and cartoons I can watch to practice my listening skills!
I find that I also get really nerdy about China in my classes, especially my Chinese history class last semester. Other areas of international affairs no longer interest me as much, and I mainly just want to focus on Asia. For example, this semester I’m taking a senior seminar on political Islam to graduate with honors from the Elliott School and I somehow managed to squeeze China into my thesis! (It’s about internet censorship in Iran vs China in case you were wondering). While I thought I was done with taking Chinese language classes, I realized that my Chinese was quickly slipping away and eventually decided to register for Business Chinese. While it may have been one of the worst decisions for my sanity and/or health, my Chinese is quickly improving! My professor is the head of the Chinese department and is very intense- I have about 3 hours of Chinese homework a night for a three credit class. It doesn’t help that there are kids in my class who are fluent. But my Business Chinese class has given me a Chinese resume and prepared me for interviews in Chinese. I also have a whole new group of friends who are just as obsessed with China as I am!
The longer I stay away from China the more I want to go back! Life in China was more exciting, dramatic, interesting and unique. It was also more difficult, frustrating and demanding… but what is life without a challenge right? I know I’m glamorizing China in my head just like I did with the US my last few months in China, but I know I will regret it for the rest of my life if I don’t move back to China next year. Besides, what would my life be without adventures around Asia?