Weekly student reflections from students’ formal journals, these will be anonymously submitted and published.
The first time our group stumbled across karaoke, in Suzhou during the opening week of our trip, I was personally blown away. Although karaoke may exist in America, I have certainly never seen it, and KTV is definitely not a frequent destination for anyone I know at home. When we first walked into our own private room in Suzhou filled with microphones and a TV, which projected the words and music videos for any song we picked, my mouth dropped. Although I was as excited as anyone else to be there, the first time we went I didn’t pick any songs, sing any solos, or really even touch the microphone. I sung my heart out when everyone went up as a group, but when the mike was handed to me I only said a word or two and quickly passed it on. The second time I went to karaoke was the same, 差不多。
After a few weeks passed, my host father informed me that we, as a family, would all be going to KTV with Rachel and her host family. The very first thing my father did when we arrived in our KTV room was enthusiastically beckon Rachel and I over to the KTV machine to pick a song. I sighed internally, but smiled at my host father, and hesitantly browsed American pop-songs with Rachel before we took the stage. Now that I had a microphone all to myself, I bounced around on my toes a little and laughed one of those small laughs that generally signify an awkward situation. When the song was over I happily sat down. My host father sung next. He enthusiastically soloed on Chinese music I had never heard before, and when he finished Rachel and I were once again summoned to the KTV machine. I am not exactly sure when the change took place, our KTV session turned out to be four hours long, but by the time we were two hours into our karaoke extravaganza I was going after KTV with full abandon. I will never forget the fantastic renditions of Adele’s, “Rolling In The Deep,” and the Back Street Boy’s, “I Want It That Way,” among other songs, which Rachel and I whipped out for our families.
By the time our group all gathered again for KTV last weekend I was ready to sing impromptu duets and bust out dance moves with a giant smile on my face. KTV began by giving me an insight into Chinese culture. In China people aren’t embarrassed to sing at the top of their lungs, even if they have a horrible voice, start dancing in a park for fun, or even turn around and pee in the street; in America people tend to sing in choirs, dance in dance class, and pee in the bathroom. KTV also gave me a way to comfortably assimilate into this culture, and now there is no going back.
When Yeolim texted me last night to inform me that it was time to go to the park to dance, I immediately hopped in the car with my host dad and got a ride over. At first I thought I might have trouble finding everyone, but as soon as I walked into the park, a giant group of old women were dancing right in front of me, and I quickly located my friends at the back of it. In America I can definitely picture a scenario where I might have been standing on the side watching this dance, however, in the park it only took me about thirty seconds to be happily waving my hands around while trying to pick up the dance from the women in front of me. I did this naturally, without bringing a second thought to what anyone else was doing or what they might think.
Now that I have been living in China for a month I am far more willing to put myself out there and participate in situations that I wouldn’t have been as comfortable in before. Chinese culture surprised me with the way people are so much less self-conscious and reserved about certain things in their daily lives than I expected they might be. In America most of my hobbies are sports of some sort, and I have always been completely content with this. When my father suggested, multiple times, that taking drama at the high school would be good for me, I brushed his idea aside, casually labeling it as something silly my parents said, and never though about it again. When I suddenly realized that China taught me how to expand my comfort zone, I was surprised to see my father’s ideas resurfacing because the lesson he was hinting at, and the lesson China taught me, was a lesson I hadn’t realized I needed to learn.
My first night in Xian I was taken to my sister’s dance class and given an invitation by my host mom to join my sister and her peers in their dance. At the time I politely declined the offer because the class had already begun, and I didn’t know the dance that they were learning. Now, I would like to think, that given this opportunity over again I would apply my newfound skills from KTV and night time dancing in the park without even thinking about it, by hopping up to join right in.
