Right now, I’m sitting in the airport in OKC, waiting for my flight home for winter break. After winter break, I’ll be coming back here for the spring semester at OU. But I’ve been thinking a lot about this time last year, when I was leaving Oklahoma knowing I wouldn’t be back until after I’d done a semester in China. Things are a lot different this time around. As I reflect, here are some things I’ve learned to do differently:
Pack better. My freshman year winter break, I checked a 50-pound bag and had a carry-on duffel and a backpack for just a month-long break. This year, I have just a carry-on duffel and backpack – and they’re not even full! Packing light for China and my subsequent travels has definitely helped me to learn how little I actually need when traveling.
Toughen up. I’m sick now; I was sick last year when I was leaving Oklahoma too. But this time, even though I feel horrible, I’m better able to push through it and do what I need to do. Traveling around Asia, including getting food poisoning in the middle of the journey, really helps with that.
Say goodbye. I’m closer to my friends now than I was when I left for China last winter, but after eight months of not seeing them, 3 weeks away is nothing to worry about.
Be flexible. Halfway through writing this post, my flight got cancelled. Now I’ve got a flight early tomorrow morning and plans to go wedding dress shopping with my soon-to-be-married roommate tonight. The destruction of well-laid plans is just another opportunity for adventure – which was definitely true when I was abroad.
The correct travel outfit: maxi skirt (warm weather) or jeans (cold weather), comfy short-sleeved shirt that doesn’t show stains, warm socks, pull-on boots, cozy wrap sweater, simple jewelry. Works every time.
It was a decently looong time ago (or at least it feels like it after a hard fall semester!)…but I went to Italy in the early summer of 2017!
To start, I was in Italy for almost a whole month. I went with the 2016-2017 President’s Leadership Class with over eighty other people. I’ll talk more on that in a minute. We went to twelve different cities, my favorite being Positano, and I loved every single one. In hindsight, the whole trip felt like it passed in a blink of an eye. However, while I was there it felt like eternity, for both good and not so great reasons.
Let’s start with the not-so-great reasons. As I italicized earlier, I went with almost eighty other people including the sponsors and the other PLCers. Having eighty American college-kids in Italy was, in my opinion, a train wreck. This made the trip surprisingly very difficult for me. I have been lucky in my life to travel relatively extensively for my age and economic status, and when I traveled I was taught to be incredibly respectful of the culture and people I was sticking myself into. Some of the instances of privilege (and not in the new socially trendy sense, but the old-school I-get-what-I-want-when-I-want-it-or-else) I saw dumbfounded me. For example, one girl had a break down in a Prada or Gucci store near the famous Spanish Steps because she wasn’t able to get a hold of her parents (the seven hour time difference) to get them to transfer her $3,000 so she could buy a purse or two. Another boy would only eat at McDonald’s and refused to try new Italian food (which was actually all new because of how different Italian and Italian-American food is). Finally, one boy in my group starting harassing me a bit and wouldn’t take my avoidance as a hint that I didn’t want his company. He made a chunk of my trip even nightmarish because he was always watching and following me–and this never ended even after I asked several of our sponsors for help. And, I promise, there are many more instances like these that happened for the whole month.
This insensitivity and lack-of-respect to what we were doing in Italy shocked me every day. I should have gotten use to it after a while, but I remember it would really bum me out seeing kids try to sneak away from different outings or educational times to do other things (often including drinking). PLCers are suppose to be representatives of OU, and I think we should have been ashamed of ourselves and our actions while we were over there. I would be embarrassed at least a few times every day to be in the group I was in.
On the bright side, though–I loved Italy as a whole. As I extensively posted before, I went to Rio de Janeiro around this time a year ago and I love love loved every second of it. It was tight-knit and we were well aware of our outsider-presence in another community and way of life, and, luckily, I was able to find a few people to band-together like this while in Italy. They really helped turn the trip around for me. The food was always absolutely incredible, the people were always beautiful and kind (especially the woman that helped me when I was completely lost while in Arezzo, and I learned so much more than I ever expected about the Roman Empire and its art history.
