As I sat waiting for my plane to take me from Beijing, I had never been more excited in my life to come home. I missed my family, my girlfriend, my friends; I missed Chipotle and barbecues. During a private moment with a professor at the end-of-the-semester banquet, he told me to appreciate getting to see all of the things I missed, and worry about reflecting on my experience studying in China later.
I had been gone for a long time. I had spent the last five months at Loyola’s Beijing Center, and the four months before that at the John Felice Rome Center. I had changed a lot. While reflecting on our experiences seems to be a mandate of Jesuit education, I was content with putting a little time and distance between me and my experiences.
So I took his advice. I loved being home and hearing what had been going on in my friends’ lives. I also valued sharing my experience in China with my friends and family. Those who were closest to me knew how to listen and ask good questions, even if they knew nothing about China.
I can’t say that was the case with everyone I talked to, though. Frustration set in after being repeatedly and exclusively asked, “Did you see the Great Wall?” (I camped on top of it) and “Can you use chopsticks now?” (I could before leaving).
Even more disheartening is when people said to me, “I have no desire to ever go to China,” without knowing anything about it — well, other than the stereotypes: smog, communism and good (and maybe scary) food. One of those is true, another half-true and the other you can find if you look down the right hutong and ask the right questions.
No one ever says that about the Rome Center. They rightly assume that going there makes for an amazing study abroad experience, vacation or life. I wish people gave Beijing, and the rest of China, the same chance.
I think one reason people are often xenophobic toward or afraid of China is because of how drastically different life is there. I could write a column trying to assuage those fears and insecurities, and talk about how my time there taught me how we’re not so different after all. The truth is, what made China so different is what taught me one of my most important life lessons.
I’d spent my entire life trying to make friends by finding people who were like me or had common interests with me. I can’t really blame myself; that seems to be the standard advice given to all of us growing up. Being dropped in the middle of a Chinese university, without knowing my roommate or the language, changed my perspective on how I sought out friends. Commonalities became boring. I wanted to know what made me and the people I met different. I think this attitude would help a lot in the world, whether in romantic or diplomatic relationships.
That same professor said to all of the Beijing Center students on our first day, “If you don’t know China, you don’t know your world.” To develop an understanding of international politics, economics or culture, China plays an essential role. But it’s also more than that; China taught me how to be a better human, too.
I never thought China was going be a necessary part of my worldview. Nonetheless, now it is. This worldview now includes my hospitable and amicable Chinese roommate, Wang Peng. It includes playing basketball, grabbing dinners and going home with my friend Volleyball (his English name), joining an expat creative writing group and hiking for three hours in the dark to camp on the Great Wall and watch the most beautiful sunrise.
Making a temporary home out of Beijing was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It was also one of the most important. It’s my wish that if anyone can study abroad anywhere, for any length of time, they do it. I just wish they wouldn’t rule out Beijing so unilaterally.
Being exposed to things that are different from us, and sometimes radically so, stretches us in ways that are uncomfortable. But it also helps break down an I/you, we/them worldview. If we can be open to studying in China, then we can learn to accept the “other”: the stranger, the friend who has backward political views and even those closest to us. When we learn to see people, ideas and cultures for what they are first, and not how to change them, we see the world for what it is: dynamic, diverse, and “charged with the grandeur of God.”
Zac Davis is a contributing columnist.