My first time traveling this far from home, my first time living in a new country. It has been a time filled with worry and fear, but more so a time filled with excitement and adventure. It began with my flight from Michigan to China—a twelve-hour long flight and my first time flying without my parents. Luckily, I had a number of my classmates from my college flying with me, so we were able to figure out the inner-workings of Beijing Capital International Airport together (no matter how clear of directions your Resident Director gives you, you’re bound to get a little lost somewhere—it’s a huge airport!).
My first few hours in Beijing were some of the hardest—I was jet-lagged and in pain from such a long flight; all I wanted was to shower and have time to myself to decompress. However, we were informed on our bus ride to campus that our Chinese roommates had already moved in and would be at the dorm waiting to meet us. To be quite frank, I was honestly kind of disappointed that I wouldn’t have that time to myself—those last few hours to process everything and unpack on my own time. Nonetheless, my roommate came down to our dorm lobby to meet me for the first time. She was very sweet and helped me move all of my luggage upstairs. However, even though my language pledge didn’t start for another week, she spoke to me in Chinese. I was so exhausted I couldn’t even think of how to respond to some of her questions. Looking back on it, already entering my second week of the language pledge, I am glad she resorted to using Chinese from the beginning, as it made the transition in general from English to Chinese much more natural and a lot less shocking.
My first time ordering food in Chinese was scary. Luckily, a friend’s roommate accompanied all of us and could tell us the name of the dish we wanted to order. That day never got much easier—we left campus for the first time that day to open bank accounts and go pick up some essentials at a supermarket. Having to convert the price of things in my head and then speak with the cashier in Chinese was daunting. But as I went more and more times to the convenience store on campus, I got a better handle on prices, asking for a bag, and shopping quick enough to stay out of everyone’s way since the stores here, no matter how big or small, no matter the time of day, are always busy with hundreds of people! (My best advice is to go to the store knowing what you want or need. It’s not much like the U.S. where you have the time or space to browse around much).
My first time eating at a Chinese restaurant was amazing! I was so surprised by how great of food was served at one of the small restaurants on our campus (if anyone plans to ever come to Capital Normal University, it’s the one right behind the cafeteria). There, my roommate introduced me to many delicious Chinese dishes—京酱肉丝 (jing jiang rou si) and 金银馒头 (jin yin man tou) were my favorites. The first is a sort-of play on Beijing’s prominent Peking duck, in which shredded pork is sautéed in a sweet bean sauce and served with leeks, cucumbers, and tofu skins which you use to make wraps. The second dish is a dessert of sorts; small steamed and fried dumplings served with sweet condensed milk to dip them in. That same week, I also enjoyed my first banquet-style Chinese meal, or 宴会 (yan hui). I can’t pick a favorite dish from that meal because they were all delicious!
I was treated to the banquet meal by my new teachers. Our first day of class was one of the hardest classes I’ve ever had—we jumped right into the semester by signing the language pledge and class started immediately after. I’m in 300 Level Chinese, where we have several different components to our class, including daily quizzes, weekly exams, weekly presentations, a daily elective about Chinese newspapers, a small break-out class with a different activity each day, and a daily one-on-one class with a teacher. Sometimes we also have language practicum weeks in which we go out into Beijing and discuss our topics from class with locals. It’s a lot more work than I’ve ever had before, but I’m slowly getting more accustomed to it and finding new study habits to aid the transition. It’s interesting to have my brain working so hard all the time to grasp everything that’s being said to me.
The first time I called my parents after getting to China was nice, even though I couldn’t think of some simple English words like “supermarket” or “classroom.” Calls after the language pledge were more than relieving—it’s so hard to not (yet!) have the ability to fully express myself and my feelings in Chinese. It’s also nice to just have someone to relay frustrations or misconceptions to and be able to talk through them. It was a little hard getting used to some things in China, some more important like not being able to flush toilet paper or catching the eyes of many strangers, and some as simple as ordering milk tea and learning the intricacies of the washing machines.
Still, it doesn’t get much more exciting than my first trip to one of Beijing’s distinguishing features, Summer Palace (颐和园 Yi He Yuan). We took the bus there and the subway back, mostly just for the experience. The Summer Palace is beautiful and expansive with a sublime balance of scenery—hills behind water that contribute to the gardens’ 风水 (feng shui) and 阴阳 (yin yang). Even though it was a long day with 98° F heat and about five miles of walking, I had an awesome time and I’m still really grateful I signed up to go! To be able to spend a part of my weekend relaxing in a serene and significant place like the Summer Palace makes me so grateful for this experience.
I’ve experienced so many “firsts” here and I look forward to more firsts to come, but most of all I can’t wait to make all of these “firsts” seconds, thirds, and fourths!