For the longest time, I always struggled with being true to myself yet I was always subconsciously running away from and ignoring it, scared that maybe what I found when I looked hard enough into myself would be someone I really didn’t like at all. And a lot of that insecurity came at a time when I suddenly felt pressured to lose one identity in place of another. When the Asian upbringing my parents used to raise me conflicted with the environment I was given through my Western education, I began to feel convinced that maybe I could never really relate to anyone around me or even seek to be understood from them either. From there, I started to hide all the things about myself that I thought weren’t worthy to be seen or became too hard to express over time. Then, fast forward from those unpleasant prepubescent/adolescent years to the verge of adulthood and a boatload of unanswered questions added onto the constant burden of feeling pressured to understand what my place is in the world in terms of contributing to society and determining the career path I want to take. Amidst all the confusion, a trip into a vast land—rich in carrying the blood that flows in me, yet far away enough from me for most of my life to still be a mystery—became the solution to submerge my problems under. There was no better time than this—to take away some of the inner unease that had been bothering me and manifest it in receiving an education somewhere where I could fully test my potential as a student and an individual.
Studying abroad was always at the top of my list of things to accomplish at least once in my lifetime so it was never a decision that I hesitated to make. The real determining factor was where and how I was going to make it happen. I chose to do a short, one-month summer program in Shanghai, China not only because it is less expensive but also easy to fit into my schedule; however, that doesn’t necessarily mean semester programs are less appealing and impossible to work around—if planned properly, it could give a student a more rewarding experience—but choosing a summer program is what worked best for me. In terms of the qualifications for selecting the program, I was looking for a school within a highly urban environment where the official language there was not English. Furthermore, choosing the region of Asia was a significant factor because it was important to know more about the culture there first and where I belonged in the midst of that space before I ventured out into another part of the world.
In terms of preparation, I signed up for the program months in advance—sparked by visiting relatives the previous summer—so that I could get the materials and proper documents ready by their due date and ensure that I had the right kind of financial aid and budget to take on a trip of this caliber, especially since this was going to be the first venture I was taking to a foreign country on my own and an experience that I wanted to continue to pursue not only for the remainder of my college career but after graduation as well. Physical preparation for me was making sure I stayed healthy by eating right and getting the necessary vaccines from my pharmacist before departure. And, just to be safe, I purchased some chew-able immune support, ibuprofen, and digestive relief tablets that I would take while I was in China in case of an emergency. To mentally prepare myself, I watched videos on YouTube about studying abroad and Chinese variety shows/dramas that would allow me to continue to become more familiarized on the everyday use of the language so that I could pick some up and use them while abroad. For my emotional state, I made sure I was trying to remain in a positive mindset so that I wouldn’t enter the country with a tendency to be emotionally sensitive to any act of abnormality compared to the habits in America and genuinely seek to understand the people of that culture there. It was important to me to remember why I had made the decision to study abroad in the first place, and as a result, use that as my motivation to continue forward with a willingness to not only finish the journey I began but succeed in doing so. Furthermore, the intangible things to pack was the expectation that there is going to be vastly different customs between Western and Eastern culture and even though I am familiar to some of those prevalent in Asian culture, I am still an outsider to it and have a lot to learn from it. For the more tangible aspects of packing, the essentials included an adapter, toiletries, bath and body products, tissues, a water bottle container, and important documents such as a passport, visa, and admission letter. Finally, the process to make before I left was to create a packing checklist, have a conversation with my family about the trip, and get important numbers that I would need in case of emergencies.
As the date of the program draws closer, I begin to feel anxious about how much of my expectations will be met and nervous about how much of a communication gap there will be regarding the people there and me. I wonder what their reaction will be towards another person that looks like them, yet unable to speak their language sufficiently or fluently. Would I be someone they would marvel at from afar, unable to know how to react, someone they would pity for being in such a unique position/predicament, or just someone they could use to their advantage? Regardless of the reactions I will receive, I tell myself to prepare for everything—good or bad—and not let it ruin my impression of the city, the country, or the people there. But, in terms of missing friends and family back home, I don’t experience too much of a daunting and overwhelming sentiment; I am rather just hopeful that I don’t struggle to be able to still have a strong line of communication with them so that they don’t have to worry about me. The day right before departure also begins to feel more real—like I’m really doing this by myself and flying halfway across the world too, away from everything I’m familiar with. Nevertheless, I stay calm and anticipating of the good things that will come out of this trip and the changed person I will become due to it.
As for my expectations about the trip I didn’t set them too high or low, just somewhere in between so that I wouldn’t be met with disappointment or begin to regard people with disdain. My goals for the trip were pretty simple as well: learn more Chinese, understand how to navigate around a big city, and meet new people whom I could carve lasting friendships with. As a Chinese-American, I’m in a good position in which I have a foundation I can build upon regarding my current Chinese skills and I want to take advantage of that as much as I can. With that, I hope to expand my options in the locations I can seek to pursue my career or connections with in the future. In addition, I have only lived in small cities/towns my whole life so I wanted a new challenge and a real change of landscape. However, the most important part of this trip will be the people I meet not only within the same program as me but the Shanghai natives that can teach me new things about the diversity of the city and the importance of the culture and reputation it manifests on an international and local level.
So, to the hurting and insecure girl all those years ago I say to you, “I don’t know you anymore.” The strength you possess now is due to all those times you were empty and broken. Is this an identity crisis you’re trying to solve but never really will? Is this an attempt for you to find some deeper purpose in everything you do? Is it because you wish you could somehow change the world because you don’t want to live your life in vain and insist on fully attaching yourself to your goals? Should you just chill out and live life a little more loose, a little more on the edge? Whatever the case in the long run, welcome all of it. Welcome all the mistakes you’re going to continue to make. Welcome all the people who probably won’t understand any of your motives because you still do a terrible job of easily letting new people in and explaining yourself. You have grown away from all the pain and you will move on to better things for yourself. All the baggage you’ve managed to force yourself to carry these years, you WILL leave behind as soon as you step out of the arrival plane into the city of new beginnings for you—Shanghai.