As I boarded the plane from Shanghai, I couldn’t help but reflect on the memories I had made and the new friends I was leaving behind. Although I had only spent one summer in China, it felt like a lifetime had elapsed. I looked forward to seeing my family and friends back in America, but I wished that they could have shared my experience as well. However, my journey in Asia was not over, in less than three hours I would be reunited with my childhood best friend, Ryo. When I landed in Tokyo, I could hardly contain my excitement. I had not seen Ryo in 13 years and I did not know what to expect. I recognized Ryo immediately as he towered over the crowd beaming the same goofy grin he wore in the second grade. We made our way back to his apartment in Shibuya and spent the evening in Tokyo where we caught up over a traditional Japanese dinner. Japan was quieter and the people seemed more reserved than their Chinese counterparts. In the morning we said our goodbyes and I made my way to the airport to catch my flight back to Ohio.
This time, it was real, I would be home in less than 24 hours and back in school that same day. When I arrived in Chicago, I felt as if I had entered a foreign land. Surely, this was not the America I remembered. The people seemed…bigger. I was no longer a giant among my peers, I was no longer a “foreigner” or “mei guo ren.” I ordered a Chicago style pizza and waited for my connecting flight to Dayton, Ohio. I arrived in Dayton to find my beautiful mother and sister waiting patiently. I was overwhelmed with joy to see my family and share the countless stories that I had amassed over the past three months.
Now that I have taken the time to acclimate and get over my jet lag, I find myself missing Chinese food and the meals I shared with my good friends. It was nice to catch up with my college friends after a long summer apart, but it was hard to relate to their experiences and increasingly difficult to translate my own. Life in the United States is fast-paced and it is hard not to reminisce about a simpler time when life was challenging, yet unusually relaxed. I noticed that the news is completely different from what I had been exposed to abroad. Now the narrative has shifted: The East has become the focal point of danger and the West is a safe haven for refuge. As I prepare to finish my last semester in college, I have a pretty good idea of what I have to look forward to in the “real” world. Currently, I am applying for the Fulbright assistantship, graduate school programs in the United States and China, and jobs in the financial services sector.
After studying abroad in China, I have acquired many new survival skills that will enable me to adapt to a foreign environment. I can navigate complex metro systems to explore new cities, find affordable local produce for home cooked meals, and budget my provisions to meet my immediate needs. I have also gotten pretty good at haggling, however I have not found much use for this skill in America. At the risk of sounding cliché, I feel that I have changed as a person since interning and living abroad. I have gained a broader understanding of Chinese culture and built a deeper connection with the international students in my community.
Additionally, I have a better understanding of the nuances that make China foreign to Americans and am using my experience to bridge the cultural gap for my domestic friends. My passion for school has become invigorated because I see the applicability of the theoretical knowledge that I am learning in the “real” world. I have expanded my professional horizons by working for Chinese and international firms abroad to learn the meaning of “Guanxi” and the intricacies of international business. My advice for any young scholars interested in studying abroad or interning in China is to come with an open mind and an open heart. China is a challenge but it is well worth the reward—this experience is what you choose to make of it. For me, it was a tasty, heartwarming, and surreal journey that I will treasure for life.