All-in-all, I would go back to Italy in a heartbeat, but with people I know would appreciate it I truly hope I can return to Italy again one day and to have the kind of experience I know is out there.
In April, Nate and I traveled again with CET. This time, we went south to the famous city of Xi’an, resting place of China’s first emperor Qin Shi Huang and his thousands of terra cotta soldier statues. After a 10-hour bus ride (we drove through the night on this trip), we rolled up to one of the world’s biggest tourist attractions. It was a Chinese national holiday so not only were lots of foreign tourists there, all the Chinese tourists were too. There’s an expression in Chinese, “人山人海”, that literally translates to “people mountain, people sea”. This phrase could be used to describe both the tightly-packed rows of earthen warriors and the seething masses of people who mobbed them.
The terra cotta soldiers were very cool. We first went through an exhibit that presented some history, which then opened up into three massive excavation pits that contained the soldiers. My favorite part was actually getting to see the excavation in progress. In two of the pits, there were ladders, tarps, and tools laid out among the bodies. The soldiers themselves weren’t finished – apparently it takes longer than 40 years to rebuild a 9,000-piece relic that was first built in the third century BCE.
After we were done with the Terra Cotta Army, we went to Xi’an’s most famous street food market for dinner. The food there was mainly in the style of the Uyghur, a Chinese people group in the country’s northwest that has been largely influenced by Middle Eastern culture. The best dish I tried there was a spiced roasted lamb skewer, a street food delicacy I got to enjoy several times while in China. Nate and I also bought massive cotton candy spools for $5 each. It was luxury in excess.
The next day we tested the limits of the human body. Mount Hua is one of China’s most famous mountains, and parts of it make it one of the most dangerous hikes in the world. (Don’t worry, we didn’t do those parts. We didn’t have time.) Hiking the mountain means ascending a neverending series of staircases carved into the mountain itself. There are 5 peaks on the mountain, and we made it to two of them. It took 9 hours. Up.
Somehow, the view and the experience were worth the extreme physical pain we were all in by the time we reached the summit. China’s dramatically jagged mountains rose around us in green and yellow.
Thankfully, we got to take a cable car down so we didn’t have to try to not fall down the mountain as we went down the stairs in our weakened state. Although the rapid descent through the mountains we had just climbed did make me question the merit of ascending the mountain on foot, the experience of flying through China’s mountains in a glass box was truly breathtaking.
By the time we made it back the bus, my legs were shaking so bad I could barely stand for lack of balance. Sleep was such a relief that night.
We got up super early the next day to drive back. I managed to stay awake most of the ride, and I was pleasantly surprised that the scenery on the daytime ride back was more diverse and beautiful than I had realized. I got to see mountains, plateaus, terraced rice fields, farms, and other manifestations of the landscape that must be unique to China. It was like driving through the China section of a world history textbook.
That was my last out-of-town trip while I was staying in Beijing, and was it ever a good one.
First, a word of advice: if you ever go to Beijing, you need to get hooked up with a group called Culture Exchange Trips (CET). This student-led group organizes trips across China for internationals and Chinese students, and they are amazing. I met some really wonderful people, went to some truly incredible places, and did it all for extremely cheap.
On our first major trip with CET, Nate and I went to Inner Mongolia (内蒙古). Quick briefer on Inner Mongolia: it is, in fact, a part of China, not Mongolia. China kept it when the rest of Mongolia gained independence from China in the early 20th century. Now, the culture of the region – food, language, traditions, etc. – is a mixture of Chinese and Mongolian cultures.
When you’re traveling abroad, hardcore travel is the only way to go. All the CET participants met up at 5 a.m. for the 8-hour bus ride to Inner Mongolia. The bus ride was long and bumpy, which made sleeping difficult. The get-to-know-you activities our group leaders (Amy and Marwan) started also made it difficult to sleep, but that wasn’t as much of a problem because Amy and Marwan were AWESOME. They really made this trip as memorable as it was (in a good way).
When we arrived in China’s northernmost province, we had a family-style lunch (about 10 Inner Mongolian dishes and a massive bowl of rice shared among 10 people at a table) and then headed out to the grasslands for horseriding.
