Monday, February 20, 2017

How Living in China Changed My Life in America

Exactly one year ago today I said goodbye to my parents and boarded a plane that would take me across the Pacific Ocean to live in mainland China for the next four months. I was scared and excited and not prepared at all for what I was going to experience.

Living in China was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. At times it left me sick, exhausted, afraid, and missing my friends and family more than I ever had before. But without a doubt it was also one of the best decisions I have ever made, and I wouldn't change my experience for anything in this world. I learned so much about myself and the world in a way I wouldn't have anywhere else. So in honor of my one-year mark, here are five ways living in China changed my life in America.

1. I became more confident in myself and my opinions.

I've always been someone to hide my opinion. Anytime I was in a group of people (who weren't my family or closest friends) and we were discussing anything from where to eat or what we should do a group project on, I was the one who stayed pretty silent throughout the whole discussion and then just agreed with whatever idea I liked the most, even if I had one I thought was better. I have always struggled with a fierce need to be liked by everyone, so I never wanted to share my opinion if I didn't think every single person would agree. 

This is how I started my time in China. I was teaching with five other girls my age, and we ended up doing pretty much everything together for those four months. This put my in a situation where I had to voice my opinion if I ever wanted to do anything I liked, since I was unable to go anywhere or do anything by myself. Slowly I started participating more in discussions, starting out with where I wanted to eat or what time we should go grocery shopping. Later in the trip I found myself suggesting things like what city we should travel to or what we should do when we were lost in an unfamiliar area surrounded by people who didn't speak English. By the end of the trip I even found myself bringing up suggestions I knew would go against what another person wanted, and I was OK with having that discussion about what we should do. This was huge for me. Even my fellow teachers, who had only met me at the beginning of the trip, said they noticed a change in my confidence by the end of our time in China. 

I'm still shy and pretty non-confrontational for the most part, but not being crippled by the fear of expressing an unpopular opinion has continued to increase my confidence and will help me a lot in life in the future.

2. I became more accepting.

Everyone is different. It is so easy for us to get caught up in the idea that our lifestyle is the best one and that our choices are the smartest. And while I haven't really implemented any of the typical lifestyle choices I saw in China, I feel like I accept other people's choices more willingly now. Maybe it didn't work for me, but it works for them just great, so who am I to judge? 

3. I became more appreciative of the United States. 

I know we have a lot of problems in America right now. We're not perfect, our leaders aren't perfect, and honestly we make some pretty stupid decisions. But I cannot stress enough how good we have it compared to other countries. China is communist (they call themselves socialists so their government's kind of confusing, but as far as control goes they are pretty communist) and while I didn't deal with the government ever, there were things even I could notice. The level of poverty: Our coordinator who worked for the school in China told us the average teacher there made the equivalent of about $24,000 a year, and being a teacher was considered a pretty decent job. The inability to leave the country (it was possible, but very difficult. Most people who are born in China spend their entire lives there). The control over religion: We were told from day one to never talk about God or our religion. Doing so could get us arrested. The whispers when the government was brought up. The control over the internet (all big social media sites and anything Google-related is blocked unless you have a VPN). The times where the internet would crash for days at a time, and when we asked about it we were told quickly that the government controls it and when they are doing something they don't want people to know about they shut it down. How creepy is that?

So yeah, I understand there are a lot of things going on right now that make people want to complain and declare publicly everything wrong with our government. And yeah, if you disagree with something, by all means state it. Freedom of speech is what the U.S. was founded on. But be glad you can. Freedom of speech is not a luxury everyone has. I went to Thailand after China, and if you say anything offensive or negative about their king you will be arrested immediately and maybe even killed. We can't even imagine what that kind of control is like. 

I don't want to go on a huge rant, but we are so, so, so lucky to be living in the United States of America.

4. I became more adventurous.

There's nothing like running around a foreign country for months where no one speaks the same language as you to make you feel like you can do anything. Before my trip going to the airport in general made me nervous. By the end I didn't give a second thought to following a grumpy lady down an alleyway (OK, maybe that's not a good thing?) or getting of a bus at a random stop because why not? I walked across a balcony on the edge of a cliff completely made of glass. I trusted taxi drivers with my life to get my down a mountain at 70 mph. I ATE A SCORPION, PEOPLE. 

I'm still a grandma on the inside (love me an early bedtime and Netflix on a Friday night) but if I got the opportunity to drop everything and jump on a plane to a different country tomorrow, I'd do it. 

5. I became more aware of the world.

The biggest reason I wanted to travel was to experience a different culture first hand. Even so, and being the obsessive planner I am, I studied China like nothing else for months leading up to my trip. I read books, blog posts, and magazine articles about everything from what food to try to what to pack to "Basic Chinese Every Tourist Should Know." I spent hours on the internet scrolling through photos of Beijing, Yangshuo, and Hong Kong. I watched videos of people my age backpacking through the country. I thought I had China in my pocket before I left.

You probably saw this coming, but China was nothing like I expected. In a way it was--the dumplings were fabulous like the blog posts said and it was dirty and crowded like I had been told, but nothing I read or watched could have prepared me for what it was actually like to live there. That being said, I'm not going to try to describe it here either. (If you really want to read some of my experiences though, check out this post about the ups and downs of China, or some of my travel posts.)

I don't want to make this post crazy long, so basically there is a huge world out there and reading about it is not the same as experiencing. I totally get that traveling isn't even an option for a lot of people because of a dozen different factors, but if you ever get the opportunity, jump at it as fast as you can. China opened my eyes to completely different lifestyles, levels of poverty I have a hard time thinking about, squatters, corrupt governments, incredibly generous people and some of the most delicious food I've ever had. Some things I experienced were good and some were bad, but all of them made me more aware of what a huge and magnificent world it is out there.

OK, a thousand pictures, sorry. Lots of love, China. Hope to see you again one day. xoxo

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