My Life in China

AYC Photo Essay Entree for Alli Miller

Stepping off the plane, I suddenly became aware that I arrived in a place where I had no personal connections, no knowledge of the language, and only a small amount of background political and cultural knowledge, my nerves over shadowed my initial excitement. “What am I getting myself into?” I thought as I headed towards the customs gate. After successfully entering the country and getting my luggage, I saw a young woman carrying a sign with my name on it. “Ni hao!” I exclaimed, proud of finally being able to utter the only Chinese I knew. The woman smiled politely and wordlessly assisted me with my bags, and got into a car to head to Changzhou. As we neared Changzhou, I looked out the windows to take in my surroundings. I cannot remember what I had expected to see, but it was certainly not a road covered in shambles of demolished buildings, feral dogs running around, and broken telephone wires. This looked nothing like the quaint surroundings from my school’s website. I was utterly dismayed. The car dropped me off in front of the class building and from there; I walked through the campus grounds to the teachers’ apartments. Walking through the gardens between the main campus and my apartment, my sense of dread from the sights of the decimated street completely evaporated. “I’m actually here!!!” Inside a new woman greeted me with a key, brought me to my to my room, and showed me the kitchen filled with food- all of this was also wordless. However this lack of communication did not bother me, at least not yet.

The whole first week of teaching was a blur. I know that during my first week a co-worker helped me buy groceries, set up a bank account, and get a cell phone number. Students bombarded me all the time; I was stared at in the streets, and I watched children freely defecate wherever they wanted. The sights and sounds of the local market were amazing and new, I enjoyed the thrill that I felt from traveling and managing to get around the city on my own. Despite the very intense and obvious cultural differences I was embracing everything around me. Before coming to China, I had made plans with another AYC participant to meet during the mid autumn festival. So after being in Changzhou for less than a week, I headed to Wuxi. Chelsea and I made plans to travel to Hangzhou during National Holiday, which started only ten days later.

October was a whirlwind month. During National week, Chelsea and I got to see the beautiful West Lake and its lovely gardens at one of the most opportune times of the year. We saw the National Tea Museum, drank the famous Longjing tea, as well as toured a tea cooperative that specialized in growing red plum tea-leaves, explored narrow caves in the surrounding area, and we even went to Li’nan to meet another AYC’er. Less than a week later I was off to Shanghai for orientation. At training I got to meet even more people and continued to revel in the splendor of traveling. In Shanghai, I got to briefly re-acquaint myself with Western comforts and I was truly enjoying myself, yet I still felt like I was on vacation, the realization that I lived here and that I needed to become immersed in the culture and navigate through language barriers were obstacles I was still mostly oblivious to. The following week, I went to visit friends in Nanjing to celebrate my birthday. During the days between travels, I became increasingly unsettled- I was starting to feel lonely. Each weekend I made sure to travel to a new city. I visited Suzhou with friends and then a small town outside of Changzhou called Liyang, and then Yixing. However, when my travels began to slow down and regularity set in the feeling of being on vacation disappeared.

I started to recognize that the communication between my school and me was non-existent and that no matter what I did, I could not make plans the way I wanted to. My work schedule was inconsistent; none of my co-workers were interested in talking to me or helping me learn Chinese. I started to feel frustrated that in the world’s most populated country I felt so isolated. My newfound loneliness only made the rising pollution levels more difficult to handle. Despite numerous attempts to meet other expats, I realized that I was focusing my energies in the wrong places. Traveling is not only about seeing the world and experiencing new cultures; it is also a chance for people to discover themselves. Travel enables self-discovery by challenging the traveler to see how they adapt. With this new time to reflect, I think one of the most difficult things for me to learn and accept was that it was ok to be alone. I’ve overcome my discomfort with seeing movies alone, eating at restaurants, and being in the general public without the company of others. Thankfully I had the support of my friends and loved ones back home to comfort me when I felt lonely.

The biggest hurdle for me is the language barrier. I’ve learned the value of communication- how important it is not to just co-exist with other people but really communicate and get to know others. Learning to be able to articulate and acknowledge my feelings has been a learning process, but I know that I have my connections back home who are always willing to listen. I now get Mandarin lessons from a local friend and these friends help me feel more at home in China. During Spring Festival, I rejuvenated myself by visiting Cambodia, Thailand, and was able to see my boyfriend in Switzerland. Traveling combines many of my passions; history, learning about new cultures, having chances to try new activities and getting to try new drinks and new foods. I look forward to more travels this term and more self-discovery.

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