In this video, Megan talks about her academic life in China.
In this video, Megan talks about her academic life in China.
Megan talks about some of the challenges she faced during her study abroad program in China. She overcame her challenges by embracing new experiences and saying “YES” to life. We could not agree more!
In this video, Megan talks about the cultural observations that she has made in China – as well as the habits and insights that she’s picked up along the way. Keeping an open mind is of utmost importance when studying in a foreign country.
Meet Gilman Global Experience correspondent Megan Grable. During the Summer of 2012, Megan studied abroad in Beijing, China. The Gilman Global Experience allows Gilman Scholarship recipients an opportunity to record videos around academic and cultural themes to share with other students interested in studying abroad or in the highlighted country.
Do you ever have those moments in life where you can’t help but smile for no reason because everything seems perfect? As I was listening to my Ipod on the drive to the Great Wall this past weekend I had one of those moments. Driving away from all the hustle and bustle of Beijing made me realize how much I am going to miss this city when I leave in a week. By no means is life perfect but it’s what we take away from our experiences that make us happy and grow as a person. And I feel that study abroad has taught me more than I ever imagined, inside the classroom and outside.
When I first arrived in Beijing I was in a “honeymoon phase” with China and nothing could go wrong. Everything seemed new and exciting and the apparent cultural differences did not matter at the time. Life in a foreign country was going to be a breeze I told myself. Now, I am less than a week away from leaving my new home and have the same attitude towards China that I did in the beginning. But don’t let me fool you because the past two months were filled with a whirlwind of changes, frustration, and language barriers.
There were times in class or at a local restaurant where life did not seem so perfect and communicating was a challenge. But like many things in life you must have patience. From learning a new language to working in an office remember to always ask questions if you do not understand. At first I was overwhelmed with homework and studying but after a while I had a routine and friends to support me. I guess you could call us a family because we supported each other through the good times and the stressful times. Yes, school was stressful because the intensity of class work in China is structured very differently than in America. Every day I would have class from 8am-11:20am, attend a tutoring session, and end my night studying 4 hours or more. Although this is a language intensive program I had no idea the extent of its title, but overall this has been an opportunity of a lifetime.
My language proficiency has greatly increased as a whole and I can even carry a conversation with some of the local people (one of my study abroad goals). Another frustration was giving directions to taxi drivers but it is not so difficult anymore and at the end of the ride we are both laughing. This is a great example when learning a language because you have to learn to laugh at yourself and if you get it wrong the first time don’t give up. Reword the phrase, use a dictionary, or ask someone. It’s what we say at IES, “If you can’t learn to laugh at yourself, you will never improve.” You can’t be afraid to speak the language or crash and burn. Motivate yourself to wander the city by yourself so you are forced to speak and learn from your mistakes. I noticed that my language proficiency developed faster with daily activities such as ordering food, giving directions, and speaking the language. Utilize the material and vocabulary you learned in class that day by applying it to everyday life. People say one of the hardest aspects of learning a language is maintaining it but with a little self-motivation it is possible. I have every intention to continue learning Mandarin once I return to the states and will take advantage of the endless resources my campus has to offer. But as the program comes to a close I have mixed emotions.
China has become my new home and I can’t help but wonder how I will adjust to life in the states. I admit I am excited to jump on a plane and jet set back to America but part of me will miss this lifestyle. One day I will return to China whether it is on my personal time or future job. But for now I have memories to reminisce about such as the bus ride to the Great Wall where life seemed completely perfect.
I remember the first time flying alone and not a single word could summarize the feeling. It was my first taste of independence into the “real world” and like many incoming college students this realization was a frightening one. Will I miss my flight or know how to ask for directions? These were just a few of the many taunting questions racing through my brain. But as the nerves slowly started to slip away, I began to develop a sense of identity. Characteristics that I never knew existed blossomed and at that moment in my life I knew I could understand anything in the world, I just had to take the time to ask.
Study abroad has quite the same effect. When preparing to study abroad there is always an advisor or representative holding your hand along the way, but once you step off the plane and into your host country you are no longer dependent on anyone. To quote Cesare Pavese, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off-balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.”
When I arrived in China my life was off-balance and I felt as if America was an entirely different planet. I quickly noticed that single-file lines did not exist and every time I wanted to buy tickets or groceries people would constantly cut in front of me. Public restrooms didn’t have toilet paper, drying machines were rare, and most social media sites were off-limits. So why has this summer been the best one to date?
Instead of saying, “that’s not how we do it in America,” I thought to myself that there must be a reason for doing it this way. For example, sustainability plays a significant role in Chinese culture and was the root explanation for many of the differences I experienced. Many people ride bikes to reduce their carbon footprint and public buildings do not provide toilet paper because it forces everyone to consciously think about waste management. Even at my host university, Beijing Foreign Studies, there is a limit on the amount of electricity each dorm room can use per month. In China, air conditioning is a luxury that is used sparingly and wisely, but in America air conditioning is placed in almost every building. Another conservation method is the way the Chinese do laundry. Here, I have to air dry my clothes because most places only have a washer in order to conserve energy. At first I hated the idea of air drying my clothes, but now I love it and have plans to continue this back home.
