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Studying Abroad in China as a Second-Generation Chinese American

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Before studying abroad in Shanghai, I had been to China twice – once when I was 7, and once when I was 10. I only have flashes of memories from these trips: getting trapped in the bathroom at my Nai Nai’s house, visiting the Forbidden City and Great Wall, being stuck in the pouring rain in Shanghai. Every time I visited I was with my family and despite all the planning that went into each trip, the only role I played was showing up. When I made the decision to study abroad in Shanghai, I thought that those two month long trips ten years ago had prepared me. As a second generation Chinese American, I speak Mandarin at home, eat Chinese food every day, and have an entire extended family across the Pacific. But nothing could’ve prepared me for what it would be like to live in a different country on my own.

A New Shanghai

Shanghai is an entirely different city than I remember from 10 years ago. The skyscrapers are taller, the crowds are larger, and the food is somehow more delicious. My first week was a whirlwind of moving in/orientation, finding all the good food around our apartments, and trying very hard not to get lost. My passable Mandarin was able to get me around, but not express myself as much as I hoped. However, my expectations of culture shock while entering a brand new environment, there was something about Shanghai that made me feel at home. Maybe it was the mix of Chinese and western culture in this city, or the food that reminded me of what my family makes at home. Either way, with each passing day I felt more and more like I belonged.

Of course, there have been some hiccups. Because I look Chinese on the outside, everyone I meet expects me to speak perfect Mandarin – which is definitely not the case. I began this program unable to read Chinese so when I’m “reading” a menu at a restaurant, I always end up ordering whatever looks good in the pictures. When I visited my relatives over Chinese New Year, I felt overwhelmed by all the new family members I had never met and all the traditions I had never experienced. But my Chinese has been improving with each day, especially thanks to my daily Chinese lessons, and by now I feel like I can successfully navigate this city on my own.

Home away from Home

I am nearing mid-semester now, and surprised at how much I feel at home in this city. I have settled into a routine here – going to Chinese class in the morning, making lunch or going out to eat with my friends, venturing out into the city on the weekends. I am shocked that time has passed so quickly and still feel like there is so much more of Shanghai and China to see, but I am happy with where I am right now. I am so glad that I decided to come to a place that was both familiar and completely new, and so excited to continue exploring the country that I can now call home.

Anne Zhao is a Public Health major at Brown University. She studied abroad on the IFSA Study in Shanghai: Public Health program in Spring 2018.