The last three months of my life were not what I was expecting. Romantic ideals of getting in touch with my “inner Chinese culture” and exploring the depths of the language were weighed down by social anxiety, isolation from loved ones, and overarching feelings of incompetence, and what I thought I was getting into quickly turned into a fight simply to stay in one piece. But it was precisely in those dark times that I learned the most about myself, about my heritage, and most of all about God.
No amount of mental preparation could have spared me the radical transformation to be effected in myself — the bursting of an ideological bubble so long held firm by a self-contained and sheltered existence — yet in the end I find that’s precisely what I needed after all. Between all the fun times and the fascinating explorations, the semester invisibly held me through a burnishing flame that not only melted away the façade of who I thought I was, but further illuminated the God who all people are made in the image of.
The China Studies Program (CSP), sponsored by BestSemester through the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), was a three-part abroad semester hosted by Xiamen University (厦门大学 Xiàmén Dàxué, often abbreviated as 厦大 Xiàdà or XMU) on the southeast coast of Fujian province, right across the Strait of Taiwan.
After a brief orientation period in Hong Kong, Segment 1 focused on academics in Xiamen. During this month I took courses on Chinese Language, Intercultural Communication, Contemporary Society & Public Policy, and Tai Chi. This post will focus largely on Segment 1.
Segment 2 was a travel component we called “the Trek”: one week in the ancient capital of Xi’an, another week in the modern capital of Beijing, and a few days in the metropolis of Shanghai. During this Segment we were given a rigorous overview of Chinese History spanning about 5000-7000 years.
Finally, Segment 3 marked a return to Xiamen, where seven of the ten students would begin internships at various companies in the area, while three of us (me included) would continue with an elective course called Dimensions of East Asian Culture — encompassing short workshops about Chinese Home Cooking, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Traditional Chinese Painting.
The first week of the program was spent at the YMCA camp of 馬鞍山 (Ma On Shan, “Saddleback Ridge”) in the New Territory of Hong Kong, which turned out to be more like a giant Chinatown than I had expected. I was anticipating smoggy skies, thick crowds, and loud noises, but honestly it felt more like the States than I thought it would. The food, the atmosphere, the Cantonese — it all reminded me of my childhood, and yet I didn’t feel at home. I still felt like a foreigner, but I just brushed the feeling off because I’d only just arrived.
Over the course of the week I learned how to navigate the metro, complete a simple transaction in Cantonese, and convert HKD to USD in my head. I developed a slight obsession with 牛奶包 (Ngao Nai Bao, “milk bun”) and ate sushi for $20 HKD (a little over $2 USD) pretty much every day. Pushing my capacity for self-reliance, I met up with a friend from Westmont en route to New Zealand. Just when I started to get used to the city, we were on our way to the Mainland.
It was cold and rainy when we were in Hong Kong, and the weather followed us to Xiamen. The lack of central heating and drying machines for laundry relegated me to my extra firm mattress whenever I had access to it, and travel fatigue wore on my ability to reason clearly. Things kept breaking (or were already broken), I almost got lost multiple times, and depression sapped my energies on a regular basis. But nonetheless, I was in it for the long haul, and so I adopted a utilitarian engineering mindset, solving problems with everything I had but leaving little left of me to be present with my experiences. More than anything, I craved peace from the chaos.
That’s not to say everything was bad, though — a comparatively light academic load structured to give a surface overview of cross-cultural dynamics in China allowed more time for personal acclimation and leisure, which for my homebody self meant staying in and reading. New routines were established, and my sense of American entitlement to “things going as planned” slowly waned. I began to learn more and more about the “why’s” of Chinese culture, which explained so much about my childhood.
Being raised Chinese American, there was no way for me to tell what about my upbringing was Chinese and what was American: for me, it was just life. At times, certain philosophies and cultural orientations I was raised with were confusing and even apparently contradictory (e.g. my family’s conception of time); especially because my dad was raised in Japan, extra cultural elements mixed themselves in to the lens through which I viewed reality.
The resulting cultural identity I grappled with began to be frustrated the moment I set foot in my fatherland. On an intellectual level, I knew what I was: “ABC” — American-born Chinese. A liminal category that was somehow neither yet both. But having spent my entire life in North America, I was rudely awakened to my own racial identity only hours into my trip — a struggle that would evolve throughout and temper my entire abroad experience.
