Pre-Immersion Nerves: Anticipating My Abroad Experience
With the green suitcase I got for Christmas, a family-size box of Pepto-Bismol, my digital camera, and three semesters of the language under my belt, I am headed to Mainland China in a few short weeks. Though I have never been further east than Austria and I am far more proficient in German than I am in Chinese, the prospect of immersing myself in an entirely new culture quickens my pulse and puts the hint of a smile on my face when I think of it.
When I say immersion, I mean it. My program, CET’s Beijing Chinese Language Program, is language intensive. Upon my arrival in the host country, I am required to sign a pledge that promises I will only speak Chinese while I am there (barring phone calls to my parents, who would not understand me any more than they understand my dog). In addition, I will be taking 21 hours of Chinese language per week and have frequent language practica, in which I will go out into the city and attempt to put my speaking abilities to good use. Though it is a slightly frightening prospect, I chose the program for precisely these qualities. My goal is clear: to become fluent in one of the most challenging and captivating languages on the planet. Whether this one abroad experience can fulfill that goal or not remains a mystery, but certainly it is a start.
In the first of several very repetitive, barely useful meetings for students studying abroad, a concerned, matronly woman stood up to tell us about safety in a foreign country. “Safety,” she exhaled, “is Vanderbilt’s highest priority. The single most important thing that you, as students, can do to ensure your personal safety is to blend in. Do not, under any circumstances, look like a tourist.” At 5’9’’ and with blonde hair reaching halfway down my back, I feel confident that no one will mistake me for a citizen of the People’s Republic of China. Thus any attempts I make to look like a local will be at best, futile, and at worst, completely ridiculous. I guess I’ll just have to be on my guard against those who would leap at the chance to take advantage of a wide-eyed, twenty-year-old Westerner.
Since I have never been to China, I receive all kinds of non-verifiable pieces of advice from friends, relatives, and even strangers who have either been to China, know someone who has been to China, or know someone who knows someone who has been to China. While all of the advice intends to help, some of it has been outright terrifying, and most of it must be taken with a grain of salt.
For example, my seventy-six-year-old grandmother is absolutely convinced that you cannot buy baby diapers in Beijing. The highly unlikely scenario in which Chinese children are born potty-trained aside, I feel as though I will be able to dispel this bizarre myth with one trip to a local drugstore. To ease the concern of my grandmother, however, I needed only to assure her that I would not have any reason to purchase diapers during my semester abroad.
To be honest, though, I am a little apprehensive about the food. I am not at all picky, but I am a health freak (to put it mildly), and some of the things I have heard have made me a bit nervous. My mother can’t decide whether the combination of chopsticks and an upset stomach will make me lose a few pounds, or if the grease and oil and empty carbs in the egg rolls and white rice will cause an unfortunate weight gain. An acquaintance told me that fruit is so expensive over there that I won’t even bother eating it, and that even if I find it, I had best not eat anything without a removable peel. My textbook informed me that going to McDonalds is considered a fancy date among Chinese teenagers. One of my friends, who went on a twelve-day tour of China when she was sixteen, warned me that I should expect “lots of clear soups.” And then there are always the interested neighbors and well-meaning friends of my parents who wink at me and tell me to be careful of what meat I order at restaurants. It’s amazing how many people think I’ll be eating cats and dogs in China. I laugh right along with them, but in my mind, I’m thinking, “Dear God, please let them be wrong!”
I am aware that Beijing has a pollution problem. But just in case I am not quite aware enough, everyone I talk to feels the need to illuminate that fact in an unnecessarily graphic manner. My brother, who is still in high school and knows very little about China, has recently informed me that the air in China is so bad that my “snot will turn black!” Oh, boy. What’s more, my friend who is actually there right now told me to pack some extra warm clothes, because it’s practically Siberia in Beijing right now. Until that moment, the geographical proximity of Siberia and northern China was not something I had paid close attention to.
Apparently, China also has a slight population issue. Beijing, the city I am about to call home, is home to 17 million other people, too. And with the Olympics in June, people say, Beijing is redefining the meaning of the word “crowded.”
Perhaps the strangest thing I have heard about China is that people will try to cut off my blonde hair. I realize that this is probably insanity and that I cannot possibly have anything to worry about. Nonetheless I have developed a bizarre fear of ponytails. In my defense, the last time I had short hair, I was in the third grade and Brittany Cotner slathered glue in it.
In spite of all of these odd opinions and (hopefully) misconceptions, my excitement for moving to China has not lessened a bit. In fact, I am more ready than ever to board that fifteen, eighteen, or twenty-two hour flight (depending on who I talk to) to Beijing and discover for myself what the real China is like. By keeping an open mind, I am preparing myself to meet the challenges of the culture shock I will experience. I know that things will be different. But in a country that contains more than a fifth of the world’s population, I’m sure I’ll have no trouble finding a few friends and a little help if I need it. While I’m at it, maybe I can even find my grandma some baby diapers.
Kaci McAllister, January 2008