China was one of the last places I could ever see myself, but life has a funny way of surprising people. Of course, my initial reaction to the trip was unwavering excitement. However, as my journey neared, I became terrified. I knew that everything would be different in China and that I would feel very alone. All my life, I had never been out of my comfort zone. Suddenly, I was ripped from it and placed as far from it as possible. Who knew that was exactly what I had needed? To be honest, my trip was not easy. It was scary. Everything from the food to the streets and especially to the culture was unfamiliar to me. Four out of the five people in my host family didn’t speak English, which made communication difficult as well. Although my host parents didn’t speak English, they did everything they could to make me feel at home. My family took me to Starbucks and to see Jurassic World (in English with Chinese subtitles). My host grandmother even made me scrambled eggs every day, because I told her that’s what I ate at home.
The first three days of my trip I was terribly sick, throwing up, unable to eat or sleep. As my body adjusted to the time difference, I felt my outlook changing. My host family was so gracious, and my host sister Amber is such a good friend. Amber showed me all over Zhangjiagang, which is such a beautiful city. She took her job of teaching me about Chinese culture very seriously, telling me the history of everything we saw that day and quizzing me on it later. Every night we had so much fun, I would help her with her English and she would teach me Chinese. Her and I were inseparable. My whole host family was incredibly nice, but because my parents worked and the grandparents stayed home, I spent most of my time with Amber. My host grandparents were so funny, they didn’t speak any English, and they always tried to feed me. The grandma made the most delicious food, and always gave me more, more, and more! (When I came home my mom told me I ate like a trucker, and I said “no, I just eat like a Chinese person now.”) My host mother and father always worked, but would have me visit them there often. My host father owned a three-story gourmet restaurant, which we went to twice (our family got to sit in the VIP lounge.) My host mother worked for a textile company, so I went in a few days to help her workers fold and organize fabrics. My host family always took me to do exciting things, like visiting gardens, museums, and festivals. Although my home was across the world, my host family made me so comfortable—home in Zhangjiagang.
Every family I met in China was so gracious and hospitable towards me. Most people were very excited to finally practice their English on an American! Other people I met, such as my new friend Thea, were embarrassed by their English ability and were very shy. The last week of my home stay Amber was busy taking lessons and sent me with families from her school. The first family I met was Thea and her father, who took me to Shanghai for the day. Thea was so sweet and shy, but both her and her father spoke English very well. Her dad was so hospitable (to the point of telling the cashier “don’t let her pay for it, take my money instead—no matter how hard I insisted). That day we ate so much good food, visited historic gardens, and did a lot of shopping. Shanghai is the most populated city in China, and apparently on the sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of summer vacation it was even busier than usual. I walked around the city completely awestruck. In the underground, the people were so tightly packed there was no need to hold on. I have never seen so many people! Shanghai was such a beautiful city full of foreigners and some of the most beautiful architecture I have ever seen. That day I saw the third tallest building in the world. I cannot describe the beauty of Shanghai because it was unlike anything I had ever seen before.
That week I stayed with another family from Amber’s school. Hathaway (she named herself after Anne Hathaway) and her family were some of the kindest people I have ever met. The parents didn’t speak any English, but I immediately felt a bond with them. Hathaway is seventeen and has traveled the world in speech and debate competitions. Her English was incredible. I had conversations with her like I could have with my best friends in the United States. Her family took us to an ancient town that had been preserved as a tourist location. It was pouring rain that weekend but we walked up and down the streets and took in every sight we could. That weekend I got a “pedicure” (paid to put my feet in a tank and let the fish eat my dead skin!) ate at a restaurant with a llama tied to my table, and got to see Chinese nightlife. Between the three families I stayed with, I have made the most incredible memories, as well as friends that I hope last a lifetime.
Traveling to China alone has by far been the most difficult thing I have ever done. During my stay I got lonely, I was afraid, and terribly homesick. Chinese and American cultures are so vastly different. In fact, it was hard to find any similarities between the two countries or in how Amber and I were raised. I have never been so far out of my comfort zone, but I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.
It is mind boggling to travel and discover how small you really are. There is a huge world outside of your hometown, and the only way to possibly understand it is to see it for yourself. I had grown up my whole life believe ‘this is how you behave’, ‘this is how you think’, ‘this is what to pursue’, ‘this is the way things are.’ In China I discovered how different it really is in other cultures. Everything I believed in so firmly at home, seemed to be the “wrong” way of thinking in China. At first it was frustrating and scary—I couldn’t force myself to see a different perspective. After living in China for three weeks, it was still hard to accept my host family’s values or way of thinking, but I learned to appreciate it. It is a crazy thing, how different we can be on the face of the same planet. Diversity shakes you up and puts you out of your comfort zone, but if you decide to love it and accept it you can learn things you never imagined. I have never been so grateful for what I have, as well as so awestruck at the beauty and sheer splendor of another culture and history. During my trip, I felt a whirlwind of emotions. Now that I am home with a clear head, all I feel is gratitude. How many eighteen-year-old girls gain the experience, to not only explore the world, but to explore themselves while doing it? At my home in Zhangjiagang, I learned to love the beauty of diversity. While in China, I grew to appreciate another culture, as well as gain a deeper appreciation for my own.