Here’s how it works: You slap a blanket on top of a horse. You slap a tourist on top of the blanket. And then you slap the horse, and the tourist holds on for dear life as she bounces off across the Inner Mongolian prairie.
It was a lot of fun. Halfway through, we stopped at a tent in the middle of the grasslands for milk tea and some traditional Inner Mongolian milk candy before riding back to the main corral.
The next day, the whole group along with Nate, Tuscany, and I headed out to the Gobi Desert. On the bus ride, we got to see the Yellow River – China’s cradle of civilization! Known as “China’s Sorrow”, China historically has a love-hate relationship with this river: its frequent flooding is devastating, but is also the only thing that makes northern China farmable.
From the very touristy desert welcome center, we took a dune buggy into the heart of the desert. Truthfully, this was also rather touristy – it was set up like a county fair. But even the commercialization of a few dunes didn’t detract much from the unique beauty of the desert – just blue sky and yellow sand in all directions.
The sand was surprisingly soft. We walked around for a little bit, took a ride on a dune motorcycle, and finally made our way to the camels.
Out of all the forms of transportation I had experienced in the past few hours – horseback, bus, dune buggy, sand motorcycle – I would pick camel any day of the week. It was like sitting on a really soft, furry beanbag chair with a beanbag backrest. My camel was friendly to me, and the ride wasn’t bumpy at all as it plodded across the sand on its wide hooves. I’m pretty sure I could have slept on that camel’s back.
The next day was our last in Inner Mongolia. We went to the Museum of Inner Mongolia, home of the largest collection of dinosaur skeletons and fossils in Asia. Nate and I got this picture next to the most impressive one – it was really quite colossal. There were also a lot of really interesting exhibits on Inner Mongolian history and culture.
After that, we went to another museum, this one more focused on the art of Inner Mongolia.
Attached to the museum was a massive mall-like emporium of extremely expensive Inner Mongolian handicrafts. It was actually rather unsettling – it was a veritable labyrinth of a place, very well-staffed by identically dressed salespeople, and the members of our group were the only people there. Still, the merchandise was very cool – like this wall of swords. Nearly everything cost more than I’m worth, but I did buy several small knives that were on sale for only USD $1 each!
And that was it. After another 8-hour bus ride back, we arrived home just in time for bed. Next up: Nate and I travel south!
March 19, two months after we had arrived in Beijing, was Nate’s birthday. We took the opportunity to explore the city a little bit and do some things on our Beijing Bucket List.
I knew that starting the day with waffles, even in Beijing, was a prerequisite for a good birthday. So we took the bus to the hippest coffee spot in Beijing – Maan Coffee: Waffle and Toast. Even the name, although magnificent, couldn’t do justice to the two-storied, rustic, delectable food paradise that it adorned. Seriously, though – I have never had better waffles than these. In my life. I would fly back to China just to have these once more.
After waffles, we went to an international church we were trying out. We didn’t end up settling there, but it was nice to have a place to worship with other Christians again.
For lunch, we went to the cool part of Beijing – Sanlitun, where the parties go down. For us, the part was authentic Italian pizza – pricey, in China, but worth it since it was the first good Western food we’d had in 2 months.
Next stop, Beijing Zoo! We spent a long time at the Giant Panda exhibit – we connected on a deep emotional level with this fuzzy beast that pretty much just wanted to lie on its back and eat food without moving its head.
As it was quite late in the day, a lot of the exhibits were already closed. The upside of this was that, for a Beijing public attraction, the zoo really wasn’t that crowded.
The zoo also had some really incredible birds.
For dinner we went to a hutong, which is a narrow street that is historically filled with shops and restaurants. They still are, but now they’re more touristy and less quaint and traditional. We found a Peking Duck place and enjoyed Beijing’s most famous dish!
Finally, we went to a European restaurant called M for dessert. Little did I know when I looked it up online that it would be the fanciest restaurant I had ever been in. Because most of the desserts on the menu were upwards of USD $20, Nate and I split this tiny lemon pudding. It was very tasty, but we vowed never to return there until we’re rich.
