Being surrounded by breathtaking architecture, dragon boat races, climbing The Great Wall of China, visiting The Forbidden City and The Summer Palace, studying in Beijing, taking a bullet train to Shanghai, and a short flight to Hong Kong (all amazing experiences), but it was living and learning with Chinese students that made my Summer of 2016 my best one yet.
There is an old proverb that states, “Once a man/adult, twice a child.” After studying abroad in China through the Fordham Graduate School of Social Service China 2016 Summer Program, the saying that more accurately describes my life would be something along the lines of, “Once an adult, thrice a child.” Born and raised in New York City to Jamaican parents, I never spent an excessive amount of time pondering how my parents felt when they migrated to America from a foreign land. Granted, they spoke English, but the cultural differences still had to have been extremely shocking. China and America could not be any further apart culturally! With China’s history and rich cultural traditions, I was a little embarrassed when some of the students there asked me questions about American history. Their history was quite frankly more interesting. Almost everything about China was interesting, to say the least.
I now understand more than ever how important language is. A friend of mine who lives in China advised me to spend at least one hour each night before my trip learning Mandarin; I did not even spend one total hour attempting to learn Mandarin. So, I was already off to a rocky start when I arrived in Beijing! After quickly realizing that not many people there spoke English, and the only thing I knew how to say in Mandarin was ni hao (hello), I was once again a child. I could not express myself, simple tasks that involved others were laborious, and I could not understand anything that I read as I was being driven to my hotel from the airport.
When I first heard of the opportunity to study abroad in Beijing at the China Youth University for Political Sciences (CYU), I did not hesitate at all when deciding that not only did I want to do it, but I had to. I had to go to China! I have a bucket list that includes several places that I would like to visit in my life; China was not on that list. So why did I feel obligated to go to China? Because as a Black American woman with social anxiety and a planned career in Social Work, what better way to take myself out of my comfort zone than to immerse myself in another culture? I also decided to take this journey in order to experience an entirely different academic setting (I had not sat in a classroom since 2001), a wholly different cultural setting, and most importantly to discover more of who I truly am. I had three weeks to soak it all in.
There were multiple cultural differences that I learned quickly: China is a communist country, so discussing politics had to be much more discreet than when in America, punctuality is more of a suggestion in China than a requirement, cash is the preferred form of payment in most establishments, low income Chinese citizens usually do not have showers in their homes and have to pay to shower at bath houses, most restrooms in China have Eastern-styled toilets (think of a porcelain hole in the floor that you have to squat over) and you must carry your own toilet paper and hand sanitizer, no matter how many people sit at the table to dine you are only receiving one menu to pass around, if you ask for ice in any of your drinks be prepared to receive a drink with no ice as the Chinese believe in the health benefit of warm drinks, pedestrians NEVER have the right of way in China, and lastly the punishment for drug offenses is much stricter in China than America. I was told that one could be beheaded for selling narcotics in China.
I was not just out there to to learn about culture, but also to take a Qualitative Research course (taught in English). On my first day of class, I noticed that visually the campus and classroom looked the same as they do in American institutions. Feeling revived, I comfortably sat at a desk and whipped out my notebook to take notes and listen intently to the professor. About one hour into the lecture I remembered exactly why I chose to study online. As the class progressed, I found it harder and harder to focus on my professor’s lecture. He was very funny and knowledgeable, so I knew that the issue was me. Between staring out of the window, looking at my phone, thinking about all the differences I noticed between Chinese and American culture, and deciding what tourist attractions I wanted to see when I was not in class, I absorbed a lot of information but not all of it. I learn better by reading as opposed to listening. I value the independence the online format allows because life happens, and I normally cannot commit to sitting in a classroom on specific days and specific times. Also, as I stated earlier, I suffer from social anxiety. Learning online allows me to interact with my classmates, but not have the worry of, “Oh my goodness, the entire class is staring at me.” But there I was, sitting in a classroom with students and two professors, interacting freely , and making connections. I love online learning, I truly embraced sitting in a classroom and making eye contact with my professor and making friends with my classmates, who were mostly shyer than I. I was even asked by two students who speak very little English to give them “American” names, because they found me to be polite. I felt so honored! I will definitely continue my studies online, but I gained a newfound respect for being taught traditionally in a classroom. For 15 years I could not think of one pro to sitting in a classroom. It always seemed like nothing more than an exercise in futility to me. China changed all that for me. After 3 weeks, I felt like I fit in – a true cultural adaptation.
A few things I learned/experienced during my time in China:
- The younger Chinese people were mostly friendly and intrigued by the fact that not only was I from America, but I was also Black. Many had never seen a Black person in real life. The elders did not seem too fond of either of these attributes. This made me wonder if I had ever made an immigrant feel unwelcome in America.
- In Chinese culture, everything seemed to have a story. When I sat for a meal with my new Chinese friends, they explained what everything was, when they eat it, why they eat it, and how they eat it. Every tourist attraction I visited involved hours of history lessons.
- By not understanding the language of the land, it gave me a newfound respect for immigrants who are in America unable to speak our language and how frightening it must be. However, I also learned that people who speak different languages can still communicate and bond, as I am still in almost daily contact with many of my friends from China.
- Online learning and being taught in a classroom are starkly different, but both can be amazing experiences for different reasons – independence and self-motivation vs. building comraderie with peers and committing to a strict schedule.
The most important lesson that I learned in China is that one can miss out on so many wonderful experiences by remaining inside of your comfort zone at all times. As I look forward to being a social worker, I have a newfound understanding and respect for things drastically different than what I am used to. This will help me interact with, and effectively help, those who have lived vastly different lives than I have. Social work is largely about helping the world become a better place. I am so pleased that I got to see and understand more of the world thanks to Fordham’s Study Abroad Program. No diversity training could have been more impactful than me diving headfirst into China, completely unprepared, and learning how to crawl then walk my way through the amazing experience.
Natalyea Byfield Online GSS Class of 2017, MSW