Major: Asian Studies
Hometown: Greensboro, NC
Study Abroad Program: UNC Semester in China
Upon returning from my study abroad experience, I found that the most difficult question to answer was, “How was China?” After living on the other side of the world for four months, this question is understandable. In three simple words it acknowledges that you have experienced something new and different while simultaneously recognizing that your journey has now come to an end and you are home. I have still yet to come up with an adequate reply.
When leaving home to live abroad, there are certain things that you expect to be different. You are aware that you will be moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar and so, you prepare yourself with this intention – to challenge yourself, to learn about who you are in the context of new surroundings, to absorb these new surroundings and incorporate them into yourself – at least this was my expectation. Studying abroad in Xiamen, China provided this opportunity for me. Perhaps it makes more sense now why I cannot easily reply when asked, “How was China?”
My fall semester abroad was the first time I had ever left the country. It was the longest time I had ever been away from home. It was longest time I had spent away from family and friends. Yet despite all of these things I was excited and anxious to board the plane that would take me away from everything that was familiar and comfortable to me. Landing on the other side, after hours and hours of travel, surrounded by a language that I was too tired to translate, I wondered if my excitement was a little premature. Fortunately, my skepticism wore off as quickly as my jetlag and I found myself ready to embrace all new experiences.
So what did I encounter in China that was so life-changing and inspiring? What about China has me researching flights and jobs abroad for after graduation? It is an entire culmination of things. It’s the people, the food, the places, the language, the experiences, but mostly it is the atmosphere. For anyone who has never been to China it is difficult to explain what I am referring to. China is alive with contradictions and juxtapositions, and it is a thrilling thing. Eastern China is constantly changing, advancing, becoming more and more connected to the globalized world, and yet it maintains elements of a culture that has rich, historical roots. Moving further inland, in many places China becomes more rural with a slower pace of life, but that buzz of change is still present. There is a strong feeling of opportunity and that you are at the forefront of development.
While I did find this atmosphere to be pervasive, I was not blinded to the people that were left in the margins. I visited a small village called MeiBi, an empty relic the majority of former inhabitants had abandoned. Children played along dirt pathways and stray dogs roamed freely. Black smoke poured out of chimneyless stone houses and I can only describe the air as ‘still’. I have never felt so far from home. Nothing familiar to me was present. I realized that I could not relate to these people at all. I think this was one of the only times I ever really experienced culture shock in China. With the rate at which the country is modernizing, I think it is reasonable to say much of home can actually be found in China. But there in Meibi, it was an entirely different world. Trying to comprehend this place and what they were thinking of me, it was an experience that made me reflect on my place in an ever-changing world. I realized that the new frontiers are shrinking in number. To put it simply, it was a surreal experience that my world and this one were meeting.
How was China? I am incapable of adequately describing it. I do not know how to summarize it. I can only suggest that each person, if the opportunity presents itself (as it did for me through UNC and the Phillips Ambassadors program) to leave home and experience this movement. It honestly changed the way I think about the world because it changed the way I look at the world. Living in China, I believe, has made me a fuller person and I am eager to continue my journey abroad.