Hips Don’t Lie
Arms flail and hips sway automatically to the upbeat and often times classical music that is played during one of our breaks. For 5 minutes, we are not students but instead less-than-professional dancers, leaping and whirling down the carpeted halls. Even on my most tired days, the groove of the music is more than enough to convince me to shake off the weariness and show off some sweet moves. The amount I have danced in China is astonishing. From jamming at KTV to dancing with older women in the park, I have logged a considerable amount of time moving my body here. At even the faintest whisper of a beat, I won’t hesitate to dance.
I am no better of a dancer here in China than I was in America, yet am far less self-conscious to dance whenever I feel like it. If I danced walking to class at Brookline High School, I can guarantee there will be weird glances and gossiping. Eye rolls and snickers are standard, and most will have heard of “that one weird girl that danced like a maniac” by lunchtime. Here in China, I can dance (badly) in a crowded park, and no one will care. Those passing by will even like it, albeit be a little surprised, sending jolly smiles my way, which I tentatively return. I would be too scared of what people thought of me in Brookline, too self conscious about whether I danced well or looked graceful, etc. I still dance in China, knowing I look silly.
There is a constant threat looming over every action in America that demands to know, “Is this the cool thing to do?” If the answer is yes, go about doing whatever. If the answer is no, better rethink and go for a cooler alternative. This question has varying amounts of influence in people’s lives, but admittedly a big one in my own. To do the cool thing meant to go safely unnoticed, or to receive indifferent acknowledgements. To do the uncool thing meant to risk social judgment, something I feared. But from the moment I arrived in China, this question began to dissipate. It began with the affirmation that I would most likely never meet people I see again, which freed the self-imposed constraints on my actions. Still, though, I was hesitant to really “let myself go”, and I remained largely the same anxious girl I was in America. It wasn’t until I realized that I was missing out on the fun the others were experiencing that I decided to throw caution to the wind. Since then I have found myself calmly lost whilst on a crowded bus, furiously bargaining with shopkeepers, and of course, dancing.
I am becoming ever more appreciative of China’s indifference. Feel like spitting in the middle of the street? Go ahead, no one cares enough to say anything. Does your baby need to poop? Fine, just squat anywhere and go. It’s okay here to do what you want to do without lasting judgment of strangers; perhaps the explanation for this behavior is just, “because it’s China”. But perhaps the reason is that people in China are more accepting of what makes others happy. Yes these acts are unhygienic, but they have no immediate or obvious effects on passing people besides passing disgust. The Chinese mentality often seems to be, “Why interfere if it will only make other people unhappier, and myself no happier than I already am?” And so they let it be. America on the other hand are at times more concerned about outward appearance than inner happiness, seeking and preventing actions that possibly taint the image of a hip, cool, and clean America. Trading social acceptance for freedom and happiness is a risky gamble anywhere, but here it has a great outcome.
Being in a place of such loosened social restraints, I cannot imagine going back to America and shackling myself to social criterion. This doesn’t mean I will spit on the streets nor poop on the streets, but I will think twice about changing my behavior to conform to society. But that’s half the problem. I am a part of society, also judging everything I see (whether consciously or not). Dancing in the park with the old ladies was one of the best experiences I have had in China to date. I’m positive if I saw a replica of myself in America dancing, I wouldn’t be able to pass without thinking “I’m glad I don’t know her, this is so embarrassing”, “Does she know she dances that badly” or sneaking a picture or video on my phone. But whatever judgments there may have been by people who act the same way I would have could not have erased the joy I felt. So maybe next time I internally cringe at something I see in the halls of BHS, I’ll remember myself dancing in the park, shoot them a smile, and walk away without the intention of laughing to my friends about what I saw. China in a sense has made me value self awareness over the image of society, a lesson that manifested through the art of dance.
Freedom through Movement
Yesterday, since it was such a beautiful day, I decided to dosome exploring with Yeolim, Borja, and Amir. The whole evening we just rode buses and walked around; 7:30 came around and we dashed for the park near my house. It was there that we saw them, 20-30 old ladies waving and twirling their bodies in a synchronized fashion. Like always, we immediately joined them. None of us knew the dances or any of the songs playing, but still we tried to mimic the movements of the women standing before us and somehow look rhythmic while doing it. I, myself, looked horribly stupid. But I didn’t care, and still don’t because I loved doing it. I loved the carefree feel of moving around in the cool breeze to music that was actually pretty good. In that moment, the thought of the amount of people watching me mess up each footing never crossed my mind and still doesn’t. In that moment, I felt free.
