I've said it once, and I'll say it again, studying abroad was the most valuable part of my undergraduate career. I now tell everyone I know who is still in school to take advantage of this opportunity. I mean, when else can you drop everything and head to a foreign country for a few months or even a year? Certainly not when you're employed full-time! It's like an extended vacation where instead of relaxing on a beach somewhere, you face challenges and get to know yourself.
When I started college, I figured that since I had studied French in high school, I would do a semester in France. When I was a sophomore though, I took a Mandarin Chinese course, and that totally changed my mind. After only a semester of Chinese class, I submitted my application to go to Beijing, China. I wanted to explore and go somewhere that I knew would be a challenge. In my mind, France seemed like it would be different, but still somewhat the same, being in the Western world. In January 2012, I got word that my application went through and I would be going to China!
Being from Maine, I had been to Canada a handful of times, but I had never been on a flight overseas before. My departure date was February 15, 2013. It was a bit of a damper on my Valentine's Day the night before, but honestly at that point, it still didn't feel real to me. I packed my luggage in what I remember to be a very disorganized way, as a college student eager for adventure would do. In the morning my friends took me out for a goodbye breakfast, and then it was time to head to the airport. I cried when I left my boyfriend (now husband!) to go through security, and begin my semester overseas.
So, once in China, there were many times when I needed to leave my comfort zone and, as the Chinese say, 入乡随俗. (This phrase "ru xiang sui su" translates to "When you enter a village, follow the local customs; do as the natives do", and got me to really open up while abroad). I will share the 5 most prominent times when I had to leave my comfort zone in The Forbidden City.
1. That time I ate dog meat. And any other "delicacies".
Trust me on this one, when a Chinese person calls a food a "delicacy", you can translate that to "something I would never dream of eating". While you know whatever is coming is probably going to be godawful, I don't advise you run away! Just 入乡随俗 and try it out. When I went to my Chinese friend's house, and she didn't tell me what the meat dish was on the table, I knew I was in for something new! She finally admitted it was dog meat, expecting I would refuse to let it pass my lips. I surprised her and took a taste, and what do you know? I liked it! :) Some other delicacies though, not so much...
2. Squatting toilets. With no doors. Yup.
Yes, you've heard about squatting toilets in other countries, but did you know they sometimes don't have doors?! I was not aware, and thought "okay, I can do this squatting toilet thing, so long as I don't fall in". I went hiking and the bathroom included toilets with no doors. I squatted there, listening to the old Chinese ladies speaking so fast, unsure if they were talking about me or not. It was cold too, still in February. After a painful two minutes, I finally went along with my business. I'll spare you a photo for this one! ;)
3. Pretending to be human sardines in the subway.
Those photos of subway workers in Asia pushing passengers into the subway to get them all to fit inside? Not as far-fetched as they look! Line 1 of the Beijing subway system during rush hour, not really a place you want to be. It's hot, sweaty, and very strange the first time you get in there. Someone is behind you, in front of you, beside you. Don't worry about hanging on to anything, there isn't anywhere to fall. Despite me mentioning this on the list of times when I left my comfort zone, the Beijing subway was amazing, and so 方便！And I just adored the automated voice on the escalators "please stand firm and holds the handrail" in a cute accent! But I digress.
4. Holding an entire conversation in Chinese with a native.
When I first arrived, I was so afraid to speak Chinese! Three semesters of lessons does not prepare you for the real deal, my friends. They were speaking so fast! So much Beijing accent (they basically add "r" to the end of everything!). Being overwhelmed by all this, you can only imagine how happy I was to have a full Chinese conversation with someone who doesn't speak English. Just to illustrate how happy I was that day, I'm inserting my blog entry from that day here:
Tuesday February 19, 2013 3:10pm
Omg I just had my first actual Chinese conversation with someone who does not know English and it was crazy man!!!!!!! And I think I was successful in the conversation even though sometimes I had some trouble, the woman is the cleaning woman here and she is soooooo nice!!!! She told me I am pretty and that my Chinese is good and I told her about America and she asked me if I like it here in Beijing and I said I love it! Wahhh I feel so proud of myself right now!! She said she is Ayi, oh my god it was just so crazy and fun!!!! I think it’s a little bit easier to talk to her than to a foreigner who is trying to speak Chinese. We had a good talk. They were making the bed here in my room for the roommate who should be coming soon. I am happy.
I later found out that her name isn't Ayi, and that Ayi (阿姨) means "auntie" in Chinese, and is simply a title she uses to refer to herself! :D
5. Being videotaped and photographed in public!
This sounds funny, but damn was it awkward. You would think in a city like Beijing, they would be used to seeing foreigners around. Crossing the overhead bridge, get videotaped. Visiting The Forbidden City, countless people asking "can I have picture with you?" The most memorable time was on the subway with my other American friend and Ukrainian friend. We were standing and noticed a guy who appeared to be filming us. We moved to sit down and sure enough, his cell phone followed us! My friend Jade covered her face, and I asked "what are you doing?" Her response was, "I don't want to be on Youku!" (Youku is the Chinese YouTube!)
So there you have it folks. Those were the times where I was out of my comfort zone. The last one is a little silly but hey, it was not comfortable! Now, I challenge you, if you haven't gone abroad yet and have the chance, GO! Of course every country will be different, so my list for China may differ from your list from Italy, Australia, or Japan. No matter where you go, you're going to make great friends and have the best stories to tell!