Five weeks, 34 students, one city. The numbers make it sound like a crazy mess. But what the numbers don't tell is what a crazy, messy, amazing adventure it really was.
After spending five weeks in Beijing learning the language and absorbing as much of the culture and as many of the sights as possible, I felt like a new person. Many people have read, or at least heard of, Eat, Pray, Love. For me it was more like Study, Explore and Talk, but the feelings were similar. At the risk of sounding cliche, I sincerely feel like I grew as a person because of this trip. I made relationships that I hope will last a lifetime, memories that I know will last forever and acquired skills that will help me from now onwards.
In Beijing, even though I attended classes to improve my language skills (that being the main reason for the trip), lots of my favorite parts of the experience and the ones that resonated with me the most were excursions and forays into the heart of Chinese daily life. There's nothing like searching for and interviewing locals with two almost-strangers in a foreign alley or eating corn ice cream from a corner shop down the street with your newly-found friends to shape an experience and bring people closer.
I also learned a lot from sharing this once-in-a-lifetime experience with a bunch of strangers. Through our shared strange new world moments and being some of the few Americans in a whole lot of Chinese, we as a group became extremely close. This trip allowed me to see the world as other people do and to experience different perspectives on life. Even though we came from various countries, states, schools and backgrounds, we had the similarity of being thrown into this foreign place with little to no prior Chinese immersion. That was enough.
As much fun and as many great moments as I shared with my fellow classmates, I also had the priceless experience of living with a Chinese family and truly immersing myself in the local routine. As I immersed myself among the Chinese, I experienced quite a few culture shocks. I had come prepared for the smog, but not the intermittent drops of liquid that could fall from awnings and windows at any time -- nor for the relative lack of Western toilets and showers (although I guess I ought to have seen that coming). Even more interesting was the flouting of the cultural "rules" that I did anticipate, such as overly modest clothing, minimal PDA and more English speakers. We had been warned that the Chinese did not like short shorts, tank tops or flip flops, but I think the younger generation has gotten the best of the older norms and wants to wear what they choose. The frequent sightings of PDA were also shocking, as that was something we had been told was highly frowned upon. Since we discovered that it was not, it became sort of a game for my classmates and I to point out all instances of PDA. It has also been interesting to see how many couples match clothing and/or accessories over here.
Hygiene is also not as strict in Beijing as in the U.S. Babies pee through their slit pants on the streets while vendors sell even skinless fruits on these same streets. But I do enjoy the immense availability of fruit here, even though I didn't buy any. There are some little differences that also came about because of a difference in resources. For example, toilet paper is not flushed here because the water pressure is not strong enough to handle it. Also, nobody drinks tap water; water is either boiled, filtered (if you're lucky), or bought bottled.
Another major cultural difference, this time between specifically my home area and Beijing, is how easily accessible everything is either by bus, subway or taxi. In those ways, the city reminds me of New York and its transportation freedoms. Being a part of the community, I used this local transportation to get around, and I must say, I loved it. The freedom to go practically anywhere on my own and interact with other commuters was worth the few sardine-esque experiences. I also made friends with lots of little (very little) Chinese kids whose speaking level was close enough to mine that we could share a few words. I managed to strike up a nice conversation with a couple shopkeepers (and get called crazy by some others). As the weeks went by, my conversations became more frequent, and on good days, more substantial than "OMG your baby is so cute! How old is he? Aw!" My encounters, both the good and the bad, with the Beijing Ren in various situations have made this trip that much more unique.
So even if there isn't a new mark on my wall ruler, thanks to my adventures in, around, and about Beijing, I HAVE grown.
And if you ever need to get from Jiao Tong Da Xue to Tie Shi Zi Fen and back, call me.