In the 7 weeks we’ve been in China, I’ve sang more than I have since I was a little kid in church choir. How is this possible? Where can I possibly be singing all the time? That’s easy, Karaoke. I’ve gone to KTV several times, either with family or the other students, and it has always been a blast. In the small but spacious room, the giant flat screen projects interactive dance videos of our favorite and not so favorite artists, and our ears pierced by black boxes hanging around the room. While two or more people grab a microphone and sing, the rest jump, salsa, and wiggle themselves in a rhythmic motion. The sounds of everyone’s laughter and joy were so strong they could pierce the heavens. Isang more pop songs from artists like Gwen Stefani or Taylor Swift than I knew I could, and scream others like Rolling in the Deep by Adele than should ever be allowed. Each time I grab a microphone I just let it all go. Nothing holding me back anymore and the only thing I look for is having fun and enjoying myself, but the amount I enjoy myself in KTV is nothing compared the moment Chinese class ends.
Every day after Chinese class, when classical music is played over the loud speaker, I do nothing but have fun. Jumping, twirling, sprinting, and swaying in the halls is a remarkable moment that comes rarely in life. Being able to move how you want, and do what you want without being held back is the most amazing feeling in the world. I’m not sure how my long days at Gaoxin would turn out If I didn’t take a little time just move to some Mozart. There’s nothing better than what I feel when messing around in the hallway to music because I’m doing what I want and there’s no one telling me otherwise.
There’s this ironic thing about freedom. Every day at home, were constantly reminded and told of the freedom we have, but how free are we really? Freedom is described as the power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. But I’ve never really felt free. Not at school, home, the streets, anywhere. At home, I’ve never felt free enough to start running, dancing, and spinning in a hallway like someone out of footloose, quite like I have when Chinese Class ends at Gao Xin and music plays in the halls. Nor have I ever felt free enough to shout out Taylor Swift in karaoke like a die-hard fan at a concert, even if I don’t particularly care for her music. In America, I always felt some restraint to do something such as dance randomly not by anyone in particular, but by an institution. An institution of pressure that’s told me how to act and what I’m supposed to do. So funny thing about America, land of the free, maybe we’re not all that much.
Being in America as an American, you are still held down by the social rules and norms that you’ve had to deal with all your life. But being in a place so far from home, so foreign from what you know, really changes how you begin to act and feel in your daily life. No one tells you not togo do something, because a person here doesn’t follow the same norms of my home in America. I think in that sense China’s perfect. A place so far and foreign from home, there’s nothing holding me back, from having random conversations with people about whether they’ve eaten, or dance to a song that I can’t understand. I’ve definitely learned from China to not care what other people are thinking about what I’m doing. I should just do what I want and be happy doing it, because to me that’s the most important thing, myself.
Going to a place totally different than where you are from will always completely change a person or how they think. China has taught me to be and act as who I want to be. At home even if I wasn’t given pressure by someone specifically, I was also force fed this constant pressure by society to act a certain way. To never be seen dancing or singing in public, in theory that it’ll hurt whatever masculinity I do have; to never listen to feminine artists out loud and proudly; to talk about whatever I want, when I want to (respectably); to never talk or try to have conversations with strangers; and the list goes on. In China, there doesn’t seem to be any of those sorts of pressures on me. Instead, I have more freedom than I’ve ever had in my entire life.
