Whenever I think back to my summer in Beijing, I remember two things in particular: the humidity, and growing. The weather was manageable, but it took me a few tries to really understand just how far I had gone.
Until I landed in China, I operated under the assumption that I had a decent enough grasp of Chinese. After all, I spent the last 3 years learning, that had to amount to something useable.
That shattered in my first 10 minutes in-country, and the frustrations only mounted from there. What was the point in all that learning if I couldn’t even be understood? The only way around it was to work it step by step, celebrate the gains as they came, and to stop overburdening myself with pressure. Taking a growth-based approach instead of the perfection-based brutalization I put on myself before made things much better. That growth mindset continues to pay dividends for me, allowing me to approach new challenges with a healthier outlook and create better outcomes.
One of the unexpected benefits of immersion in a foreign culture was the amount of perspective I gained on my own sense of self. As I began to learn more of the culture and people around me, trying to share my own stories required more self-reflection. Things I did not really consider were some of the hardest questions I received when trying to talk to people. What was it like immigrating? Do you think you lost something when you became an American? Meeting people where they were challenged me to look back at the path that I took to reach them.
Academically, there were significant improvements. With every day my spoken Chinese sounded less like a textbook and more like a person. In that summer I improved exponentially, learning the lessons through constant exposure. It enriched my cultural understanding by breathing life into the texts and pictures I had seen before. It’s one thing to read about the Yungang Grottoes, but another thing entirely to see massive Buddhas carved as far as you can see. That experience even allowed me the coveted self-citation, when I used my own pictures to supplement a presentation in Chinese Art History. I still consider that one of my best academic achievements.
My study abroad experience was invaluable in more ways than I can really appreciate. It helped me to transform a self-imposed limitation, clarified some of my self-identities, and vastly improved my understanding of China in every sense. So far, it’s been worth more than a few sweaty t-shirts.