By Malin F.
I’ve been taking Chinese language for the past 3 years of high school. I’ve seen Chinese movies and eaten Chinese food. Yet nothing truly prepared me for the reality of living and breathing Chinese culture that I have had the opportunity to discover this summer. Lots of things have shocked me over the course of this trip: the shrimp with their heads and arms still intact, the so-called “squatty-potties”, the casual four-letter English word emblazoned on a t-shirt here and there.
However, the biggest hurdle I have encountered here is the very fact that I am a foreigner, a 外国人. I have never before had the experience of being a complete outsider, and an obvious one at that. On my travels to and from my host family’s home, on public transportation or other means, I found that my blonde hair and fair skin attracts quite a few quizzical looks. Our group, full of American students, has been the subject of many a Chinese tourist photo. This has been a culture shock to me mainly because we come from a country where seeing people of different races is as commonplace as seeing your neighbor walk his or her dog. I have grown up in a time and a city where race is never a reason to stare at a person. When preparing for this trip, I bought lots of clothes, read up on certain current events, and reviewed my Chinese final study guide. No one told me, nor did I quite comprehend the fact that the country I was to study in was a country much less diverse than I have been accustomed to. When I thought of my studies in China, this fact somehow escaped my imagined situation. Funny how it is the most prevalent culture change that I have noticed.
While this fact has deeply affected my perception of outsiders and my notion of being an outsider, I have also learned from it. My favorite part has been watching quizzical morph to pleasant surprise when people on the street learn I can speak and understand Chinese. I have found unlikely friends in my host family’s doorman, sales girls, and ECNU students. While the attention has taken some getting used to, it has put me on my best behavior, as I represent both the United States of America as well as the NSLIY-UD program.