The girl two seats over tapped my arm to get my attention. It was in the middle of immersion class, and I knew they weren’t supposed to talk, so I wondered what she could possibly want. Without a word, she handed me a folded piece of paper curiously titled, “Letter.” The handwriting was flawless in classic second language fashion. I asked, “Who’s this from?” and she replied quickly with a Chinese name corresponding to one of the 60 unrecognizable kids in my class. I shot her a facial expression that displayed my intense feeling of confusion. She pointed, and the boy next to me clarified by whispering, “Right side, four rows from the front, against the wall.”
I opened up the carefully sealed piece of paper and read it quietly to myself. As I read through the different introductory questions and statements, I thought about how fun this could be to have a little in-class pen pal. When I got to the end, there was a final statement that I took as a challenge; “I hope I can receive your letter soon. You can use English of course. I’m glad to see you write some Chinese words.” I took this letter as an opportunity to do something constructive during the incomprehensible immersion classes; I wrote him a page and a half letter entirely in Chinese and gave it back to him within an hour. There was no way of knowing what I had just started.
After having some time to reflect on what just happened for the rest of immersion class, I didn’t think it was too out of the ordinary; I went through the rest of the day without acknowledging it again. It wasn’t until the next day when I received, and increasingly grudgingly responded to, two more letters–one being from the first sender and the second being from a girl too shy to tell me her name–that I gave them a second thought. How are they so socially inept? They seemed to be stuck in the seventh grade world of awkward love letters slipped into the slits of lockers. I would never write a letter to a new student in America. I only responded in order to satisfy my new classmates and, because it was the first week, to jump on this opportunity to practice my Chinese. At this point, I still thought of the letters as a chance to write rather than to really get to know the students, but by the end of the third day of the whole ordeal, my mindset definitely changed drastically.
The third day, Friday, was when the weak attempts to become friends through letters climaxed. Just as I walked in to class, I was handed the shy girl’s response through a middleman, but I received it nonetheless. Waiting on my desk was yet another note that wasn’t labeled “Letter” or “Anonymous” but was about a boy who loves astronomy and airplanes. At first I didn’t respond to either of these letters that I’d received because I thought I would do it over the weekend. Class bore on and I was reading my book when I heard the bell ring signaling the end of the first class. Within the first thirty seconds of the seven minute break, I was handed yet another letter with a familiar label on the front. About twenty minutes later, I caught a glimpse of a suspected message being passed from hand to hand down towards me. My assumptions were correct and yet another letter sat on my desk to add to my collection. This one was from a girl and slightly shorter than the rest, but asking all the same introductory questions. I waited apprehensively until the end of class without responding to a single one. As I was walking out of class, I was stopped and handed my fifth and final note. I couldn’t believe that it was from a girl that I had already talked to multiple times. This one was the shortest and featured one of the most ego boosting lines, “I’m happy while writing this short message. Cheating with you is really happy because you’re really popular among our class. (Perhaps because you’re handsome.)”
What a discovery? Chinese small talk and flirting comes in a very unique flavor–written not spoken. Almost every single one of the letters featured slight variations of the common line, “I’m too shy to talk to you.” It’s not possible for everyone in my class to be shy, or is it? The worst part is that the kids that wrote me letters are also the ones that talk to me, so they’re the least shy. They are constantly studying and never get a chance to socialize outside of school. The only extended amount of time in school they have to talk is a short lunch period. All day every day they are stuck in a class with the same kids, so they never meet new people and learn from that experience. In America, an important aspect of high school is building relationships with your classmates and your teachers, so that students are prepared for real life interactions. In China, there is no time to socialize with your peers, and the teachers don’t even know the students’ names. The students haven’t exercised the social section of their brain since they were in primary school. So yes, I do believe that they can all be that shy, and that they are stuck in the social dynamic of middle school, but it isn’t their fault.
The Chinese school system of constantly working the country’s youth until their entire teenage life culminates in one test is the culprit for their lack of social skills. It is an input output machine that is fed Chinese toddlers and spits out what seems like robotic eighteen year olds labeled with a number that determines their entire lives. In my daily immersion classes, I hear the 高考 mentioned at least four times to my class of sophomore age kids. The immense pressure bestowed upon them to do well academically by their parents and the school leaves little daily leisure time. This is the time in which an American student will hone the social skills necessary to achieve their personal goals. Not everything can be accomplished by purely spitting out memorized facts; you can’t study how to make friends. It’s a constant learning process that takes years of practice that the Chinese students sadly just don’t have the opportunity to do.
