I spent months preparing myself for immediate culture shock, but the reality was much different. When I stepped off the plane last week, the hordes of people in Peking airport might have struck me if I weren’t accustomed to the hundreds off bodies hustling to and fro across UT Austin’s massive campus. Between my Texas-sized university and infamously busy native airport in Atlanta, I felt right at home in the crowds of bustling travelers. Fidgeting in the long line for the immigration entrance, I thought, “As soon as I step out of the airport, it’ll hit me.” It was my idea of a turbulent wind that would send me reeling through my weeks in this foreign city. It was something that grew from my excitement and secret apprehension about traveling around the world to speak a language that I barely knew for eight weeks. It was also a total misconception.
As soon as I stepped out of the airport, rather than bewitching wonders, I was hit by a familiar stifling heat. I could have been nine-years old back in Atlanta, stepping out of the busy international ATL, if not for the curious grey smog clouding the sky. 20 or so of the other CET students and I crammed our bags under the bus like we were going to summer camp, then climbed into the tourist bus. I stared out the window as we started for Capital Normal University, overwhelmed by a sense of normality.
Let me pause to say that Beijing is an incredible city that I have yet to even start to unpack. But on that Wednesday, I had just arrived in a foreign country for the first time in my life. Yet somehow, I found it even less discombobulating than the times I had visited the far reaches of America, like Alaska and Hawaii. Perhaps I’m just inherently comfortable in cities, but my very first impressions of Beijing were comfortable and effortless. For twenty minutes, I watched the two- and three-lane highway blur by, jam-packed with recognizable brands of cars. Only the Chinese characters painted on the road and scrawled across building signs sent my brain a quiet memo that I was somewhere new. The alarm bells and whistles I had expected from my first minutes in a new country were blissfully silent. I was so relaxed going bus-speed through traffic in the oddly comfortable bus seats that I actually closed my eyes and gave into my jet-lag.
The next thing I knew, I was stepping into my dorm room to greet my Chinese roommate. The “我认识你我很高兴” introduction that I had practiced during the entire sleepless plane ride abandoned me in my trepidation. The other college girl soon put my worries to rest. My roommate, known as 兔子, or Rabbit, to her friends warmly welcomed me into the room we would share for the next two months. She nodded along encouragingly from her bed as I stumbled over a few words that Google translate would have never recognized as Chinese. Later, I discovered that one year of learning the language had actually equipped me far better than I had anticipated. I could mostly understand my roommate’s Beijing accent, though she thankfully speaks clearly for me. True, I’m still just randomly pointing at menus to feed myself, but every time, I inhale a new delicious, unnameable dish. Eating out with my classmates is always preferable, since most of the other students can also only guess about dishes based off their pictures. Together, however, we can enjoy our experimentation while splitting the bill.
I’m constantly surprised by my comfort with this city, but also the sudden, brief moments of surprise. Something about being accustomed to America’s diverse population usually blinds me to the fact that almost all Beijing natives that I’ve come in contact with consistently look different than myself. Only the occasional wide-eyed elementary-schooler wandering up to my table at a café reminds me that I’m the outsider here. Once, I started to silently panic when a policeman stared as I walked past him. But I quickly realized that his startled gaze was one of harmless curiosity, rather than suspicious scrutiny, at my Anglo appearances. This small detail was one I never anticipated, but find it only encourages my curiosity about Beijing’s attentive denizens.
During the first few days here that we were allowed to speak English, I asked my fellow classmates about their own first impressions of this city thus far. One student from Yale NUS admitted, “At first I was very overwhelmed, but everyone’s been very helpful. All the students who speak a little Chinese and English act as mediators for everyone, and for people like me who don’t speak a lot of Chinese, and try to help us communicate with locals and the teachers.” When I reminded her about the language pledge, which we took the very next day, she concluded, “Right, so that’s not happening anymore, but at least [we could help each other] for the first couple of days. It helped me adjust a lot.” Although all students have now taken the language pledge to only speak Chinese for the next two months, we spent the first few days using English to exchange our back-stories and similar interests in world travel. Now, even as we stumble through experimental sentences in Chinese, my classmates and I are all already friends enough to patiently help each other sort out our thoughts. It’s already obvious to me that the language pledge is less stressful when we’re able to laugh along with each other at our mistakes.
I also asked one of the most advanced Chinese students in our program about his thoughts about our trip thus far. His reply: “Although I’ve been to China before, I will say that while I am accustomed to a lot of customs here, I am seeing more and more [details] that I have not seen before…It just goes to show you that the new experiences that you choose to take are never going to be the same ones you may have had in the past.” He elaborated on the stares from Beijing natives that reflected my own feelings. “Every time I go outside, and I talk to Chinese people, it’s an experience that continues to [overwhelm] me. Like, the thought of being a foreigner in this country and how I’m receiving all of these looks, I’m experiencing something that I would never experience in America and that’s a great way to become aware of the world outside of the one you were brought up in.” I actually found that everyone, from this student of Iranian decent to the Chinese-Americans with different styles and postures than Beijing citizens, similarly receive those curious looks from pedestrians. This inconsequential detail is one of many that unite our small band of college students.
Lastly, one of my classmates from UT Austin, and a fellow first-time student abroad, joking replied to my inquiries about her first impressions, “They don’t have big towels [here]. They only have small towels. That’s the biggest difference.” Overall, it seems that my classmates share my sentiments about being in this new place. Our first takes on the city are ones of curiosity and excitement. When the small differences that catch us off guard, we take them in stride with good-hearted attitudes and an ambition to learn more. In the coming months, I know that we’ll face challenges in the coming months as we delve deeper into the Beijing way of life, but overall our class seems capable of handling ourselves in any new situation, if not alone, than as a group. I’m thankful every day to be experiencing this new culture my fellow study abroad students at my side!