‘I’m surrounded!” I wasn’t even out of the United States yet, and everywhere I looked there were Chinese people.
This was my first thought as I sat down at John F. Kennedy International Airport in Queens, N.Y. My second thought was, ‘What the hell am I doing?”
The days leading up to my flight to Beijing, China were stressful. I decided earlier that year to study abroad in the spring after taking Chinese for a year-and-a-half, I thought studying abroad was an experience I probably shouldn’t miss.
But as the days to my flight drew closer, I started to realize just how much I’d be missing home and how very little I knew about the place I was going to. Besides barely being able to say ‘Hello” or ‘Where’s the dumplings?” I began to pick up on the fact that I was hopelessly ignorant of my destination’s culture, government and people.
When I reflect on my studying abroad experience now, I feel lucky that I could immerse myself in a new culture without too many errant predispositions. But trust me, that was definitely not what I was thinking as I walked with shaky legs to board the Boeing 747 jumbo plane (which had maybe a baker’s dozen non-Chinese people on it, a ratio I would get used to while in China).
The days before the flight from the U.S. are by far the most difficult part of the study abroad experience (besides the flight home). However, by the time you touch land in the other country, you’re almost as pumped up as the guy in ‘My New Haircut,” ready to try anything and tackle any fear.
If I could impart one lesson on future study abroaders, it’s to remind yourselves of this fearless attitude whenever you’re given a choice while abroad. Studying abroad is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime experience and in order to get the most out of it you’re going to have to avoid getting into a groove.
This doesn’t mean that every day has to be an adventure although when every day you have to use exaggerated hand gestures to order food because every time you try to speak their language people give you a quizzical look, it sometimes feels like every day does indeed have its cruel new mission.
One friend of mine studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia last spring. She fought off monotony with the slogan: ‘Never say no.” Hiking a glacier, learning to surf and eating kangaroo fajitas (the last of which I do not approve of how could you do that to such an adorable animal?) weren’t even the half of it. On a trip to New Zealand, this Rochester BPG senior flung herself out of a plane with some friends on a skydiving escapade.
She is not alone in her explorations abroad. Traveling itself is an essential part of making the most of the semester. While in China, it would be the practice of a group of people to get out of class on Friday, hop on an overnight train to some city with a name we couldn’t pronounce and get back either Sunday or Monday morning, just in time for class.
Only my second weekend in China, 30 people organized a trip to go to a city called Harbin for the city’s world-famous ice festival.
While there, we also took it upon ourselves to visit a tiger park, where we paid to see lions and tigers chase after their midday snack goats and chickens.
Toward the end of the semester, it’s inevitable that you start to feel a bit homesick.
Everyone deals with this in different ways. I had a few friends who started Skypeing more, some who partied a bit more and some who worked harder. In China, though, there seemed to be one way to truly fight off homesickness Western food. The day a burger caf opened up next to our University was the happiest day of IES students’ lives thus far. Pizza Hut and McDonalds also became part of the weekly diets of most students by the end of the semester.
I can’t blame them. Besides coping with the scarcity of pizza quite harshly myself, it seemed only natural that students would start to gravitate toward what they missed from home.
An alternate reason for this behavior, though, could actually be that us Western students got so sick of ‘laduzi” (the painful Chinese bacteria that causes something akin to diarrhea, only much worse) that we gave up on Chinese food. But that’s beside the point. It’s a part of studying abroad to be able to cope with missing things from home (and foreign bacteria).
And you should be lucky to know that home isn’t always so far from you, no matter where you are. Midway through my semester I met someone at a bar in Beijing who happened to have graduated from UR only a short while ago and was there on a Fulbright grant.
Senior Lindsay Wood who studied abroad in Israel, had an even cooler experience. On an intense hike in Israel from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sea of Galilee, she bumped into a friend from Rochester on the same hike but coming from the other direction.
Home isn’t always so distant, even when you’re halfway (or fully) across the world.
My flight back to the U.S. couldn’t have been more different than the one leaving it. Besides being surrounded by Chinese people, something I had gotten used to by then, nothing felt the same. I knew I had just concluded a unique journey and that it would be difficult to readjust to life at home. But readjust I did, and now I have countless memories of my semester, the hope of returning to China and the expectation of traveling elsewhere to sustain me through the Rochester winter.
Epstein is a member of the class of 2010.