Shivani Patel

Major: Psychology and Chemistry

Hometown: Greer, South Carolina

Study Abroad Program: CEI in Beijing Summer

There I stood, atop the Great Wall of China. Looking around me, I noticed the vast expanse of towers and fortifications slowly disappearing into the thick air. I had learned about this “Great Wonder” several times in class and seen many photos but I had never truly grasped its incredibleness. Although I had always wanted to travel to China, I never would have imagined that I’d be studying abroad in Beijing one day. However, thanks to the Phillips Ambassador Program, I was able to experience nine weeks of culture, commute, and travel unlike any other I had witnessed.

When I arrived in Beijing, I was hesitant about my expectations. Friends from home had warned me about the pollution, smog, food, and lack of English speakers. As an asthmatic vegetarian without any prior Mandarin knowledge, these four expectations were not looking to be in my favor. However, once I arrived, I immediately recognized the stark differences. Although food was often a struggle, the pollution was not nearly as bad, as my friends and I joked about the numerous unopened inhalers I took back home. Although it was difficult to communicate, I grew to rely upon a native speaker among our group, as well as my phrasebook and common gestures. It was remarkable to notice the universality of a nod, for example, when trying to guide a taxi driver home. Although it was oftentimes not easy, especially in reading menus, I slowly grew to learn several helpful phrases, and the difficulties decreased exponentially. By the end of the trip, I was used to ordering my own food for the dorm, an idea I had thought unimaginable and impossible when I first arrived in the city.

Nine weeks doesn’t seem too long in retrospect. However, there was a quality of comfort that I seemed to feel immediately upon arrival that I had never expected. The first two days seemed like months, and the memorization of landmarks near the university made me understand and familiarize myself with the ring set up of Beijing in short time. I truly felt at home. Working almost ten hours a day also added this comfort. I was no longer only a tourist in the city, snapping photographs, using tour guides, or carrying my life with me. Instead, I was a Chinese citizen, swiping my transportation card, interning in a hospital, and recharging my Chinese cell phone SIM card.

I was living in a big city, the first time I had ever done so. With over 30 million people around me, the overcrowded buses, subways, and streets were inescapable. However, despite the dreadfulness of the 3 hour daily commute, the populous city offered many advantages. Cuisine, landmarks, and nightlife were endless, as I scrambled to explore the most popular places. Each night after work, a few of us would research a new place to eat or a new area to discover. Using Google maps, our cell phones, and basic Mandarin skills, we would somehow manage to successfully meet at the destination, usually an hour later than expected. Experiences like these taught me valuable independence. Navigating through Beijing alone is not an easy task, especially without useful communication skills. However, the thrill of finally seeing a familiar face at each destination was exhilarating. I felt extremely accomplished, despite the seeming simplicity of the task. 

Although I thoroughly enjoyed my experience in Beijing, it was often overwhelming. With two courses and over 40 hours of work per week, it seemed almost impossible to complete all the tasks at hand. Yet, I grew resilient, able to handle my responsibilities as a study abroad student, an intern, a city resident, and a tourist. Working in groups, I was able to complete the “school” portion of the trip in time for class. Through my internship at Cancer Therapy China, I saw the innovative path of cancer treatment, focusing on establishing networks with valuable researchers and entrepreneurs abroad. As a city resident, I followed the “crowd” everywhere, almost to normalcy near the end. Carrying my camera to planned activities, I captured the essence of tourism through my lens. Handling the role of four characters in one brought forth tremendous planning and patience. However, being able to transform into these different roles in given situations was entertaining, allowing myself to never get trapped into a routine abroad.

Overall, my experiences in Beijing have changed me. Although it is often quite cliché to state the cultural appreciation one feels when studying abroad, it’s hard to overlook and ignore once you experience it yourself. I became a new person, stepping out of my comfort zone. Trying meat, for example, would have never happened in the US. However, trying new cuisine in China became a popular activity, and by the end, I had even grown to eat chicken on a regular basis. I had also learned to bargain on my own. Eventually, I spent many weeknights traveling straight to the markets independently after work to purchase souvenirs and other items to take home. Interactions with the Chinese roommates gave me a newfound appreciation for my life back home. Constantly caught up in exam preparations and other educational activities, they barely have any time left for a social life. Only through our influence were they finally able to experience the part of Beijing they had disregarded during their entire youth. Although our education system is rigorous, our college experiences are vastly different from theirs, and I have finally come to appreciate our exam schedule and my wealth of free time.

Greater independence is the largest transformation I experienced in Beijing. I partook in activities that I don’t even complete alone in Chapel Hill. Where did I get such strength to wander the streets alone in a huge, unfamiliar place when I cannot back home? How did I decide to try novel foods and meat in a new country, yet remain picky in the US? How was I able to handle a ten hour work day, when I often struggle with a two hour daily schedule at UNC? I’m still searching for these answers, among many others, and it will remain a never ending process. In the end, I have no reason for why I chose such strong independence abroad. Maybe it was the realization of my time limit. Or maybe it was the fascination with the Asian culture and big city life. Either way, my experience in Beijing is irreplaceable and irreproducible, and I only wish it hadn’t ended.