Written by Taylor Ginter (Rice University) Student Correspondent CET Harbin, Fall 2017
According to the highly scientific research I just did to prepare for writing this post, I am an introvert. Okay, my research method was taking a slew of Buzzfeed quizzes to “confirm” what I already knew about myself, but isn’t that why we all turn to Buzzfeed? “Extroverted” and “introverted” are nothing more than the two extreme endpoints of a scale known as personality and at any given time, every person falls somewhere on this scale. However, that position is likely to change throughout a person’s lifetime. I personally have already changed from high school to college, from relatively extroverted to relatively introverted. Moreover, studying abroad has affected this trait in me in a way I have not yet been able to process. On the one hand, I enjoy the opportunities I’ve been given to exercise my language skills in exciting, enthralling discussions. On the other hand, talking with people all day long wears. me. out.
An introvert immersing herself in a language program, to some this may be a paradox. But for me this personality trait doesn’t mean I don’t like conversing with people, it simply means I need more time alone to unwind. So don’t take it personally when you, my friend, ask me if you can explore the city with me on our day off and I respond that I’d rather be in solitude; exactly what happened on 中秋节, or the Mid-Autumn Festival. Since my typical daily routine of traversing back and forth between my dorm, the classroom building, and the cafeteria turned monotonous really quickly, I made a vow to myself to get off of HIT’s campus more often. On this occasion, before I headed out my Chinese suitemate recommended a couple of bustling streets within walking distance (unfortunately Harbin’s subway system is very limited) and then I was off, my camera as my sole companion.
In America during national holidays it’s nearly impossible to find open restaurants and shops, so I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of bustling stores and that I was able to find an open bakery, especially since I had purposefully skipped my typical breakfast of soy milk and 油条 (“oily string”, a fried dough delicacy) in hopes of tickling my tastebuds with something new. I’m more of a savory breakfast gal, but the still warm, freshly made black sesame seed pastry I bought had me hooked after the first bite. It’s really lucky I had already left the bakery before tasting it or else I might have bought eight more. After savoring each bite until the bitter end, it was onwards and upwards with my journey. I didn’t have any specific destination in mind, so when after casually strolling for a few hours I realized I was lost, I wasn’t worried. Trying to avoid relying on my iPhone map to navigate, I eventually — by chance — came across what I recognized as the Majiagou River, which I’ve used before to guide me back to campus after getting lost on a run (okay I’m actually not as bad with directions as it may seem, I just don’t mind getting “lost” and seeing what I stumble upon).
I finally made it back to campus feeling refreshed and ready to re-encounter people. It has been tough to get used to living in a dorm again because I spent my last year living in a one-bedroom apartment all by myself, no one else with which to negotiate lights out time and no college students hanging out in the hallways until the late hours of the night. But sharing a living space can also be a blessing: whenever I have a homework question, just about regardless of whatever time it is I can walk down the hall and find CET’s study room full of students and roommates eager to help. But even more noteworthy than homework help is the amount of deep conversations I’ve stumbled into here, completely outside the realm of finishing my homework. Sometimes it’s actually really tough to draw myself away from discussions long enough to complete my assignments.
One night I accidentally talked the night away with a friend about the differences between my American and his Chinese culture regarding society’s perception of topics such as family, race, and sexuality. During this discussion he asked me why American students love to discuss such topics so in depth since he wondered if doing so would cause people of opposing opinions to become further polarized. Before he asked this question I hadn’t realized that deeply engaging current issues with friends might only be a pastime in certain cultures, but I have been grateful that everyone I’ve engaged with here in China has been so open to sharing their personal opinions and hearing mine. Even more on top of that I’ve been extremely thankful that everyone has been patient enough with my shoddy language skills to still want to converse with me. I’ve realized that, as a foreigner, it is impossible to really understand another culture without actually immersing yourself in it and hearing differing opinions, which is especially tough without a foreign language ability.
When I return to my room to decompress after a long discussion with a friend I’m not only physically exhausted from attentively listening to and internally translating every sentence (is it possible to sprain an ear?), but also mentally exhausted from being challenged to grapple with different points of view and schools of thought. Every time I feel incredibly exhausted from classes I remind myself of the many other meaningful conversations studying a foreign language has enabled me to have, and even though it might be a lot more comfortable to stay curled up in bed crocheting a scarf for the fast approaching winter, these memories remind me how worth it it is to push myself to have more human-to-human interactions.