Study Abroad in Beijing (Part 1): Adjusting to a Foreign Environment

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As a Chinese and Korean American visiting China for the first time to study abroad the past few weeks have been a whirlwind of frustration, discovery and reflection. Finding my way around Beijing is an adventure, to say the least. Since I only have a conversational command of Mandarin, the language barrier has put me in a number of uncomfortable—and at times even painful—situations during my first few weeks in the city. I felt clumsy and frustrated trying to understand and get my point across to locals about topics that were beyond my scope of the language, such as negotiating rent with a landlord and buying a cell phone plan. I had to constantly explain to people that I was born and raised in America, which would often score me blank or even apprehensive stares. I could always see them thinking, "She looks Chinese, why doesn’t she speak the language fluently?"

Combine that with the frenzied environment of Beijing—people crossing the street in chaotic fashion, the shoving to get on the bus and the subway, the freezing cold, and the heavy local accent—and I found myself in a classic case of culture shock. There was a fleeting moment when I wondered if coming to China was the right decision for me.

However, gradually and almost unconsciously, I found myself adjusting. I speak Mandarin more forcefully now, and instead of getting weird stares from people, I get curious looks and at times even a smile. Instead of looking at the city through a negative lens, I try to observe everything around me with an unbiased eye. In fact, I now aggressively cross the street when the walk signal is red and haul myself on and off buses and the subway like there’s no tomorrow.I’ve realized that a lot of the unfamiliar aspects of this new place are just on the surface—there are many more layers I have yet to peel back to fully understand the culture and what motivates people here. I think it will take a lot more time, exploring different parts of the city and country, and also cultivating relationships with the local Chinese to better grasp their thoughts and motivations, and only then can I begin to draw parallels or comparisons with my own heritage.

This is the first part in a series on studying abroad in Beijing, as seen through the eyes of Mochi staffer Jasmine Ako. To reach the writer, send an e-mail to jasmineako@mochimag.com.