We got to see so many different pieces of Beijing that day, and eat a lot of good food. On a related note, if anyone wants to fly me to Beijing to get Maan waffles for my birthday next year, you know I’m down.
On March 4, I experienced my first of the New7Wonders of the world (it’s a thing). The Great Wall was built spanning several dynasties and centuries to protect China against attack from the north. Now it’s a landmark that rides the mountains through the middle of China, and an extremely popular tourist destination. If you want to maximize authenticity and minimize crowds of people wearing matching visors, you can go to a partially unrestored part of the wall, which means it’s more of a hike and less of a selfie booth.
The unrestored section we chose to go to is in Chenjiapu, an hour outside of Beijing. I was traveling with a group of about 50 students, mostly from either my school, Peking University, or our neighboring rival university, Tsinghua. We rented a bus that took us to Great Wall Fresh, family-run restaurant and guest house in the mountains of Chenjiapu. We enjoyed a family-style lunch before our guide, one of the Great Wall Fresh family members, led us off on our adventure.
From the point you see in the picture up there, it was about a 45-minute hike to the place where we mounted the Great Wall. And suddenly, we were standing on bricks that were laid centuries ago.
The rest of the group went left along the wall to a beacon tower, but Nate and I thought we could get a higher vantage point by taking a quick detour up the wall to the right. We were right about “higher”, but not about “quick”. An especially steep and dilapidated part of the wall, it took us nearly an hour to go up and come back down, putting us far enough behind that our group was out of sight, lost to us in the mountains of China.
Nevertheless, we did not fear. We decided to just move a little quicker until we caught up with them – besides, we were walking on a major tourist attraction that was made for walking on. It would be very difficult to actually get lost. And that’s how our coolest date ever began.
The whole walk along the Wall took about 2 hours from that point.
At one point, we reached a point on the wall that was higher than any other we could see. We climbed a teetering pile of bricks to the top of the watchtower. In every direction, the hazy mountains were layered to the horizon. We could see as far as the curve of the earth would let us. The pictures I took are a sorry representation, but that truly was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. The world God created is unfathomably beautiful and wonderful, and Nate and I got to see such a unique piece of it.
Though we kept up a good pace, we never caught up to the group. As we were descending from the Wall at the end of the hike, we met a search party coming from the other direction. They thought we had gotten lost forever on the Wall. Maybe we nearly had a couple of times, but we made it in the end. And I’ve got some amazing memories to show for it.
I have so many more pictures that attempt to capture a fraction of the beauty we saw that day, so I’ll stick them here.
At the University of Oklahoma there is a goal set by President Boren that fifty percent of students will study abroad. Although this goal has not been met, there are a large number of students who study abroad through the University. During my two study abroad journeys I was suffering both from anxiety and depression. A lot of people talk about the joy of study abroad and also the difficulties, but mental health seems pretty uncharted. Sure, we were given resources for if we were having trouble adjusting, but what about those of us suffering from long-term mental health disorders?
The problems I faced were a lot smaller during my first study abroad venture in Italy. There, I was given everything I needed to succeed: American friends, tours of the city by faculty and staff, many people looking out for my well being. I never once had an issue with my mental health. I never once called home crying.
Fast-forward a semester and I am in London for my second study abroad adventure. This one was different. Before going to London, I had been prescribed a new medication meant to supplement my anxiety meds. It really had no effect on me during the first few weeks. However, the program itself was enough to do me harm. The Summer School Program at the London School of Economics is one of the only study abroad programs where credits can be transferred back to Ivy League universities. That being said, the classes were intense with three weeks spent learning from top scholars of the school. I was prepared for another study abroad experience like the one I had in Arezzo: close friends and many Americans having fun and learning about culture.
I want to preface by saying that the LSE program was phenomenal. I learned so much and met new friends from around the world. I was able to learn how to survive on my own in a foreign country and large city. However, I was not ready for the toll the experience would take on my mental health.
