“I don’t know how to explain it!” “Ok, so you kind of hold it like this, and your thumb is supporting.” “No, that doesn’t really look right. Oh no!”
It was April of my freshman year of college, and my friends had dragged me out for sushi because they had discovered that I had never eaten it before. My hand wobbled and I dropped my sushi roll on the table as I tried to put it on my plate. It was obvious that I had no idea how to use chopsticks. Despite their best efforts, my hand refused to hold them correctly. As a result, I was going hungry and my hand was cramping up from the effort. With great focus I managed to eat the sushi and loved it, but that ordeal convinced me that I needed to improve my chopstick skills before I tried again.
Childhood Dreams in Suburbia
The excitement and fun of trying to eat sushi with chopsticks does not summarize most of my life growing up in suburban Missouri. When I was 7, my father and I spent an entire Saturday morning watching a Discovery channel series that followed a group attempting to climb Mount Everest. I sat enthralled in front of the TV for hours, watching them struggle up the tallest mountain in the world. I wanted to experience all the excitement, determination and drive they were – even the element of danger appealed to me. However, despite my intrigue in adventure and faraway places, my own world remained uncomfortably small.
In the beginning, I found that excitement in books. I tore through books that took me to other worlds, whether real or imaginary. I was in 4th grade when I read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for the first time. I finished it in 2 days, and quickly read the rest of the series. The characters’ lives seemed much more interesting and exciting than my own, so I spent my time engrossed in their stories.
I got my first taste of adventure when I was nine and my family traveled to the Grand Canyon; it was my first time seeing mountains before. As I stood staring down at the base of the canyon so many feet below, my mother cautioned me to not stand too close to the edge. I took a small step back, but couldn’t tear away my gaze.
As I’ve gotten older, the mix of excitement and fear and awe at the beauty of the world have been something I’ve continued to seek out, which has pushed me far beyond the Midwest.
From Small Town to Big City
I made my first leap out of my bubble by choosing Loyola University Chicago for college; a school that is a 5-hour drive from my home and in a big city. Immediately, I met a more diverse group of people. I tried pho for the first time. I enjoyed going to class because I was actually interested in what I was learning. And, although I continued to loudly proclaim my dislike of Chinese food, college provided a freedom that I didn’t know I was missing.
I was learning new things by being in Chicago, but I wanted more. I wanted to go even further away from what I knew and had experienced. By my sophomore year I was already more comfortable than I wanted to be, and was drowning in schoolwork when what I most wanted was the excitement of climbing mountains and meeting new a new and interesting group of people. So, with an interest in Asia and no previous language study, I applied to study in Beijing, China.
Quickly after making this decision, I realized that although being immersed in a new culture far away, with a vastly different political system, were what drew me to China, they seemed to make everyone else nervous. Each time I told someone that I was going to study abroad in China I was met with a look of surprise and peppered with questions about the wisdom of this choice; a reaction I did not receive when I studied abroad in Spain. I was cautioned not to eat the street food or drink the tap water, to be careful on the subways, reminded that I couldn’t use the internet, and warned not to discuss anything controversial, particularly not with Chinese nationals. With these warnings and other stereotypes on the mind, I flew to Beijing which would be my home for the next 4 months.
A Second Try at Chopsticks
The first meal I ate in China was after I stumbled off the 14-hour flight from Chicago to Beijing. Exhausted, overwhelmed, and desperately wanting a shower, I, along with all of the students who I would be studying with for the semester, were directed to a nearby restaurant and seated while plate after plate of food was brought out.
“These are my favorite!” a new friend exclaimed as a dish holding some sort of small, black fungus was placed in front of us.
“Do you like mushrooms?” she asked me.
“Yeah” I responded hesitantly as I watched her excitedly pile the mysterious food on to her plate.
“Try these. They’re called 木耳 (mù’ěr). They have a little spice.”
I cautiously placed a few of the fungi on to my plate, thinking about my sister who loves both Chinese food and mushrooms. Although I had tried a few dishes at the table so far, and liked them, I was still a little cautious around Chinese food. With my friend watching expectantly, I picked up my chopsticks and managed to grab one of the fungi and put it in my mouth.
“Ohmygosh this is good!”
It was my first night in China, and I had already found my favorite Chinese food. I reached to grab more.
After that first meal, my concerns about potential starvation were abetted, but I still had to meet my roommate who I knew nothing about (aside from one email in which she told me that her English name was Ellen and she was a law student who was learning how to snowboard). I was certain that having a Chinese roommate was either going to be phenomenal OR a big failure, fearing the potential that the cultural and language barrier would be too high to surpass. Within my first hours in China, we bonded over our love of Lady Gaga’s ‘Joanna’ album, our shared unhealthy habit of staying up late, and our mutual nervousness over meeting new people.
Everyday Adventures in China
I didn’t know what to expect from Beijing, from China. I came in with few expectations and was thrown into a world just as complex and wonderful and crazy as my own in America.
At various moments over my four months here, I’ve heard friends say “yesterday I was (insert verb), and it hit me that I’m really here, I’m in China”. I never had that moment. It didn’t hit me all of a sudden that I was truly living this experience that I had thought about for the past two years, instead I quickly fell into the monotony of life here in Beijing just as I do in my life in Chicago.
Gradually, too slowly to notice, I became comfortable. One day I realized that everything was so familiar to me – the walk to class, all of the restaurants just outside of the gates of the University of International Business and Economics (UIBE) where I study, my daily schedule. Going to the metro was no longer a foreign concept, I now did it on autopilot without paying attention. By April, the workers at the canteen knew my 煎饼 (jiānbǐng) order by heart. All I had to do was walk up and they would already have the price typed in and begin making my food. I appreciated this mainly because I wouldn’t have to stumble through ordering in Chinese but also because it was a nice routine. It was comforting in its repetitiveness.
My time in China is defined more by the subtle things that you don’t realize that you learned or were important until later. My experience is not just when I went to Shanghai and gazed at the lights on the Bund from a rooftop bar; it’s also the time that I stayed up way too late talking with my roommate or the moments in the library finishing up homework while a friend told me a story of what happened during their Chinese class that made them laugh so loudly that my class could hear them in the next room.
China is not a wild adventure – that blows it out of proportion. Most of my days are spent much as I would if I was back at Loyola. I go to class, go to the library, get food with friends, procrastinate, listen to too much music, and then repeat the next day. Yet, hovering over all of these mundane activities is the fact that I am in China. I am doing something that most people don’t, or won’t, do.
So yes, I am going to class, but I’m going to a class on Sino-U.S. relations taught by a leading Chinese expert who is quoted in newspapers and travels around the world to give lectures. Yes, I am just going to eat lunch, but I go eat 包子 (bāozi) which I had never eaten in the United States and I get to see the kind ayi who always smiles when I come in and gives me a hug. It is exciting, but not in the way it may seem on Instagram. In the end, the mundane things are what I will remember the most. Each day that I didn’t go to a famous temple or the Great Wall is another day where I lived in China just as Chinese people do. By recognizing how special these seemingly mundane things are, I realized I’m not just living for highlights, and I’ve been able to learn more than I ever thought possible.