Expecting the Unexpected: Winging it to China

Benjamin Olmstead is a student at Hartwick College and an ISA Featured blogger. Benjamin is currently studying abroad with ISA in Shanghai, China.

Those who plan to study abroad with no solid “purpose” in mind are frequently made witness to seeing their arguments blasted like clay pigeons – shattered with the propulsion of questions which lift up ideals only for them to be shattered. For these people who make sport of your dreams of travel, anything that falls short of answering the “why” part of “Why are you going to China?” is never an acceptable answer. Being that I’ve clearly lost in legitimizing myself in the eyes of those who doubt the wisdom of my plans, I will keep it simple; I am going to China because I can. It interests me. I’ve painstakingly created ways to pursue that which interests me. Pursuing my interest of going abroad has actually felt like a pursuit, it’s a welcome distraction from other so-called pursuits. The sedentary pursuit of money often takes you only as far as money goes – which, having little of it in the first place by virtue of said pursuit, sends many lost souls down short and dark paths. Nonetheless, we as humans are in pursuit of something and for my own logic can’t see why my dog would have buried this something in the back yard, so to speak.

The renowned Chinese philosopher Chuang Tzu once said, in Chinese mind you, “A frog in a well cannot imagine an Ocean.” I’ve made a sacrifice of temporary financial security for something greater, I don’t know what this greater thing is, but I trust that it should be at least greater in comparison with what I’ve seen in my day-to-day. If you haven’t been abroad, you can relate to this sacrifice if you’ve attended college. It takes a lot of sacrifice to study abroad in more ways than just financially, but the rewards are worth it. I suppose however that I don’t need to cover the benefits of seeing the world too extensively on a blog devoted to just that thing. It had to be done though: the dreaded “why” question will be asked, the question in question is meant to weed out those who don’t mean it.

Last year, my venture to Korea began on the 15th of February, and now every day since has become a memorial. For example it was one year ago today that I was avoiding swallowing bones in the delicious Jjimdak chicken dish and having one hell of a time trying to decipher Korean accents.  With two days left before departure it’s good to show any readers that I have a pulse, and am much more (theoretically) prepared for China than I was for Korea. Here is what I have done to prepare for being Shanghaied:

1. Read a Lot ~ Develop your own personal reasons for going ~ Create a mental net to catch foreign ideas with

At my school we have a January term. It’s a month of sitting in the cold with potentially not much to do while working on a single class. I say potentially because lucky for me I was able to change that! Instead of counting days until I leave I’ve been hopping from task to task like a rabbit with it’s tail on fire, trying not to get blindsided by a culture I wouldn’t understand. Instead of selecting from the catalog of classes for this term, I decided to set up an independent study I titled “Effective Travel Writing” under my favorite English professor. With his help, I compiled a list of mainly Western authors who encounter foreign countries much like I’d be doing. Since January I have read Orwell, Twain and Marco Polo, among others. Aside from the reading in that study I set up, which offered the perk of working from home with my increasingly heartsick parents, I have been reading a Shanghai history book and works by an American-Chinese author, Amy Tan.

I have, at this very moment, an invisible net in my head specially designed to catch and hold on to that which I don’t understand. The net is built out of the lessons I’ve learned from writers both famous and unknown who have done precisely what I’ll be doing. Your reason for going will eventually come out of this catch, the foreign ideas you’ve managed to come away with. For being mentally prepared, I rate these bits of advice at number one on the list. Going to a foreign country cold is good for developing something original to take away in your opinions, but only to a certain extent; knowledge is indeed power.

2. “Be water, my friend” ~ Tie up your loose ends early ~ Lessons from re-potting a plant

One of the touted quotes of Bruce Lee telling you to become like water has notions of becoming more adaptable to a changing situation. In this case, you can adapt by brushing up on your language skills and reading up on the news, in general doing as much research as possible. If you haven’t been to the country before and believe your language skills to be passable, then you are probably mistaken. In addition, there is no amount of news that you can read, let alone in English, that will give you a real grip of the average Chinese citizen’s travails. Still, it just goes to show that there is no such thing as too much preparation when tackling a culture and country as immense as China. By making the attempt, you’ve already separated yourself from the packs of foreigners in your own way. Blending in will save you trouble with possible threats, like pickpockets for example.

This brings me to my next point of tying up loose ends. Think realistically. What will you carry in those vulnerable pockets? You have to put yourself in the mindset that you’re already there.  Did you research enough to know that you should bring extra sticks of deodorant to China? If not, you’ll part Chinese crowds in Beijing like Moses and the Red Sea. I implore you to weigh the pros and cons of such a move. ISA helps you already with a lot of advice, such as calling your bank to notify of travel plans, but there are things you don’t know too which can hurt you. Don’t wait until you’re all away around the world to find out you left The Nutty Professor signed out from Blockbuster. Stupid details still need solving.

These details are like the case of re-potting a plant. Should you endeavor to take on such a task, you need to know a few things. First, you need to be clear in your mind and thinking. It’ll make the plant live better if you do re-pot it, but if you mess up, you’ve just killed your plant and shouldn’t have done it in the first place. The other big question and the point I’m getting at: Is the plant healthy enough to survive being re-potted? For your own good you’d best be sure you’re able to make your own transplantation into a foreign place in one piece. Tying up loose ends, reading books and all other manners of personal advice I’ve offered thus far are meant to question you in this.

3. Taking advantage of your surrounding ~ Delegating responsibility

When, and certainly there shall be a time, you end up exhausted from covering the aforementioned points it’s important to remember what you have at your disposal. Hang out with your friends and family, keep the conversation focused on the present with a limited amount of airtime spent proselytizing about what great things you’ll do abroad. You’ll have enough time to actually do those things soon enough, plus you don’t want to be seen as an ass among the people who’ll be rooting for you overseas. Know what you’ll be eating abroad? If it’s China, don’t expect too much fancy cheese, hamburgers or other sorts of classic Americana as you’d find outside the walls of McDonalds. I advise you to eat as much as possible of that soon-to-be forbidden fruit. Do anything that you can’t do abroad to the fullest – maybe even become a harsh critic of your own government. Do whatever you’re now free to do as much as possible, because I assure you, these are things which you now take for granted and aren’t doing sometimes in a misguided sense of xenophilia.

You will be representing your country and like it or not it’s where you’re born. Find something to be proud of or you’ll be miserable, whether you choose to go abroad or not.

Finally, on a lighter note, delegating responsibility can be a fun way to get your friends and family involved rather than estranging them with your own excitement. Now, by doing this, you can share the excitement. I gave my parents the Shanghai guide book I purchased and I told them to make me a top-ten list of places to visit with the promise that I would tell them all about the places I went to. Also, find a friend who would like one of the books you’ve read, that is if your friends do that kind of thing.

One end you should always tie up that I forgot to mention: Create a contact list for all the different avenues of communication you can be reached on. In a country like China where there are many questions about which sites you can access or what methods of communication are viable this is an important thing to look into doing. I plan on using lots of post-cards, letters, e-mail and Skype. Though I think post-cards and letters are reserved for more meaningful communication.

For better or worse, these are my final words before jumping into a place where, despite my best efforts, I will inevitably possess not the slightest clue of what’s going on.

5 thoughts

  1. Your point in needing to develop your own reasons to go abroad is important. I remember being interviewed before I studied abroad in South Africa for that reason – to acknowledge that visiting Africa isn’t like traveling to Europe and to share my reason(s) for wanting to go there. Only after that point did I get the clearance to go to South Africa.

  2. Insightful writing! Sounds like you are an experienced regular traveler. “Be water, my friend” is a BEAUTIFUL saying!

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