The second week started with a trip to Paris where, as I described in an earlier post, my new medication caused a mental breakdown which included drinking, crying, vomiting, and being sexually assaulted. It was then that I realized I needed help. The next morning I texted a Canadian mental health hotline describing what had happened. I thought I needed to be in a mental institution. The study abroad experience did not help quell my ever increasing depression. I would walk down the street suffocating under the overwhelming feeling that I was not okay. I thought about jumping in front of cars and throwing myself off bridges. Even if pictures on social media proved otherwise, I didn’t feel normal.
With this came crushing guilt. I was at one of the best universities in the world in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. My parents had paid almost all of the $10,000 it took for me to have the experience. How could I be unhappy here? How could I be so ungrateful?
So I continued to stuff down the feelings. I was isolated and afraid, but I didn’t let it show. As the weeks went on, I lost friends who completed their classes and headed back to their respective countries. In the final weeks, I laid in bed for days on end, only getting up to use the restroom. I didn’t eat and slept for 12 hours at a time, sometimes more. I was taking my medication regularly, but nothing helped. This did not ruin my experience, but it opened my eyes to this issue that people do not really talk about.
There are so many students in this world that spend time abroad. This means that there are probably many students suffering from mental health problems that take those problems with them around the world. Depression does not stop when we begin our adventures. It will always be with us. This article is written not to criticize institutions for their lack of help for students with mental health issues. That is not reality. Most universities provide many resources for students like me. Alternatively, I am writing this to draw attention to the fact that studying abroad is not always glamorous. Despite what many people may post and share, there is difficulty, especially for those who have a mental health disorder. We may feel uncomfortable talking about it. We may only share the good stuff. We may feel guilt for time wasted abroad because of our disorder. But, other people can be there to help if they know the signs. Below are links to websites for people seeking help and for those who may not know the signs of depression:
I’ve never been much of a sports fan or, for that matter, a sports player. This can be proven by my extensive childhood career of dance, theater, music, and any combination of the three. However, at a young age, I was tossed in, as every child is, to every sport imaginable just to see how I would fair. Would I be the next Serena Williams? Was I more of a Misty May Treanor? A soccer game at the age of 4 would prove that I was no sports star. My parents sat in lawn chairs on the soccer field under the beating sun just to see me sit on the field picking daisies and talking about horses with my other 4-year-old pal. This type of behavior continued as I got older. Walking during basketball, singing in the dugout – I just wasn’t meant to play sports.
This behavior would catch up with me in the form of ultimate frisbee nickname: “D-Picker” or daisy picker in long-form. It was not until high school that I really found a sport I loved (not to play myself of course). My father’s love of the University of Oklahoma football program had increased my interest in football throughout my life. As a young child I would poke fun at fans of our rival team, Oklahoma State, by calling them “OSU: Old Stinky Underwear.” At the time, I didn’t really understand how the game worked. I would hide when my dad’s friends came over to watch football games, listening to their commentary from afar. It was always a momentous occasion that required lots of Bud Light, Tostitos, and bean dip – typical American sustenance. One of my fondest memories is crying to my mother about falling in the toilet because, during one of the football gatherings, one of the guys forgot to put the toilet seat down. Still, as I matured, I understood more of how the game worked. Obviously I did not have the most thorough knowledge. I still sometimes would cheer with the rest of the onlookers at a game only to ask ten seconds later,”So what happened?” I also lacked knowledge of players and teams and ranks and sports news. My knowledge was limited to what I saw on the OU football field. I knew a touchdown when I saw one. I knew a first-down. I knew a field goal. I knew a win. Something that I did not realize until studying abroad, was the global interest in soccer – or, as I like to call it, the “real” football.
My first experience with football was at an Irish pub in Rome.
