It’s been a semester of China. I have absolutely no revelations about this. There has been a great deal of reflecting lately, since many of us are at the halfway mark and lots of people are preparing to see their families again for the first time in months, and others are completely finished with their time in China. I not really in an reflective place right now since I am neither going home to visit or to stay. Instead I’m actually leaving for four weeks of exciting, but probably highly stress travel and I will see my family in five months when I return to America.
Since I don’t feel like making deep revelations here are the more surface level observations I have from my time in China:
Homesickness is a real thing, and that’s okay. I tried so hard to not miss dumb American things, but I do. And its weird things too. I miss Trader Joe’s, and trying samples at Costco and being able to make small talk with people. I love Christmas so so much and it has not helped. Every year since I can remember, my mother makes cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning. Knowing that I would be missing out on these staples of my childhood, I decided to get the recipe from my mom and make them for a bake sale. They say that smell is the sense most closely associated with memory and I believe them. Because as soon as I took the rolls out of the oven the smell of pure undiluted nostalgia hit me like a ton of festively-packaged bricks. While I was icing them a friend came in to steal cookies a little later and I immediately burst into tears because “It smells so much like Christmas!” This was not my proudest moment.
Becoming accustomed to things means the novelty wearing off, this is good. I didn’t realize how my perspective had shifted this semester until I started going back through my photos from the very beginning from the first week. The things l chose to focus on then were much smaller details, like a quirky sign or weird knick-knacks. Now I literally see the bigger picture. Or at least a broader frame, since now I’ve found I focus on whole scenes and environments. The same things I thought were so funny when I first got here, don’t phase me at all now. Things no longer seem so funny and different, that’s just the way they are now.
Interesting means something different now. One of the things I was excited for prior to leaving, was the many fascinating people I knew I would meet abroad. And this is true, I have had the good fortune of meeting many people who have led fascinating lives. But this isn’t always enough. It isn’t enough for people to have lived or traveled anywhere of note to be interesting, because being in Shanghai, a city with a flourishing expat community, none of us belong here! I have most certainly met and interacted with a number of people who have led fascinating lives, but who are the most boring individuals when it comes to conversation, and to an extent that cannot be attributed to any level of culture or language gap. I know many people who have never been outside the U.S. who I would SO much rather have a conversation with over some people I know who have travelled the globe.
Low expectations are really best for travel. Plan as best as you can, and then just hope everyone is able to return without having lost their passports. Sometimes, I have found even this is too much to ask for. Adjust expectations accordingly. Do not lose your temporary passport in Nanjing, when you’ve only been in China for less than a month. You will have to take a separate train back from your friends who actually can speak Chinese and who also possess nifty apps that translate words into other words, your phone will not work, you possess no such app and you will be thoroughly freaked out.
I thought I knew what it meant to be stared at. I was wrong! I was wrong about what it meant before I came here, and then again after I arrived in Shanghai. I was even wrong in the blog I wrote about it. It wasn’t until I was in a Zoo in Nanjing with my two super blonde-aryan friends that I learned what it really means to be gawked at, pointed to, and photographed with and without permission. We swear that day we were the newest exhibit in the place. And while we wished some of that attention would go to the penguins instead of us, it was okay. After that Shanghai seemed great, white people are a dime a dozen here. Sure I get looks and weird thumbs ups from old men when I exercise, but it doesn’t mean anything. They’re just looking at me because I look unusual. They don’t know enough about me to make any assumptions about my character or intelligence. There are worse curses than fleeting attention. Also it is kind of fun when people ask to take photos with you, and you get to feel like a celebrity for .5 seconds.
That’s not everything I have learned thus far, but they are some of the lessons that took me a bit longer to get. They seemed much more meaningful at the time. I’m sure I’ll probably forget them and have to go through the painful education again. But now I’m off to Southeast Asia for a month. Which will if nothing else will force me to learn all sorts of new things.
I miss so many people so much and I hope you all have a wonderful holidays and Christmas. I’ll be sure to write about mine. It will probably be weird.