An American in China

Cienna Beard, Content Editor

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This summer, I traveled to China with a language immersion program to develop my Mandarin skills. The moment I stepped off the plane I was hit with a wave of both cultural shock and wonder. I was definitely not in America anymore; that was for sure. I stayed for about a month in Beijing, and spent four weeks studying at a local college and the weekends going to culturally famous sites and participating in activities designed to broaden our horizons. Not only was I drenched in cultural shock, but I was suddenly aware of how narrow and inaccurate my world views are. My American bubble of “freedom” and “independence” had been popped, and now I was floating in an international ocean of uncertainty. 

It is safe to say that today’s modern world has quite a few assumptions about China, especially in the United States. After spending a month on the other side of the globe, and being forced to adapt to a completely new culture, environment and lifestyle, I am now proud to say that I can debunk many of those assumptions and confirm the accuracy of others. 

Upon arriving in Beijing, one of the first things I noticed was the air pollution caused by coal production and greenhouse gas emissions. A thick, heavy, gray haze clouded everything in this bustling city, and there were only a few days when the sky was truly clear and blue. To say the least, I am now very thankful that I live in a city with such healthy, clean air. While walking down the streets of downtown Beijing, many people could be seen wearing masks, and on certain occasions I had to wear a mask myself. This was certainly a distinction between the atmosphere in San Diego, with its crystal clear skies and fresher air. 

Besides the obviously poor environmental conditions in Beijing, another cultural surprise I experienced was the behavior of Chinese citizens to foreigners. Recently, a main focus in the news has been the rising tensions between the U.S. government and the Chinese government regarding the tariffs President Trump has placed on trade with this Asian economic powerhouse. Since I am continuously surrounded by these reports, I assumed that when I traveled to Beijing, the citizens would regard me and other Americans in the program in a negative light. However, whenever our group would tour historical sites, order food at a restaurant, or simply walk about the town, the citizens were always very friendly and welcoming towards us. In fact, they  portrayed a strong and seemingly innocent curiosity about us. We were frequently spoken to, and asked to be photographed. They would ask us strange but amusing questions, about our eye color or where we were from. Of course, they always voiced their admirations when they discovered that we spoke Mandarin. 

Similarly, when we went to the Pearl Market, an indoor bartering market filled with fake versions of popular brands, each stall owner was utterly shocked to discover that we could speak Mandarin. We soon learned that we could use our language skills to not only communicate, but also to get a good price for a fake Louis Vuitton bag. 

One thing I really admired about Chinese culture, especially in Beijing, was the emphasis on family and community. In today’s modern world, the fast-moving pace and influence of social media sometimes makes it difficult to spend time with those you love or have a genuine conversation without looking down at your screen. However, in Beijing, I would walk into a local restaurant and see an entire family sitting together, talking and laughing while sharing plates of delicious food. That sense of togetherness and happiness is what really fascinated me about China. 

At the end of my wild adventure to Beijing, I was able to reflect on all that I had learned, and realize that there is an important distinction between the government and people of China, and that you can never truly know what a country is like until you get on a plane and see it for yourself.