Although traveling to China is not a new occurrence for me, each subsequent visit has welcomed me with interesting and different forms of Beijing culture shock. The first time I visited Beijing, I came on a whim. It all began three summers ago. An e-flyer for a study abroad program had slithered its way through my junk filter and into my inbox. The program caught my eye and before I knew it I was aboard a plane to PEK International.
My first tour of Beijing was keenly similar to the experiences of many other Western travelers; more specifically, my limited exposure to different food and exotic language. I, for one, found the food to be wonderful and intriguing. I feel that the food here in China can be compared to a collage in the sense that the beautiful minute details of each individual ingredient come together to create a spectacular palette of flavor. One dish that comes to mind is Szechuan Chicken. What starts as a simple piece of meat is soon combined with a variety of spices to create an explosion of flavor. As if the food wasn’t, in and of itself, spectacular, the language proved to be particularly striking as well. However, it wasn’t until much later that I would learn more about the language. I had enjoyed my first trip greatly, and before I knew it, my experience had come to an end. Regardless, it wasn’t long before I could enjoy the seemingly out of this world language and the unusual, yet delightful, food again.
Just as soon as my first journey to China had ended, I found myself on another metal bird en route to PEK International. For my second time around the block, I decided to take language classes at a University commonly referred to as Beijing Language and Culture University (BLCU). Located in Wu Dao Kou, I decided to step a bit outside of the mold and attempt to enlighten my feeble mind. Although I had become accustomed to the food and language, my second trip was equally enlightening as the first. As I thought my first trip had granted me immunity to Beijing culture shock, I soon found out that, in reality, I had just opened the door to a whole new world.
The food and language still presented me with culture shock; however, this time it did not dominate my experience. Instead, I found myself adjusting to different facets of everyday life; for instance, the difference in classroom atmosphere. I distinctly remember my first class the day after I arrived in Beijing. Moreover, I remember being asked one by one to pronounce the vocabulary words. As my turn arrived, I, one by one, botched each pronunciation. Likewise, my teacher saw fit to correct each of my eager, but woeful attempts at speaking Chinese. I found that learning the language greatly improves a foreigner’s time in Beijing. Getting lost was no longer an issue as I could simply ask for directions. As all good things must come to an end, my second time in Beijing was up, and I was soon on my way home.
Currently, I am on my third trip to Beijing. Even though I have only been here for roughly a week, new and exciting things continue to approach me. Just as my naiveté had worn off between my first and second trips to China, my perspective continues to evolve as I learn from past experience and apply those lessons today. Overall, the Beijing culture shock has been quite enlightening. Perhaps, it is not the food, or the culture, or all the little intricacies that have been so profound in my travels; perhaps, what is truly shocking are the lessons I have learned about myself, while learning about others.
“Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” ~Henry David Thoreau