Even though the letters were a weird way to communicate, they definitely meant well. “I want to make you feel not lonely,” and, “I will make every effort to help you,” were just a couple of the many heartwarming lines featured in the letters that made me feel welcomed on my first couple of days at 高新一中.
“Jiě jiě bù zhīdao!” I wave my arms animatedly around my head to the amicable laughter of my new family. Baba chatters on gruffly, smiling as he rapid fire spits an explanation in Chinese. To the background music of mama’s chortling, mei mei uses a combination of simpler Chinese and Pleco to translate until I finally understand. “Ohhhhhh! Wǒ tīng dǒng!” The conversation continues fluidly, until inevitably I have to ask mei mei, “Nǐ kě yi xiě?” while handing her my phone. These broken but engaging conversations make up the most of the time we spend with each other, which have been a lot more than I usually spend with my family back in America. Based off stereotypes I have learned from my life in America, I thought my Chinese family would be distant, overbearing, and authoritarian. But instead they have surprised me by showing her cohesion and warmth.
Our little family has quickly established routines, and my favorite thus far is the 9:30 pm fruit time. After eating dinner around 7, both mei mei and I leave for our respective rooms to do homework. This originally placed a predicament on me, where I had to choose between doing homework and keeping up with my responsibilities, or socializing with my family and embracing Chinese culture. Thankfully, around 9:30 pm each day, mei mei knocks at my door, and asks if I want to eat fruit. This innocuous question is an invitation for me to join a family time where I can not only eat fresh fruit, but also chat and grow closer.
One particular conversation this past Tuesday exemplified for me just how cohesive and warm Chinese families are. It was one of the first days we began our routine of 9:30 fruit time, where over cherry tomatoes and oranges, mama, baba, mei mei, and I talked about our day. Like the natural parents they are, mama and baba asked if the scary, short teacher who yelled at me at lunch on Monday bothered me again. Responding no, they reaffirmed that if she was a problem, I shouldn’t hold back, but tell them. I profusely thanked them, and went on to describe and demonstrate the wushu we had learned that day, complete with sound effects and everything. As the time neared 10:30, both mama and baba went to bed, leaving mei mei and me to discuss childhood tv shows. For another hour or so, we exchanged parts of our childhood, giggling over shows we both watched and looking up ones we had never seen. Sleeping parents long forgotten, laughter filled the living room as we goofily acted out characters for each other. When we finally said goodnight, not even the homework I hadn’t done could wipe the grin off my face.
I wouldn’t have imagined Chinese families, especially one with a middle schooler, to spend 2 hours entertaining an exchange student. In my mind, the picture of an average Chinese family was…nonexistent. I assumed the kids stuck to their rooms and only did work, the mother cooked and cleaned, and the fathers stayed late at work, and when they were home, disciplined the kids to make sure they were doing well in school. All in all, I thought none of the family members saw much of each other. How wrong I was!
Baba and mei mei were joking around, sassing each other, while mama tried to explain what was happening in the drama on tv. Seeing everyone being so natural and good-natured with each other was not what I expected. To see the unity of the Wang family and inherent love for each other was great. On just our 6th day of even knowing each other, my Chinese family has already redefined stereotypes I had accumulated throughout my life. Through 9:30 pm fruit time I have already begun to be accepted into the cohesion of the Wang family, an honor I am very proud of.
