Hometown: Mocksville, North Carolina
Study Abroad Program: CEI in Beijing Summer
As soon as I stepped off of the plane in China, I thought to myself “What have you gotten yourself into this time, Lauren?” I didn’t know a word of Mandarin, I didn’t know how to get to my dormitory from the airport, and from what I could tell, I had packed all wrong. After months of preparation and research on what is culturally appropriate in China, I was still unprepared for all that Beijing had to offer. Despite trying to enter the country without expectations, I could not help but have some general ideas of what I thought China would be like based on what I had heard and read. I imagined pollution hanging in the sky, business men walking urgently to and from work, and a conservative society where people dressed plainly and interacted with one another very formally. I knew that I was going to China to do an internship and take classes, but I never realized how much more I would really take away from the experience. After spending nine weeks in Beijing, I was proven time and again that my initial inclinations were false. While attempting to internalize and make sense of the society bustling around me, I was able to find myself in the process. My nine week stay in Beijing was more than just a life-changing experience— it was a life-defining experience.
While in Beijing, I took three courses and interned four days a week at International SOS. Although I did learn a lot from the academic side of this experience, actively participating in Chinese life and interacting with Chinese people taught me so much more than any classroom assignment ever could. I began to learn the language so I could somewhat communicate with other people around me without having to gesture wildly for what I wanted; I commiserated with all of the other passengers on the subway who were tired after a long day of work; I went to the grocery store and purchased food alongside Beijingers. Although all mundane tasks, these experiences all made me realize that I was doing something that I never dreamed I could do—I was living, and thriving, in a place that was dramatically different from where I call home. The routine that I fell into and the comfort that I found with the city made me feel like Beijing was my home away from home. I was shocked that I could navigate a city of 22 million people without hesitation, ask a stranger in Mandarin if I am on the right bus without anxiety, and embrace and overcome any difficulties that I encountered in stride. Although getting to a point where I was completely comfortable in Beijing was a challenge, once I achieved that feeling, I gained confidence in my ability to adapt and succeed in almost any difficult situation.
Not only did Beijing offer many opportunities for self growth, it was an excellent city for experiencing something new and exciting. I was able to eat at restaurants of all ethnicities, to sing Karaoke in decadent KTV parlors alongside new-found Chinese friends, and to raft down the White River while gazing at the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen. I tasted a scorpion, climbed to the top of a mountain and shouted in accomplishment, and rowed a traditional dragon boat around a lake in Hou Hai. All of these experiences, paired with witnessing the history and beauty of the typical tourist destinations in Beijing, engraved snapshots of the most unforgettable and incredible adventures that I have ever had or dreamed of having.
My experience in Beijing this past summer can be summed up in three words—liberating, free and self-defining. Like most of what I encountered in Beijing, these words are the exact opposite of what I would have anticipated from an experience in China. My trip to Beijing was more than just an adventure away from home; my trip to Beijing was my opportunity for self-discovery and re-evaluation of where I have been and where my life is heading. My growth during this experience was vast, and I will always fondly reflect on Beijing as the place where I was able to truly discover myself for the first time. Upon arrival back in the United States, I asked myself “Lauren, when can you book another flight back to Beijing?”