Growing pains: The beginning of a semester abroad in Chengdu, China
Study Abroad Columnist
As I prepared for my semester here in Chengdu, China — using my previous experience abroad in Spain as a guide — I grossly underestimated the impact of culture shock.
In Spain, although in a different city, I quickly felt quite at home. It was like meeting an old friend again: brief initial awkwardness soon gave way to the exhilaratingly comfortable and familiar relationship I had cherished before.
On the other hand, these few weeks in China have been like being in a room packed with new people, some of whom you like and some of whom you really don’t, all constantly demanding your attention (and I’m an introvert). Sometimes I am left in awe by the lively fusion of traditional temples and record-breaking skyscrapers. Other times I look out the window and just see smog.
What is culture shock anyways? Hard. Self-defined. Children pointing at you and shouting “outer-country-person” in Chinese. A random American documentary provoking nostalgia for a place in Texas you’ve never heard of. Jumping through (or failing to jump through) a variety of bureaucratic hurdles just to order takeout.
I soon felt disheartened after realizing that adapting in China would be an uphill battle. I felt guilty about expressing negative feelings while knowing how lucky I am to have this experience. I’ve always aspired to be donned a “Certified World Traveler,” a wholly externally determined title that I nonetheless crave.
I constantly evaluate myself — and adjust accordingly — based on certain criteria to arm myself in case someone’s perception of me starts to threaten my title: how many mistakes have people heard me make in their language? How much effort am I putting into meeting locals? How long can I publically resist wanting to go home?
Once I came to China, the only question I had the energy for was, “Who am I?”
I feared losing my passion for travel. Clearly others felt similarly deep down, because competition became a short-term coping mechanism (and a long-term detriment) between my classmates and me.
In the midst of the initial awkwardness of social speed-dating and exaggerated social niceties, the race to find America’s Most Worldly was on. You may recognize subtle one-liners, such as, “I’m never going home”; “The food here is, like, so good”; “Yeah I definitely want to live here after I graduate”; and, “Yeah I always sit in the front seat of the taxi to practice Chinese.”
Right when I was feeling most vulnerable, I was pressured to establish myself in the globetrotter pecking order. I could either establish dominance as a makeshift replacement for comfortable assimilation or face the consequences of confronting my true feelings. I didn’t want to admit that sometimes I missed greasy pizza and lousy strip malls, in fear that my “Certified World Traveler” status would be swiftly revoked.
A major breakthrough for me began when I realized that you don’t automatically become a provincial simpleton every time you think about Wawa mac and cheese. It’s simply difficult to get outside of our comfort zones. Growth always brings challenges, especially in a culture enriched by thousands of years of semi-isolated development.
After my initial back-and-forth between “This country is so amazing” and “When’s the next flight?” it just became clear to me that growing pains are a sign of strength, not weakness. In other words, it’s totally natural to miss “home,” in all of the various meanings of the word, because this shows us how much energy we’re putting into learning from our new home.
As much as we should reflect on our frustrations (as I’ve just done at length), why not also get used to celebrating our small triumphs? A new word mastered. A positive interaction with a Chinese person. A bureaucratic process figured out. This country has so much to offer, with its age-old customs, wisdom-filled sayings and spice-laden noodles. My own struggles — and anybody else’s — to integrate just reflect the desire to grow in a new environment.