Kate V. is currently a junior at SYA China and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from St. Stephen's Episcopal School in Texas.
As I began the second semester here in Beijing, I looked back into the depths of my Google Drive to try to find some piece of writing that reminded me of how I felt at the beginning of the first semester. This article (a late-night journal entry/rant/reflection) brought up so many memories from my initial perspective on what “getting out of the bubble” meant. As an outsider in a new country, it can feel very intimidating to try to break out of the comfortable, American shell that SYA creates, and with limited language and cultural knowledge it can be nearly impossible. But, the coincidental, seemingly unimportant ways that you interact with the culture all add up over time and make you less intimidated by the idea of interacting with the society on a larger scale. For me, my experience on the bus 104 really opened my eyes to the amazing reality of Chinese culture. Here is what I wrote back in September:
I have a love-hate relationship with bus 104. For starters, it’s unreliable, smelly, crowded, and to the unpracticed Beijing bus-rider, an overall negative experience. Some days the 104 comes at 7:12 am, giving me just enough time to walk from my apartment to the stop and hop on. Other days I have to wait for 20 minutes in the cigarette-and-noodle-perfumed air for the 104 to finally lurch its way to the stop, leaving me to sprint up 6 flights of stairs upon arriving at school and slide, breathless, into my chair at 7:59 am. The joke among us 104 riders is that the only reliable thing about the 104 is that it’s unreliable. This saying is true to a fault.
So, congratulations, once you finally make it onto the elusive 104, the smell hits. It’s not quite fish, and not quite cigarettes, not quite feet, and not quite morning coffee breath. Rather, it is a wonderful mixture of all of the above, resulting in a truly unique smell that is only improved by the fact that at least fifty people are all crammed into the bus like sardines; some days you literally cannot shift your feet without bumping into three different people, and getting some disgruntled grumbles and “aiyas” as a result.
Despite all of these seemingly negative things, I will admit, unashamed, that I absolutely love the 104. It’s my little slice of Beijing; it is a small, familiar fragment of a foreign culture that I am completely immersed in. For example, I know that every day when I get on the bus there will be a security guard yelling, “wanghouzou, xiacheqingshuaka!” (telling people to move towards the back of the bus to stand and to swipe their card when they exit the bus.) I have come to recognize several of these guards by now: I know who’s voice is the shrillest, I know the guard that eats meat cakes on the bus, and I know the guard who always wears pink Converse and who pulled my hand away from the door when it was opening that one time three weeks ago. I know the dad and son who get on at the stop after mine; the son is always wearing his school uniform and a visor, and the dad carries his Ninja Turtle backpack for him. I know the other 二附中 students that get off at my same stop.
The 104 is a piece of Beijing condensed into a bite-size chunk that I can interact with, understand, and feel comfortable with. While daily life is frequently unfamiliar and chaotic, the 104 is one place where I can simultaneously feel a sense of familiarity and a sense of immersion in the culture. Those spaces where you feel both comfortable and familiar and truly immersed in the culture are few and far between at the beginning of the program, as the places you are comfortable are typically those where you are with your American peers participating in an extension of American youth culture as opposed to when you are out and interacting with the community.
It can be scary at first to immerse yourself in a foreign culture; it’s scary to get out of your comfort zone and put yourself in situations that you know you won’t fully understand. But, at first, just look at immersion in terms of taking baby steps. When you get on the ground of your new home country, everything is so new and intimidating that it seems that you’ll never be at a point where you could be comfortable engaging in the culture fully. Your SYA experience will start with panicked bus rides, anxiously watching the screen to not miss your stop, and awkwardly moving your way towards the bus door, but it will develop into so much more than that. In no time at all, you’ll find yourself volunteering to teach elderly people English at a local retirement center, or travelling for three days with your friends to a city over 1,000 km away, or going to school for a day with local high school students in Datong, Shanxi. For me, slowly gaining confidence while briefly talking to people on the 104, in shops, and on the street led to me feeling more and more comfortable striking up more meaningful conversations in the future. Over break, on a trip to a local tea market, I began talking to a tea saleswoman, who I later discovered was originally from a tea-growing village in Fujian province, and she moved to Beijing to sell her family’s tea. She and I talked about differences between America and China over a cup of tea that she assured me was “picked by her auntie,” and I left the market with her phone number and a request for me to come over to her house and tutor her kids in English.
At the beginning of SYA, I never would have believed that I could be capable of having such a deep interaction in a foreign language and culture. But, I have realized that, if you dedicate yourself to engaging in the culture in as many small ways as possible, like riding the bus every day, and you keep an open mind, you’ll eventually get to experience these wonderful moments of feeling like you truly are comfortable in a foreign culture.
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