The Out There
Whenever we transition from one period of our lives to another, it seems to involve an acute feeling of loss, of apprehension about the future, of a fear of the unknown that is represented by the haze of tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, stretching weeks and months until it abruptly stops at our next transition. I’m finding it incredibly difficult to acknowledge that I am genuinely afraid, even absolutely terrified, of what lies out there. Right now, “out there” means Shanghai, it means what I imagine to be the crowded streets of Xi’an, it means the first few words I speak to my host family (if they really exist–maybe all of this is a figment of my imagination?) and it means nothing in particular but my own nebulous feelings about the next four months. Some say there’s nothing scarier than uncertainty. For me, the weeks leading up to our departure has been less about not knowing than about knowing too much, about the bitterly obvious certainty that this period of my life is over, and a new one is beginning–one that I’ve looked forward to for my entire life, ushered in by a trip to China (of all places) and culminating in my entrance to college. Then again, without fear, there’s no excitement, without apprehension, little growth. It’s only when you take the plunge and hope that something catches you that you start to live not in your worries, but in the actual experience.
I grew up with a tradition of very lengthy farewells. When my mom would say it was time to go at a dinner party, I knew I would have at least another hour before I really had to say goodbye. Since then, endings have carried a lot of weight for me. They’ve been gates of transition, places to search for meaning when there’s no other meaning to be found. In the last few weeks, that meaning–that feeling of an ending–has been increasingly elusive, as they so often are. Words of farewell have speckled my last few days in Brookline but have given little color to them; only that pervasive feeling of crisis really had an effect on my outlook of the whole trip, to the point where there were moments when I thought I didn’t want to go at all. Leaving my family, my home, my friends, and my quietly satisfying life in Brookline, even for the sake of an adventure that I had once been convinced of embarking upon no matter what, seemed far too great a change, too enormous a transition, to truly want to leave.
Sitting on the plane with six hours and fifteen minutes of flight until we land in Pudong International Airport, it feels like the breadth of our journey is spreading among us like the sky full of clouds floating miles below. As of today, I have yet to speak with my host family, which would be a more minor worry if it hadn’t been for my experience with my exchange student. Although very well behaved, Henry, unlike the other participants in the program, was detached, uninterested, and unwilling to partake in most of what we offered him. As a result, I’ve given a lot of thought to my own behavior within my host family and whether or not they’ll reciprocate the enthusiasm I hope I’ll be able to bring to the table. It isn’t so much that I worry about going in without knowing anything about the people who I’ll be staying with for the next four months, my insecurity has more to do with the knowledge that everyone else’s family has been incredibly eager to contact and converse with their respective host children, while mine have been effectively silent. If worst comes to worst, then I’ll be more on my own, more independent, looking for opportunities to practice my Chinese less with my host family than with the people I plan to meet in the city. Either way, I don’t think that’ll be the case, these being just groggy contemplations fueled by caffeine and sugar and a few fitful hours of sleep.
Anticipating what something is going to be like is always difficult. You form a foggy image of the future from the things you’ve read, the stories you’ve heard, your own expectations. How will I really feel when I’m strolling down the Bund, admiring the vast constructions across the river in Pudong, snapping pictures of the art deco architecture on the left bank and wondering at the seedy backstories that each carries with it, as massive as the buildings themselves? How will I feel on the train to Xi’an, waiting for my host family to whisk me away for an entire semester? Or the first day of school–will I contract senioritis like the rest of my grade, or will the novelty of being in such a different place translate into productivity? It seems useless to answer these questions now, waiting for all of these events to take place. I would only take my response from the misty prejudice that represents China in my head.
Despite the difficulty, despite the sadness, despite the feeling that I’m leaving something behind, these last few weeks in preparation for the trip have been memorable. Only during my last few hours in Brookline did I finally find the meaning in this ending, only after saying goodbye to the last of my friends could I come to terms with the fact that I was leaving, only as I lay on my bed for the last time before we sell the house did I realize I was ready to go. By the time we come back, little will be the same. We will have changed, our friends will have changed, the snow will have melted and the spring blown away. I know that will all be true; I know that will all be waiting for me in four months. Right now, I can focus on one thing at a time. All we have to do is step off of this plane and into the vastness of the out there.