My Time in China… By Kendra Tombolato
Prepare yourself for the “Why?”
Whilst living abroad, the question you will be constantly asked is: “Why [insert country name]?” For me the answer was “I don’t really know, I’ve just always been intrigued by China”.
My interest in Chinese began in middle school. It was the most foreign thing I could imagine, and as such, enchanted me to no end. In college, the opportunity to learn Chinese presented itself. As a pre-med, psychology major, Chinese was unrelated to my degree, and my enrollment in the class was purely to satiate a life-long interest.
Four years later, I found myself three credits short of a minor in Chinese. These three credits had to be a “non-language” course, so I enrolled in a course called “Window into Beijing’s Past”, which involved three weeks in Beijing.
A semester isn’t that long in the big scheme of things
Three weeks seemed the perfect amount of time. I had an unconscious fear of committing for longer than that, and it was just long enough for me to believe I knew a little about Chinese culture. In truth I did learn a little. But, for those three weeks, mornings were occupied by classroom lessons, afternoons spent touring about the city with my international classmates, and evenings split between fighting jet lag and having a beer with the other foreigners at our hostel. In sum, I learned very little about the real China.
Upon returning home, I received my diploma and proceeded to follow in the path of finding a job and building an independent life for myself.
A year, a bad break-up, and an offer of further promotion at a business I saw myself never leaving, spurred me to make the biggest decision of my life so-far – moving to China for three whole months.
Well, three months ended and I didn’t want to leave, so I extended for another three months. . . I’ve been in China four years now.
When I say my fear of long-term commitment was unconscious, I truly mean that. At the time it didn’t occur to me why the short-term summer study abroad opportunities appealed to me, or why I immediately snapped up the three-month ESL teaching job in China instead of the multiple year-long ones that had come to my attention. Only after returning home for a visit did I realize that I had been afraid to leave for an extended period of time – and it was completely unwarranted.
Home was more or less exactly as I had left it. Most of my friends were still there, working in the same jobs, frequenting the same bars and restaurants. My relationship with my family was, if anything, better for having given it some space to breathe. Nothing had changed, except me.
There is so much that can only be learned by immersing yourself in the culture. You can research the population of China, but you won’t grasp the meaning of 1.4 billion people till you’re crammed in a subway with them so tight you can barely move. You can look at China on a map, but you won’t understand the vastness of it till you spend 40 hours on a train without crossing any borders. Your Chinese teacher may tell you that tones aren’t important to remember, and that they will “come naturally,” but you won’t realize how wrong she is until you ask someone for a pen, but mistakenly ask them for one of their private parts!
Moral of the story – go abroad. If you have the opportunity to do it while you’re in school, all the better. Your interests, knowledge, understanding, and interpretations of the world will be altered in a way no classroom could ever accomplish.