It was my first time in the city and a few students and I had decided to have a drink and see if we could catch the Oklahoma football game. The pub had a promise posted on their front door that they would stream any game available as long as you asked. I, for one, was not about to miss out on an OU football game if I could prevent it. So, we marched into the pub around 7pm that evening to find ourselves almost unable to enter. The pub was packed wall to wall with men and women large and small holding a pint in one hand and gesturing at the television screens with the other. The shouts we heard came in English, so, I assumed the game was English. Intrigued, my friends and I ended our night, after a failed OU football streaming attempt, watching both rugby and the end of the football game, screaming with the fans and laughing at how out of place we felt. After that day, I gained a new interest in football. I looked up information on some of the best players in the world (and yes I took a lot of time studying the perfect features of Cristiano Ronaldo). I began playing small indoor football games with the Italian children I tutored and asking them about the local team on which they played. Their eyes lit up when I talked about football. Even in broken English, I could understand how much they loved it. This fervor for the sport was not limited just to them. I saw the craze in every European city I visited: high-priced jerseys in shop windows, pub nights dedicated to games, children playing in the streets. This obsession followed me back to the United States where I began watching late night football and rugby through Sky Sports. There, I slowly began to understand the hype surrounding the sport. Football connects all nations in one universal game. The minor leagues bring small communities together which I learned at the Barnet football game in the Hive stadium during my time in London. Bigger leagues bring together whole cities. FIFA allows people from all over the world to feel a sense of national pride through sport. Even better is the ability that everyone, no matter their socioeconomic status, has to play football. All that’s needed is a ball and teams.
The sport circles the globe.
Yet, coming back to the states permanently (as far as I know) has lead to the disappearance of football in my life. Recently at dinner, I was excited about the USA vs Costa Rica game where we lost miserably. The people I was with were confused. “This is America,” they said. And they were right. The sport just is not as revered in the states. American football takes precedent. That does not mean that there are not pockets of fans. Go on Reddit and you’ll find a thread about soccer within the first five minutes. But the hype does not reach European levels as I experienced. Does it make me sad that football isn’t big in America? Yeah. It brings people together in a way that American football can’t. But that does not mean that I cannot enjoy it by myself. I plan on sharing with anyone who will listen about the joy that is “real” football. Maybe they will be able to enjoy it just as much as I do.
There’s a disease that follows adventures. It isn’t one we like to talk about directly either. Somehow, by admitting it, perhaps we are making ourselves look like bad global citizens or travelers. Because it is swept under the rug and forces each person to deal with it in silence instead of solidarity, we do not realize how often it occurs no matter if it is your first or your fiftieth trip.
I’m talking about homesickness. It’s a complicated issue that takes many, many forms and can look different for each person each time. Sometimes it shows up as feeling alone-even in a city of four million or more people and with good friends always down for a chat or an adventure. It can be anger at just about everything from the fact your roommate left you to take the trash out..again or at the city in general because why must everyone drive so absurdly? It can be tears, yelling, stomach aches, locking yourself in your room to watch Netflix, or spending more time facetiming home than experiencing the things around you.
As complex as it is- the things that solve it can be even more varied. For some it is a call home- a quick chat with your baby sister who wants to walk you around the house. Other solutions may be ice cream, a familiar homemade meal, getting out and about to remember why you chose to come to the city, a hardy laugh with your friends, or a journaling session. Some may need a day to reset by themselves; others may want to talk it out with friends.
For me, as I begin my third week in Puebla, it has taken most of the forms I have mentioned. It comes in waves. Sometimes it happens so strongly I feel it will consume me, other times it is a quick bite of pain. The most random things seem to bring it on: little girls in princess costumes that remind me of my sister, teenagers in a hoodie my brother owns, seeing the company my father works for pasted on the side of something in the supermarket, the hardest times are when nothing at all happens and it begins to sink in that I miss home.
I love it here. I do. But just as much as I love it, I miss home. That is okay. That is natural. I take it on, I allow myself to feel it and deal with it in whatever way I need to, and then I get back soaking in every minute of this experience that I will get to take back to my home. I will go home different that I came. Some day, not too long after I leave I assume, I will begin to feel a homesickness for this place too. It will be a temporary home, but I know it will be a home that deeply impacts my life.
There is no specific time you must be traveling to experience it. There is no way that it must manifest to be true homesickness. There is no one thing you must do to make yourself feel better. You are not weak for feeling it. It does not make you any less of an adventurer, because no matter how strong the wanderlust is, eventually you will feel the ache for familiarity. Embrace it, work through it, and venture on.
