Coming to America
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.
Life is like a roller-coaster; the following is a peak-and-trough analysis of the past two weeks. My least favorite moment in Shanghai came when I said goodbye to some good friends I had made throughout the last two months. I am relocating to a second internship in Beijing. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and sure enough, the next high would present itself with the long awaited arrival of my hén hǎo de péngyou, Terry. When I met Terry in Calculus class, I never would have expected that three years later I would be waiting for him at the airport in his native country.
In my previous posts, I talked about the meaning of food and how excited I was to try authentic Chinese cuisine. I did not fully comprehend how dangerous it would be to order my own meals. Most of the time it was hit or miss but more often than not I would regret it later when nature called. Eventually, I learned my lesson and started cooking my own meals, always alternating between McDonald’s and KFC for lunch, much to Terry’s dismay. Over a span of four days, Terry restored my faith in Chinese food as I tasted Shanghai with virgin lips.
Finally, it was time for us to leave for Chongqing where we would meet Terry’s family. Terry’s father and mother were very welcoming and showed incredible hospitality. They arranged superb accommodations and placed reservations at the finest restaurants in Chongqing. China’s economy has seen tremendous growth over the last few decades and as a self-made business man, Terry’s father offered me practical life advice. He asked me to call him shūshu (uncle) and showed me a glimpse of the luxurious life of the Chinese elite.
We toured the city, enjoyed bubble tea drinks at an exotic zoo-themed café and went to the most famous hot pot restaurant in the city. Chongqing is near Sichuan and boasts the spiciest food in the country. Naturally, they thought I couldn’t keep up. Dish after dish came and I proved I had a stomach of steel. At the culmination of the meal, Shūshu’s friend, who is the president of a university, presented a nice gift that featured original postage stamps from all over China.
Later we went to a famous night club and watched a performance from the number one DJ in China. This was one of the most memorable nights of my life. Chinese people are not known for being liberal dancers and I saw this an opportunity to share my culture. I jumped on the empty stage when the DJ started playing hip-hop music and soon I was lost in my own world. I opened my eyes only to be blinded by the spotlight. As I looked across the sea of people, I realized they were all frozen; a thousand eyes fixated on the Egyptian-American dancing wildly before them. At first, I was intimidated, but then I encouraged the spectators to come on stage and dance with me. One by one they came until the stage was filled with Chinese people dancing around Terry and myself.
The next morning, I felt excruciating pain as my stomach fought the side effects of the hot pot. I mustered up the last of my strength to attend the home cooked meal that Shūshu had prepared. Although I could not eat much, the food looked and smelled delicious. Afterward, we enjoyed a scenic view from his company office overlooking the famous Yangtze River. The following morning, they arranged a “goodbye” dinner with an assortment of Shūshu’s acquaintances. I did not know it at the time but I was sitting next to one of the most powerful men in China. We laughed and shared stories using Terry as a translator to overcome the language barrier. At the end of the meal, they poured their drinks into their baijiu wells, which is the highest honor you can give someone.
I was sad to leave but at the same time, I was ecstatic to see my sister, Mel. I arrived in Beijing on my birthday and had dinner with Mel. Afterward, we met Val, my Russian friend, for a night on the town and celebrated my birthday in style. We made many new friends. My new co-workers here in Beijing are very kind and have gone to great lengths to welcome me to their city. I am excited to experience the rich history that Beijing has to offer. From the Great Wall to the Forbidden City, and the terracotta warriors in Xian—I want to see it all. With just under twenty days left in China, I cannot wait for the new adventures that await!
My New Host Country Crew
I remember boarding the plane to China, being really excited for the next twelve hours and feeling overwhelmingly nervous the final hour before landing. I didn’t know what to expect. I was worried about not speaking the language and not knowing anyone in my study abroad cohort of students. The first week was hard because I was missing home, friends, and most importantly my family.
