Written by Bita Kavoosi, (Colorado College) Student Correspondent CET Beijing, Fall 2018
“Ignorance is the parent of fear.” – Herman Melville
After buying my plane tickets to Beijing, I began to feel some trepidation about actually going to China for a whole semester. Though I only go home for holiday breaks, I know that I can get from Colorado to California easily and cheaply, if necessary; I wouldn’t have the option of doing the same from China. When I decided where to go for my study abroad, the Beijing: Internship program seemed logical because 1) I wanted to do an internship abroad to gain international work experience, 2) Chinese is a critical language in high demand by many employers and the government, and 3) Beijing is the political and cultural hub of China, meaning that I could further my knowledge of the language and political climate. I didn’t fully consider how alien China would start to seem and how nervous I would become about going abroad for so long.
However, now that I’m here, I see how great Beijing actually is, and am no longer concerned about soaking in a new culture and lifestyle for four months. The food is exceptional and ridiculously cheap; on-campus, my meals are $1 or $2 USD, and my off-campus meals range from $3 to $8 USD. Even more surprising to me were the convenience stores; they are so numerous, so close to campus, and have the most amazing foods ranging from ready-made bao buns to ice cream in a resealable bag. I have studied and vacationed in cities with widespread public transportation usage, and rarely, if ever, use taxis or ride-share services, but Beijing’s metro system is really something else. It is so widespread, accessible from campus, and inexpensive.
People keep telling me how “brave” I am for coming to Beijing without speaking any more Chinese than a basic greeting. I don’t know that I agree, but as the only person in the Beijing: Internship program who came to China with no Chinese at all, I will say this to prospective students in a similar situation: Consider your options, and why you are coming. If you want a research or policy internship but have no Chinese abilities, realize that it will be stressful and difficult to find something meeting that standard, but that it will not be impossible. Understand that Google products don’t work here, and that using Chinese apps on your phone to get directions, order takeout, or buy products online might be difficult if you can’t read what the app says. Also recognize that while there are seat toilets in Beijing, there are also hoilets (hole in the ground toilets very prevalent in much of the not-western world) and that you will need to carry around a pack of tissues and hand sanitizer for where there is no toilet paper or soap in the hoilet (there often isn’t). I am blessed to have a roommate who orders stuff with me, wants to take me to the places I need to go, and will help me with directions if she can’t come with me, but that may not be the case for everyone. Feng Fan is the absolute best, and cares so much about my general well-being.
The other roommates here are also caring, and try to help when I’m struggling. They, along with the other students in the program, regularly help me exercise my limited Mandarin skills in conversation and in public. The toilet situation was one of the things realized after committing to the program, and made me reconsider how wise my decision was. I can now say, after a week and a half in Beijing, that it isn’t as bad as I thought it would be, especially with the support of the roommates.
Everything I said isn’t to deter or scare you, it’s to make you realize that Beijing is a different place with a different culture than anywhere in the US, and that you should understand that before you commit. If you come here and the city or program isn’t what you were expecting, know that everyone working here, and all the students and roommates too, in my experience, want to help you settle in; they don’t want you to fail.
There are so many resources for support here, and it is in your interest to understand your support network on-campus, at your home institution, in your hometown, and at your internship site, wherever you end up studying. The more you know about the world and where you want to go, the more you can prepare, and the less fearful you will be. That is a general lesson to be applied to all of life; fear fewer people, fewer new cultures, and fewer concepts you deem “alien.” Don’t go abroad only to let yourself stay ignorant about the culture you are in; it is very easy to never leave the campus, but that doesn’t lead to personal growth. Learn from everyone around you and from all the experiences you are lucky enough to have.
Grow into yourself abroad while exploring your interests, and even things you might not consider to be your interests at home, to see if you find a surprising, new pastime, hobby, or food. Don’t let ignorance breed your fear, as Herman Melville would suggest, but instead lessen your fears with preparation, learning by living in a new culture, and jumping into your abroad experience with open eyes and an open mind.