We are moving to China in five days (only five days!), and Tucker and I are beyond excited about our next adventure abroad! This past month we’ve been lucky enough to take off from work and spend time with family and friends before we go, which has (of course) led to a lot of talk about our next destination. Perhaps because we just did this less than two years ago when we moved to Poland, we couldn’t help but make comparisons to the reactions people have had when we tell them it’s China this time. I suppose I knew it wouldn’t be as well-received due to certain perceptions of China, plus our moving abroad isn’t as exciting and new as it once was; however, I do have to say that I didn’t expect quite as many (or as strong) negative comments as we got. Things like:
- “Why China? Europe would have been better.”
- “China has definitely never been on my list of places to see.”
- “I would never go to a country that isn’t free, a country that has a ban on things like Facebook.”
- “Don’t go to China. They treat animals terribly there.”
- “Don’t eat anything you didn’t cook yourself.”
- “Just get some makeup to make your eyes look slanted, and you’ll fit right in.”
I think most of the comments we’ve received are stemming from the classic fear of the unknown. Most people just don’t have a whole lot of factual knowledge about today’s China (which honestly, we found this to be true of Poland as well. There’s a relevant “they don’t have bacon in Poland” story here.), but several also come from the negative stereotypes and perceptions that are particularly strong and ingrained in regards to China. China is really far away from the U.S.: geographically, linguistically, and culturally, and although China is changing at an absolutely astonishing rate, it’ll likely take a long time and a lot of mutual sharing to change these lingering ideas, which, coincidentally, is exactly what I want to be a part of!
I have loved hearing and collecting people’s reactions and thoughts about China (including my own), and I plan on spending this next year educating. Educating Chinese students and teachers on American culture and language as well as educating myself and fellow Americans on Chinese culture (and language if any of you are interested!). At one time, these comments might have made me nervous for what we would find in China, but mostly I’m just eager to see and experience it for myself, which actually leads me to another fact worth mentioning: I have already been to China, albeit briefly, and so I have some hazy, half-forgotten reactions of my own to share.
My Initial Reactions:
In 2014 I was finishing up my MA program when I started to get really antsy about never having studied abroad. It was always something I had wanted to do, but somehow after 5+ years of university study it hadn’t happened. So during my last year at GSU, I applied for several scholarships and signed up to go to Spain. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) the Spain trip was canceled because not enough people had signed up; however, as an alternative I was offered the opportunity to accompany the undergraduates on their trip to China. China?! I had just finished up a semester of Spanish in preparation for my Spain trip! Oh well, I bought a Chinese phrasebook and was off to spend a little over a month in the massive cities of Shanghai and Beijing, China.
I’m not sure I had much time to think of my expectations before landing in China for the first time (I was still extremely surprised I wasn’t gong to Spain), but luckily journaling was a biweekly part of the program I was in. And due to my suburb ability to not clean out my USBs, I still have these written records of my initial reactions. Out of curiosity, I recently reread these journal entries, and have subsequently listed some of my first thoughts of China:
- The traffic laws are either completely different or nonexistent.
- Gestures are common for everyone, often in place of words (e.g. prices when haggling).
- Everything to do with toilets is different in China. You carry your own toilet paper, never flush any paper products, and many times sitting down is not an option.
- Everyone seems to love laughing and joking around.
- Shanghai and Beijing have trees, are not terribly crowded, and only moderately smoggy in May.
- It is extremely disorienting (and embarrassing) when you can’t read a single thing.
- It feels like I’m a celebrity because so many strangers are asking to take my picture.
- Everyone seems very eager to learn about English and life in the United States.
In hindsight it’s clear by my reactions that I was surprised by these things, which sheds light onto what I thought China was going to be like. I thought it would be difficult to breathe, really crowded and dirty. I thought the people would be stiff and unfriendly towards foreigners who could hardly say ni hao. I had heard so many negative things about China all my life that my reactions were a bit jaded. Even small differences (like with traffic and toilets) took a negative spin; however, I soon learned their reasoning behind these different choices: individual vigilance over an abundance of minute traffic laws and economic efficiency over unnecessary comfort in regards to public toilets. They weren’t weird or bad choices, just different. This lesson changed the way I viewed cultures (including my own) and taught me to inquire about differences rather than judge them. In short, I learned the value of cultural awareness and have carried that with me ever since.
My Expectations This Time:
As culturally aware as I hope I am, this time we aren’t just traveling to China; we aren’t just visiting with a large group of other Americans for a specific, short-term purpose; this time we’re moving there. The difference between short and long-term cultural immersion is evident in our physical preparations already as I have had one hell of a time obtaining the proper visas and, of course, if you take one look at our four mostly-packed suitcases you’ll see I’m planning on taking a lot of my culture with me. However, there are also differences as I mentally prepare for living (not just traveling) in China. We absolutely adored our time in Poland, but reading my early posts about our move there reminded me that there was definitely an adjustment period, and as different as Poland seemed, it was much closer on the cultural scale than China. Therefore we’re now spending the necessary time preparing ourselves for all the ambiguities and unknowns that come with living in a new place. One of these preparations is discussing our expectations.
I am expecting to…
- Feel uncertain in everything I do.
- Need a lot of patience.
- Either grow tired of or used to the oily food and hot water.
- Live in a noisy, dirty city.
- Work around the Great Firewall of China.
- Notice a greater social distance.
- Experience life with an extreme language barrier.
- Have a vast array of new experiences.
- Glean endless tidbits of cultural information.
- Eat a lot of delicious food.
- Go to new, beautiful places.
- Make friends.
And of course so many other things that pass through my head on a daily basis. Ultimately, I wanted to write this post so that I can look back on it in a few months and compare my expectations to my new reality. I’m also hoping to share what I learn over the next year through this blog (and maybe change some perspectives), so with that, let’s go to China!