Thursday, December 22, 2011

Eyes Wide Open

If I weren’t studying Chinese, I would never have come to China. Period. I’ve never loved traveling as much as some of my peers do. Perhaps my easy-going nature has allowed me to feel content in a predictable and familiar environment. But I can’t imagine not having studied in China for a semester. In just 118 days, not even a third of a year, I have learned so much, about Chinese culture, business, language, and myself.

I’d like to say that living in China has completely changed my life, that I had life-changing moments of self-discovery, that I’m a whole new man. But I can’t and I won’t. In many ways, I’m the same person who arrived in Shanghai four months ago. There are definitely a few indicators of my time spent here in China: stronger Mandarin skills, tendency to choose tea over coffee, greater liking for Asian haircuts, much-improved wardrobe largely owing to my beloved fabric market, etc.  However, when I look past what the eye can see, I realize I can find something more meaningful.
All my life, I’ve been stuck in an America-centric perspective. After living out of the country for a semester, there’s no way I can continue to think of the world in such a narrow-minded way. I care more about what’s happening around the world because I’ve lived on the opposite side of it. I want to know what China is up to and what policies they’re implementing because I feel invested in their future and have opinions on what direction the country should go in.
 In digging deep, I realize that gaining a greater understanding of China has led me to a greater appreciation of my own country, the United States. The American system isn’t perfect, but I am very grateful for the many comforts and liberties that our Chinese counterparts do not enjoy. China has a very long way to go if it wants to be a creditable first-world country. Their income disparity is disgustingly large, government corruption is widespread, policy-makers focus on short-term goals like raising GDP at the expense of long term problems like environmental damage, intellectual property rights are scarcely protected, the education system overemphasizes rote memorization and test taking and underemphasizes critical thinking and individual thought, the list goes on.                                              
 At the same time, I truly believe that communism is the best system of government for China right now. And in that regard, I’ve come a long way. American education has taught us, in layman’s terms, democracy good, communism bad, but no other system of government could have pushed China through such rapid economic change. You simply can’t bring an agrarian nation through the Industrial Revolution if you have to constantly battle with political disputes and partisan disagreement.
 I love the USA. Being away from my homeland has made me realize all the strong American values that I have. I feel proud and fortunate to be born in the greatest country in the world. It’s not just our toasted everything bagels with lox and cream cheese, nor our freedom of speech, nor the waiters who actually want to know how your meal is. It’s the common sense of pride in being American, in knowing what our great nation has done and is capable of doing and all the rights that it protects and guarantees its citizens. In a land of 1.3 billion people with a government that is largely out for its own best interest, the Chinese people don’t enjoy this same sense of nationalistic pride.
As happy as I am to be home, I will miss certain aspects of living in China. My new friends, my roommate, my teachers, speaking Mandarin with locals, street food, bargaining, nightlife, traveling. I’ll miss hardly having to spend any money to live like a rock star, being able to talk about people in English right in front of them, and being stared at because I look different. And I’m going to miss that feeling I got every once in a while where I just stop and say to myself ‘Oh my god, I’m in China’.
I don’t know what my future looks like, but China may very well be a part of it. I’m scared to commit myself to doing business in China, yet I am enthralled by its endless opportunities and its imminent rise to the world’s number one economic power. For now, I’ll just keep at it with the Mandarin and let life take me where it wants to take me.
Living in China wasn’t easy and definitely took a good getting used to. Even in Shanghai, an international city, I really did feel very far from my comfort zone. At times I missed home, I missed school, I missed my friends, but, in the end, my experience was nothing less than incredible. I accomplished so much in a mere four months. I really feel that I didn’t take my time in China for granted. I knew it would go by fast, and I often felt the urge to learn something new every day, or go somewhere different. It was an exhausting semester. Like any semester of college, I often felt stressed, and I didn’t sleep nearly enough. But that’s life. And it's always better to keep your eyes wide open.

Thank you to my friends for making it the incredible semester that it was.
And thanks for reading.


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