“How can you be okay with living in a communist country?” “The language is so hard, how are you going to be able to find your way around?” “But it’s just so…different.”
These are definitely the most common questions I heard after I told people I was going to study abroad in China. Based on the limited amount of knowledge we learn in school about China, it seems so far out of reach, so other. Why risk dealing with that when Paris or London are much more accessible?
But a part of studying abroad is about embracing the unaccessible. I took Chinese in high school and fell in love with it, so naturally, I wanted to go there. Ever since I started college, I was determined to study in China. Junior year, I made it happen.
Of course, it was scary. I took a 15 hour flight by myself. Not only was it the first time that I had been flying by myself, but it was also the first time I had left the country by myself. In the airport, people spoke English so I did not have to worry too much about finding my way around. And then I was able to meet other foreign students who would become my best friends for five straight months.
But once leaving the airport and downtown areas, we were fully immersed in China. I lived in a more suburb-like area, more residential than the rest of Shanghai. Rarely anyone spoke English and always looked at us curiously as we went about our day, even though we had lived there for awhile already.
It was awkward at first. People wanted to look at us and talk about us, but not talk to us. Slowly, as we got more used to the stares and the language, people talked with us. Of course they wanted to know the differences between living in America and living in China, and sometimes asked about things that, well, one is not supposed to talk about in China. Those include Tiananmen, how the government handles things, and Taiwan. We always chalked it up to a language barrier. We knew better.
But language barrier or not, it was still amazing. I actually felt safer there than I do in America sometimes. The rumors and generalizations we hear about Chinese censorship and monitoring are a lot different once you actually experience it. Coming back home, people still want to deny the realities I tell them because China is so unknown. Yes, China is almost a totally different world than America is, but at the end of the day, we are all just people. And living in a place that is so wildly different from what I am used to gives valuable experience to not rely fully on language. It goes deeper than that.
Making it a Reason
Europe is very much within grasp. I love Europe. My roommate studied abroad in Ireland last semester while I was in China. There is nothing wrong with going to Europe, but if you want to broaden your horizons, really broaden them, I would suggest looking elsewhere. I have a totally different perspective on so many things; going to China impacted every part of my life. I learned to love learning Chinese- like, really love learning, because I used the content in everyday life. My Chinese teacher was so amazing and patient with us, and the IFSA intern was one of my best friends,helping me through the difficult part of feeling out of place in the unknown. I made wonderful friends despite the language barrier. In a weird way, not being able to express everything brings you closer to people.
It is scary going to another country, especially one that is so far removed from everything we know. But it’s more likely than you think. I was able to get through it because of my absolutely wonderful teachers at IFSA, and the friends I made through the program, who I still keep in contact with to this day. It was nice having friends who spoke English; they made it a place of comfort. But the best part was all of us struggling together to make China our home for the semester.
All things to say, sticking to what you know is important sometimes. But studying abroad is about venturing into the unknown, and China is about as unknown as you can get.
Emma Smith is a Chinese and Global Studies Double Major at the University of South Carolina and studied abroad with IFSA at 21st Century Shanghai Program in China in Spring Semester 2019.