Lunar New Year celebrations (春节 Chūnjié, “Spring Festival”) last several weeks in China, and it was at this time that we arrived in Xiamen, the 2nd-most popular tourist destination among Chinese natives. So naturally, when lost tourists spot a student wandering the university campus during the holidays, they will approach with a question. It wasn’t until this frustrating moment (which would repeat itself indefinitely through the next few months) that I was truly confronted with the color of my own skin.
Without warning, I found lightning-fast Mandarin flung in my face, propelled by the assumption that a Chinese person in China should obviously speak Chinese.
“我是一个留学生,” I’d stammer — I’m an international student; “不会说国语。” I don’t speak Mandarin.
Which, of course, made things really awkward, since I was obviously speaking Mandarin. After several disconcerting attempts to convey this information to the next person, and then the next, I eventually settled on pretending to understand them until they stopped talking, responding with “对不起，我不知道。” Sorry, I don’t know. (Nowadays I choose the more embarrassing but more honest option: start speaking English. It’s also the fastest.)
I’d been studying Mandarin on-and-off for seven years, yet I could barely answer a simple question from a tourist. Overtaken by shame at my incompetence with my mother tongue, I retreated to my room in the international dorm, whereupon the Chinese doormen would stop me and ask if I actually lived there. One look at me said I was Chinese, but never before did I feel so profoundly un-Chinese. So profoundly foreign.
Average, articulate adults, capable in so many other ways, who are suddenly transformed into virtual mutes, who can only nod and smile foolishly when addressed by well-intentioned, monolingual locals, find the experience demeaning. For all their competence, they feel — in a sense, are — inferior to the three-year-old neighbor child who may still wet his pants but at least knows how to count to ten. It’s an open question who might fare better in a tight spot.
– Craig Storti, The Art of Crossing Cultures, p. 99
Learning a foreign language is often seen as a microcosmic diplomacy — it demonstrates not only a capacity, but a willingness to engage with a culture that is not your own. But learning your mother tongue is not the same as learning a foreign language. The culture you are growing into is your own, and how dare you be so out-of-touch with your roots? Isn’t this something you should have mastered as a mere child? How can someone bear the face of his ancestors and yet be so uncouth as to not share in their speech?
It had never occurred to me on such a level that in a collectivist culture such as China’s, where in-group/out-group sentiment is even built into the language, that there is no faster way to identify yourself as Chinese than by appearance — yet no faster way to lose your honor by failing to prove yourself as such.
The unrealistic expectations of language fluency and cultural competence thrust themselves upon me so forcefully that they compromised my sense of ethnic identity. Combined with my habit of crippling perfectionism, I internalized these standards to a degree that confined me to my room, inspiring such a fear of the culture that I would only venture outside when absolutely necessary, only speak when absolutely necessary, and pray to God no one would talk to me. It didn’t help that my classmates — none fully Asian — had no way of understanding or even sympathizing with my struggles, so different from theirs.
Little by little, I took baby steps to expand my horizon. Relying on my friends’ recommendations, I eventually established a route to buy what I was really looking forward to having in China — 珍珠奶茶 (zhēnzhū nǎichá, “pearl milk tea”) — also known as boba. A little store in the mall near the University’s west gate called CoCo sold boba for 8 kuài (块, the Chinese word used to count RMB), and the student discount made it 7 kuài, which is just over $1 USD. Score.
My limited vocabulary was enough to buy milk tea, and though the first few times were a struggle, I picked up on the pattern of questions quickly enough to make it my haven. It wasn’t until about halfway through the month that I successfully made it through an entire trip to CoCo and the grocery store without confusing anyone or wasting their time. If only for a little bit, I was able to pass as a “real” Chinese person.
That may not sound like much, but it did wonders for my confidence. I finally felt safe enough to let myself roam a little more. I forced myself on adventures with my friends, which I emerged from exhausted but satisfied. On recommendation from a friend who went on the CSP last semester, I found a slightly better but more expensive boba shop called KOI (which later became my new unhealthy obsession). My program director’s wife took us to a dumpling restaurant that I would become a regular at.
Then just as I was starting to feel just a little more at home in Xiamen, I found myself packing again, and it was time to embark on the toughest month of travel I would yet experience: the Trek.