Nearly every day of my semester abroad my colleagues and I would long for something we missed about the States, whether it be something as seemingly trivial as “real” ketchup, or something as abstract as the subtle pleasure of public anonymity. Now that I am back in the States, I am struck by the truth of the fact that we human beings never seem to be able to be content with the things we have in front of us—the grass is indeed greener on the other side of the fence, or in this case, on the other side of “the pond”.
Right away, standing at the baggage claim at O’Hare airport in Chicago, I felt the pangs of reverse culture shock. Everything was in English! The intercom announcements, the signs, the chatter of the people around me. I had become so used to having to strain to understand even the most simple intercom announcement, and eavesdropping had become a learning activity rather than an automatic reflex. But the strongest shock of all was the overt physical difference of the people. There were people of all different shapes, sizes, skin-colors, and languages being spoken. I had become so used to the ostensible homogeneity of the appearances of the Chinese public. As superficial as this observation may be, it leaves a strong impression upon any “foreigner” who has spent time in China and does not fit this physical mold. Returning to the United States reminded me of the unique quality of our nation, which brings together people from diverse nations, language-groups, ethnicities, religions, and political ideologies. For that reason, it felt good to be back. Despite the long journey home, I waited for my bags with a big grin on my face.
A few days later, I found myself sitting alone in my apartment, eating Chinese takeout with chopsticks. It was only then that I became aware of how much I missed life in China, and how much of an impact my time there had on me on so many levels. I miss the cheap food, the snack carts that can be found on any given corner at any given hour, the fresh produce markets, the hot soymilk for fifty cents, no tipping, the men and women gathered in mornings and evenings in the local park, square, or parking lot, practicing tai-chi, ball-room dancing, roller-blading, or playing the Chinese version of hackey-sack (and the sense of community these scenes express). I miss the novelty of each new day’s experience, and the challenge that was sure to present itself in struggling to accomplishing even the most basic tasks. I miss the camaraderie of my colleagues and the intensity of my Chinese language course. And possibly most of all, I miss the WeChat stickers.
On the other hand, it is great to be back. It is hard to do justice to the joy of switching on my phone, and being able to open youtube, facebook, gmail, or perform a google search in a matter of seconds. Not to mention the ease of going online in general—I can actually upload photos and stream movies without having to connect to a VPN!! At times the Great Firewall was beyond enraging, particularly around mid-terms and finals when all I needed was to quickly access my email or look something up, but it takes over an hour for your VPN to connect, or the internet is operating slower than the speed of molasses and nothing will load.
The first time I went out to dinner with my family after getting back, I just could not decide what to order. Everything sounded amazing, and for the life of me I could not pull the trigger. Only in retrospect did I realize that this was in part due to the fact that for the first time in five months I could actually read and understand everything that was on the menu—no wonder I had trouble: there were so many options!! It’s also very nice to have hot water at any hour of the day, and to be able to drink water out of the tap without a second thought. And though it is so quickly taken for granted, I am so happy not to have to worry about checking the air quality index on a day-to-day basis, or whether or not I should wear a mask. The air here in Chicago may be freezing cold, but hey—at least it is clean.
At least for me, China is a place that you can’t have a fling with. Even a short period of time spent living there changes you. The cultural differences, the language, the food, the way of life—all of it gets under your skin and becomes a part of you. Its influence envelopes you and beckons you back. After I graduate this spring, I want to return for a longer period of time. I want to make more progress in speaking Mandarin. I want to continue to travel within China in order to experience first-hand its complexity and diversity. I would like to live in a city other than Beijing, just to get a feel for a different city with a different feel than the capital. I plan to take at least a year to travel and work there, before continuing on to graduate school. I am confident that the progress in language skill in addition to the experiences gained from traveling in a foreign land will become defining life-long assets. I can say that this semester study abroad, though it seemed to fly by, has definitively shaped my future goals and the course of my life’s path. I am infinitely grateful to have had the opportunity to study abroad, and encourage anyone with a similar opportunity to jump on it. You will not be disappointed.