The following week was a lot easier, I got to know my roommate, Juan, who hails from Argentina. We discovered that we have similar viewpoints, took turns cooking, and when we had overlapping free time, we would explore Shanghai together. Then Juan relocated and once again I was alone. When one door closes another door opens and sure enough that’s when I met Manav who has been my closest friend throughout this experience. I can honestly say my time abroad would not have been as eventful as it has been had we not become friends. Manav introduced me to Jagger who introduced me to his roommate Alec, and later we welcomed a new addition to the group, Luke.
The five of us have shared some great times together and I’m thankful for each one of these guys. During the week after we get off work, we all meet at my apartment and share a meal. Manav is Indian and the rest of the guys are American. I also have a lot of Chinese friends from my university back in the United States, but they are all scattered across China, which is a little bit smaller than the U.S. but with triple the population. My friend Peter drove three hours to come visit me and brought a lot of house warming gifts which meant a lot.
Last week my Chinese best friend Terry introduced me to his high school friends who took me out last weekend and showed me a great time. Frank came to my apartment then we met up with his friends; Ken and Gimy at a restaurant. We went to a very nice hot pot and they showed me their favorite hot spots. I am very grateful for Frank and his friends because they showed me that friendship transcends culture and language barriers (although they spoke very good English).
My friend Terry will visit again at the end of July, and then we will go to Chongqing which is very close to Sichuan and is famous for its spicy cuisine. I am very excited to see my friend as well as reunite with Frank, Ken, and Gimy. Afterwards, my Russian friend Val will visit China and we will meet in Beijing where my sister Manal is currently residing. After Beijing, we will visit Shanghai and explore the city with my new host country crew. Although I have a month left in China, I know I will miss this experience and the people I have met dearly. Everything from my job, my coworkers, my boss, and my new friends have exceeded my expectations. I am very thankful for this opportunity and the chance to document my experience through the Gilman Scholarship.
Round Table Dining in China
Let me start by sharing these two facts about me: I’m a huge foodie and Chinese food is an irresistible family favorite. I love everything about food whether it’s home cooking, gourmet dining, or searching for the most delicious palate. When I eat with my Chinese friends in the States, they always ask for the “real” menu. The notion of a secret menu that caters to a Chinese palate and another that offers Western-friendly options was very peculiar to me. Naturally, I was ecstatic to try authentic Chinese cuisine.
Chinese people are some of the most hospitable folk I’ve met in my life. When I arrived in Shanghai, my friend Alvin invited me to join him and a Canadian expat for an authentic Sichuan hotpot called Là Fû. Alvin ordered many dishes such as frog, rabbit head, cow intestine, brain, ox tail, and tongue. Initially, I was nervous about trying some of these but they were surprisingly delicious. It was there that I received my first lesson in the cultural differences between China, America, and Egypt.
First, the Chinese version of spicy is something you should probably avoid unless you’re a fire-breather or a dragon. Another part of Chinese etiquette is making sure that your guest has enough to eat. If your host sees that you have finished your plate that is his cue to order more. By the time I realized this, I felt like a turkey on Thanksgiving Day—stuffed. Alvin was very adamant about paying which brings me to my third lesson: The person who extends the invitation is usually the one who will foot the bill.
Last weekend, my roommate and I journeyed from our apartment to The Bund in search of Din Tai Fung. In 1993, this restaurant was rated top ten in the world and featured Shanghai’s most famous dumplings. We finally found it after an hour of walking and although the portions were small, it exceeded every expectation. This week my friend Nick came to visit and took me to a Korean barbecue called “B.C. 2333” where I was treated to the best Korean food I’ve had thus far. Afterwards, they took me on a native tour of Shanghai and I felt as if I was seeing the city for the first time.
There are many differences between the Chinese and Western style of dining. In both cultures, eating out is a way of socializing, but in China there is a greater emphasis on sharing and being a good host. Something I really admire about this culture is the round table style of dining. It is very personable and I like being able to share dishes with my friends. Finally, I would recommend bringing a Chinese friend with you because it is extremely difficult to order authentic food without speaking Mandarin. Unless you’re eating pizza with Italians, nobody knows pizza better than Italians.
Khalid’s First Impressions of China