I arrived in Beijing the afternoon of February 13, and was met by stinging smog and smothering crowds, two of Beijing’s most distinctive characteristics. I had three things on my mental to-do list that scrolled through my head on repeat: Find a bathroom. Buy a SIM card. Get a taxi. The first was easy; the second proved impossible, after over an hour of searching; and the third was deceptively easy (I later figured out I had been charged about 8 times what I should have for the cab). But I arrived at my hotel complex by late afternoon, and, after wandering around for quite some time trying to find the correct building, I collapsed into my first bed in China.
Findfood. Since I hadn’t eaten in over twelve hours, I stepped back out into the gray China dusk, intending to walk towards the main road until I found something to eat. Thankfully, I ran into a little cafe right across the parking lot from my hotel. I sat there a long time, reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child while I ate. It was such a relief to submerge myself in English, my to-do list momentarily empty.
When I started making tomorrow’s to-do list back in my hotel room, though, I lost it. Complete breakdown. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think, was completely overcome by loneliness. I was in the largest, most-populated country on earth, and I knew not a soul. I hadn’t seen anyone that looked like me or spoke my language in 24 hours, and everyone I loved was asleep half a world away. By the time my parents called soon after, when they woke up and saw my texts, I was just lying on my bed shuddering and gasping. Their comfort and reminder of God’s protection was just what I needed, and when we hung up I went to sleep for a long time.
The next morning, I put off leaving my room for as long as possible. The breakdown of the previous night had pushed me a little further away from denial, but inside the room I could still pretend I was wherever I wanted. Outside the room, denial would no longer be an option. Stepping into the hotel hallway and closing the door behind me took a measure of bravery I have rarely used.
Register, find food, buy a SIM card.
The greatest victory of that first day was discovering that I would, in fact, have a place to live for the next four months. After being unable to register for housing on the Peking University housing portal in mid-January, I had tried unsuccessfully for a month to contact PKU about my housing situation. On the PKU campus, after roundaboutedly arriving at the international student office, the director viewed my online profile with a surprised “What? You haven’t checked into your dorm yet?” Indeed, I had a room!
After registering, I received a list of tasks in addition to my student card. As I was wandering about trying to complete these to-dos, I ran into a group of five or six international students, mostly from Australia, who were on the same mission. Together we checked off a lot of the things on the list, and then we ventured into one of the on-campus canteens (dining halls) for the first time.
After dinner, we had nothing to do, and so we decided the best time to try out the Beijing public transportation system was at 7 p.m. in our group of foreigners with limited English. Continuing in the study-abroad spirit of throwing oneself headfirst into uncertain situations, we descended into the bowels of the Beijing underground and, upon seeing a picture of the Forbidden City at the center of the subway map, decided where to go.
I have to say, after a day and half of feeling quite thwarted by the country I had once anticipated loving, it was very encouraging to visit Tiananmen (the entrance to the Imperial City), a place I’ve wanted to visit for years. It was a reminder that, despite the challenges of getting used to this new life, everything I looked forward to in China was still waiting for me.
And challenges there were. I won’t bore you with my to-do list every day, but here’s a snapshot: it was the same. Every day. For the first few days, at least. Each day, I would get up and try to complete each task one-by-one, and each day I would hit a new obstacle. Before bed each evening, I would think, “What should I do tomorrow?” And then I would look at my list, and be like, “Oh, same as today, just trying everything I’ve failed at so far, cool.” I learned quickly that everything in China takes four times longer than you think it should, at least for someone unfamiliar with the processes, geography, and language.
There were many good moments, though! I continued hanging out with the group of people I met that second day, and we added more to our cohort. Little by little, I started crossing things off of my to-do list. By the time Nate arrived a few days later, it felt like I’d been in Beijing for several weeks.
The first weekend, PKU gave the international students a tour of the Forbidden City. Here’s my funnest fact: the bricks laid out on the ground covering the entire palace grounds are the original bricks from when the palace was built. Knowing that I was stepping not just on the same ground, but the same exact bricks, as dynasties of historic Chinese emperors was pretty exciting. The architecture of the Forbidden City was, of course, beautiful.
My first week in Beijing was definitely up-and-down, but by the end I had already learned so much about how to live in China.