In addition to sustainable practices, I’ve noticed that in every province dancing is a reoccurring theme. From Monks dancing in Tibet to the Famous Face-Changing Opera acts in Sichuan, the Chinese enjoy this beautiful art form. In Inner Mongolia the local people even taught us how to dance, sing, and wrestle. Apparently, wrestling, archery, and horse races are daily recreational activities in the grassland region. But in the more urban areas of China, ping-pong and “Tī jiànzi, 踢毽子”are the main sports. Tī jiànzi consists of two or more players kicking a heavy puck with a feather. The puck must never touch the ground which makes for an interesting game. Trust me, it’s harder than it sounds. Although I never knew such a sport existed, it is now one of my favorite ways to pass the time with my Chinese friends. But this is exactly why students travel abroad- to learn. It doesn’t have to be sports or dancing, you can learn the politics, history, or food of your host country, but learn as much as you can during study abroad.
Everything I learned thus far won’t be forgotten when I return to the states, because the second half of study abroad is utilizing the information in life back home and educating others. After studying for a month in China I’ve come to appreciate the little things in life. Never again will I complain about air conditioning or waiting in the longest line at the grocery store. But more importantly, I have learned valuable lessons from my friends in China that not only better myself, but others. I never knew two cultures could be this contrasting but it’s because I took the time to forget familiarities and understand the culture on a higher level. Chinese traditions and daily routines have become a part of my identity and I am continuing to evolve as a person and accept all the differences that make this world unique. I’m constantly reminded, even though “that’s not how we do it in America,” it does not make it the wrong way.
“You never know until you try” is a phrase I live by daily. I was not always a brave and adventurous person but within the past few years I quickly realized if I never tried new things I would miss out on learning opportunities and once in a life time experiences. Before I left for my study abroad I promised myself I would do two things in China: soak up as much of the language and culture and say yes to everything, even if I second guessed it. If I could give any study abroad student advice this would be it, because the past month has changed me in more ways than I thought possible and opened my mind to new perspectives. One particular change in perspective has been food because it heavily influences Chinese culture. But one of the beautiful things about food is that every country, city, province, or town treasures each and every unique dish it produces. No matter where you go in the world you can always try something new.
Coming to China I had no idea what to expect, especially since I was accustomed to typical American food such as macaroni and cheese, steak, mashed potatoes, and meat without the animal’s head still attached. But I stuck to my promise and tried everything possible. Since living in Beijing I have tasted traditional Peking duck (Kǎoyā, 烤鸭), Kung Pao Chicken, hot pot, and the popular local food called chuar. Chuar is basically meat on a stick which many would consider just like a kebob. The more “shocking” pieces of foods I have tried were at Beijing’s Night Market in Wangfujing. Wangfujing is a tourist attraction featuring fruit, bubble tea (tea with dry ice), shark fin, sea urchin, sheep kidney, large scorpions, crickets, lizard, silkworm, and more. And yes, I tried it all. Like many things in life, I was glad I stepped out of my comfort zone and went for it. I was even able to convince others into trying the food with me and although they found the food to be a bit disgusting at first they loved the experience. I feel this is the best way to ease into a new culture. Students like myself, may find something to be culturally wrong or different but once you give it a chance it turns into a great story.
For example, in China the restaurants are completely different than in America. The Chinese dinner customs consist of everyone ordering a variety of dishes and splitting the bill evenly. This technique allows everyone at the table to try different dishes, plus it’s cheaper per person. We like to call this “family style.” Also, in America we politely ask the waitress for a side of ranch or more water but in China you have to scream across the room. Can you imagine a room full of people screaming, “fuwuyuan (waitress, in Mandarin)?” Another difference is that the food is not brought to the table at the same time, instead it is brought out when the food is finished cooking. And the people in China do not tip, which I know for me and most Americans may seem rude but in China it is a part of daily life and dining etiquette. When I first arrived I was not receptive to this type of environment but after living in this new city for over month I have started to adapt and even like the Chinese dining habits.
Not only have I tried the local food in Beijing, but I’ve traveled to a handful of provinces within China and each province specializes in something different. For instance in Tibet, the pilgrims (the official name for the local people) value the yak since it provides milk, butter, cheese, meat, shelter, and clothing. The yak is the main source of survival for the people of Tibet and they honor the animal by burning its butter in the religious monasteries. At first I was skeptical about trying Tibet’s Yak Sizzler dish, but it was surprisingly delicious. Another unique experience was witnessing a goat slaughtering in the grasslands of Inner Mongolia. Herding and farming is casual routine in this Autonomous Region so slaughtering a live goat left little affect on the herders, but for the Americans in my group we were not keen on watching live meat turn into dinner. And then there is the famous Chengdu, known for its spicy food. Here they eat rabbit head, duck tongue, and pour on the spices. Traveling to different places within my host country has provided me with a deeper understanding for the Chinese culture and the world I live in. I highly encourage others to take the time to not only explore your host city but surrounding cities as well, because you never know what surprises wait around the corner.
Study abroad is full of unexpected adventures and you have to learn to embrace every moment. It still hasn’t hit me yet that I’ve tried food that others deem as unacceptable or inedible, but my journey in China has consisted of trying every piece of food placed in front of me at the dinner table to getting lost in the streets of Beijing and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program is a program of the U.S. Department of State with funding provided by the U.S. Government and supported in its implementation by the Institute of International Education (IIE).
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