University of Wisconsin–Madison

Fifteen Hours in a Plane Later

There’s no way to explain how strange it is to be sitting in China right now.

Having never been out of the country before this trip, I think that, despite doing my best to leave expectations behind, my perception of the “outside world” was flawed. Everything is different and the same at the same time. On one hand, I’ve bought more bottled water in the past week and a half than the past year and a half in America, but on the other hand I feel no different. I have to bring toilet paper with me everywhere. Crossing the street is a sometimes a pain and always a little scary. The peanut butter is pretty much the same. I think that I thought I would have changed somehow. My roommate said that a lot of people build up travel in their heads and make it into something it’s not, and I agree. This experience has already been worth it several times over, but, at the end of the day, people are people, whether they’re Chinese or American.

That being said, Tianjin is as close to absolute immersion as you can get while still having running water. Almost nothing is in English; in fact, the most English I usually see in one place is in the grammar section of my Chinese textbook. Sometimes it’s interesting, sometimes it’s challenging, and sometimes I wish I had never chosen to study Chinese. The language barrier is the realest thing in the entire world. Usually, my mistakes aren’t that big of a deal. If I mess up my order at a restaurant, I usually like the food either way. (Big shoutout to some of my classmates for putting up with me accidentally ordering 5 bowls of porridge when I tried to ask the waiter to wait five minutes.) Sometimes, it’s inconvenient, like when I had to throw out a whole bottle of sunscreen because I couldn’t read the signs. Other times, it’s downright frustrating, like when we couldn’t find our hotel in Beijing after walking around for almost a half hour. But it’s always present. There’s a reason going to another country is such a great way to study the language.

The view from Tianjin’s 水上公园

This past week has been crazy. I’ve toured Tianjin, finished three chapters of our textbook, taken five dictations and one test, and spent two nights in Beijing. I’ve successfully hailed and directed a taxi on my own and began learning traditional Chinese calligraphy. I feel so blessed to be here.

A typical day goes something like this: I wake up around 7:30 and study for a bit and talk to friends/family back home before going to class at 8:30. I have two lecture classes (with around 15 other second-years) and two discussion classes (with four students, including myself.) Class ends at 12:05. After that, I might eat lunch at the Chinese equivalent of Four Lakes or Gordons (for 10¥, or around $1.50), or go with some other students to one of the many, many restaurants that are close to our dorm. In the afternoon, I do the day’s homework and student for the next day’s exam (either a dictation, like a small quiz, or our weekly test on Friday.) For one hour, I meet one-on-one with my tutor, who helps me practice the patterns and words we learned in class and my Chinese speaking in general. For dinner, we almost always go out, and we try to go to different restaurants almost every day. I’ve had everything from expensive Sichuan chicken to dirt cheap Chinese “pizza,” and gone everywhere from a Western-style mall to a literal hole-in-the-wall. Despite the considerable workload, I think that the homework and examinations are quite manageable.

A shopping mall a short subway ride away from our dorm.

Tianjin, you’re cool and all, but everything is bigger in Beijing.

If you’ve never been to Beijing, it is, in my humble opinion, an absolute must-see. The city is the strangest mix of old and new, and there’s no way to replicate almost three millennia of history. I think I could go every weekend that I’m here and still have new things to see. This weekend, I explored the Sanlitun district (where we stayed) and spent some time in China’s National Museum (which is absolutely astounding) as well as 七九八 (798), an art district in northern Beijing. Some pictures will follow this post.

Everything hasn’t been sunny—I’ve definitely experienced moments where I wished more than anything to be sitting in my favorite chair at home, in good old, familiar Georgia, surrounded by English. Or, honestly, any place with an alphabet. But those moments have passed. As a first-time traveler, I don’t want other people to think that everything is great all the time. It’s not. But it never is, no matter where you are. I’m glad I’m here. I’m learning so much about Chinese, China, people, and myself. And having an absolute blast.

Caramelized fruit skewers, a Beijing night market specialty.
Inside the National Museum of China.
A wall inside 798.