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I didn’t realize how distinctly American I was until I began my study abroad experience in China. I knew I was an outsider when I was walking through YuYuan Garden and was met with deadlock stares. I was aware that going crazy in arcades garnered the stares of people who did not realize that the avid arcade culture is something that is unique to China. However, this became especially apparent when I began my classes at Fudan University. There is something unique about the way that American students perceive their presence within a classroom that can be categorized under the characteristics that seems to define all Americans abroad: loud and obnoxious.

YuYuan garden during the day (left), when entry costs around five dollars a person. The same garden area during the annual lantern festival, this year in celebration of the Year of the Pig. Pig decor and memorabilia are especially common in Shanghai this year!

On my first day of class my friends and I arrived at Fudan University fifty minutes before class began, purely driven by first day nerves. What could barely be defined as a crowd of American students, three or four at best, had now become the sole source of noise in the hallway outside the classroom. We complained about the commute, passionately expressed our interest in acquiring breakfast, and constantly messed with the touch screen tablet that is stationed outside every classroom. Putting it not so delicately, we were being loud and obnoxious. Enter another foreign exchange student, headphones in, eyes averted to the ground, clearly not in the mood to talk. Naturally, we asked her what her name was and where she was from. When she responded that she was from the Netherlands and returned the question, four scattered and equally jarring voices responded “America!” She then did what most people do when they see a crowd of loud and obnoxious foreigners: she smirked, nodded mockingly, and said, “yeah I figured.”

Fudan University in Shanghai. This is one of Fudan’s two campuses, were most of my classes take place. Students enjoy many locations to relax within the traditional campus setting.

That was an interesting experience for me, to say the least. I had never identified myself as an American. According to my passport, I am not. However, there is a level solidarity that I now feel with my classmates. Regardless of our own cultural backgrounds, we had all been somehow influenced by our time in America; it effected our behavior, our mindsets, and the way we viewed our responsibilities as students. American students are more rambunctious, both in their behavior and their academic ideas.

(From left to right) A Chinese vintage store in Tianzifang, Shanghai. One of the many gigantic arcades located around the city, this one was also in Tianzifang. “Fried Ice-Cream” from a small fried foods stall across the street from our apartments. These turned out to be fried deep purple balls of custard and not ice-cream at all. They were still absolutely delicious!

This became clear to me in my business class. When asked to pitch a technological innovation that would improve student life, there was a clear division of groups: Americans and other foreign exchange students. The American students went wild, we pitched a cafeteria app that would eliminate language barriers, account for dietary restrictions, and even tell students how busy the cafeteria was before they got there. Ambitious, as expected, but also, as our teacher  explained to us, very difficult to implement and coordinate. The other group came up with a feasible library cataloguing database for which the technology was readily available. The teacher loved it.

This made me question whether or not this blind ambition was beneficial to us as students. Perhaps it would be better to stick to safer options. I have come to the conclusion that neither option is superior, they are just starkly different. They are reflections of the diversity of human thought, traditions, and culture. My academic experience has been opening me up to facets of educational practice, student culture, and social etiquette that differ drastically from what I am used to. I am very excited to dive into this new type of student life and gain different perspectives on what I had previously understood as the accepted order of things.

Two incredible views of Shanghai. The first is from my apartment (left) and the second if from the YuYuan Garden metro stop (left) which is the starting point of our forty-five minute commute to Fudan University.

The first thing you notice when you touch down in Shanghai is the complete lack of personal space. I say this as someone who is usually comfortable cramming into a packed subway car in Manhattan. We were warned of this cultural difference before we left for the semester, but there is nothing quite like experiencing it for yourself. What I’ve come to realize, however, in the last few days that I have been in China, is that this cultural difference is actually one that forces you headfirst into the local community. The people in Shanghai live in a level of comfort with each other that I have never experienced in any of my travels. There is unique a sense of camaraderie and tradition that the entire community adheres to. The ancient cultures and practices that are the foundations of Chinese life are clearly ingrained in every individual I have come across in my short time in Shanghai.

On our scavenger hunt we came across an adorable woman leading a board game in People’s Park and we were all enamored by her charisma. Although we didn’t understand the game, we were positive she was winning.

An amazing example of this sense of community is the Shanghai marriage market in People’s Park. We experienced this practice firsthand on one of our initial activities as a cohort. The Shanghai marriage market is a tradition that has been going on for generations. Essentially, parents gather around in the “blind corner” of the central People’s Park, and hold a sort of showcasing for their unwed sons and daughters. On opened umbrellas, advertisements can be seen boasting good looks and successful careers, as the actual bachelors and bachelorettes are nowhere to be seen. This practice is a clear indicator of the tradition and culture surrounding marriage in China. Parents see it as their duty and right to make sure that their children find the perfect match. This is a very traditional practice that makes me thing of the way marriage is viewed in India as well. I find it so interesting that ancient cultures can bring their value systems into the 21st century unbothered by the global culture of the modern era and pass these traditions down to their children. This is very clear in Chinese culture and I look forward to discovering more of Shanghai’s hidden cultural gems in the months to come!

The Shanghai Marriage market was such an interesting event to walk through. Parents swarmed us to find out if we wanted to marry their children and even pulled out pictures to show us and convince us to say yes. It was definitely a memorable sight.

By Deah Dushyanth

I have always defined myself as a global citizen. Yes, I grew up in New York and sound distinctly American, but my passport will always display the trio of lions that make up the State Emblem of India. In fact, until very recently, I was a complete foreigner in the place I’d called my home my entire life. After twelve years of waiting, I received my Green Card a few days after my 17th birthday in 2016. Officially receiving that small piece of plastic meant that I was finally entitled to most of the same rights as any American citizen. In my mind, it meant that I had as much a reason to be here as any one of my friends. Still, did this finally make me American? But even more importantly, did I even want to be American?

If there’s one thing the immigration process taught me, it's that there are certain passports you want to have, and others that will result in waiting. A lot of waiting. Growing up, I likely spent just as much time at the USCIS building in Manhattan as I did on the playground with my friends. I’m not here to spin a sob story about my lost childhood in my family’s pursuit of the American dream, because that would be a lie. Yes, I missed out on a lot of the carefree aspects of being a child that my peers were able to enjoy, but growing up immigration office-hopping was actually an incredibly rewarding experience for a kid. I learned how to tell where a person was from based on the color of their passport, which helped when I trying to decipher people’s conversations in every language I would hear in the waiting room, consumed by boredom. Even then I was incessantly nosy and annoyingly friendly. I learned the importance of patience, protocol and attention to detail, watching my parents fill out every form in the known universe, and failing, on many occasions, to do so correctly. Most importantly, I learned resiliency and the art of getting through to people who only see you as another face in a sea of individuals who want the same thing. My particularly unique childhood was simultaneously foreign and inherently American, something that every immigrant child grapples with.

My identity has always been something that seemed to be working against me. I festered over it all: my cultural identity, my identity within my family, and my duty as a member of a global community. For a long time, I was ashamed of the fact that I didn’t have roots in the place I called home. I often found myself wishing I’d won the geographic lottery and stuck the landing in New York instead of Bangalore, India. Conversely, I wished that my parents had never left India, saving me the energy of understanding how to grow up in a completely new country. I came to understand, however, that my cultural bipolarity is an integral part of my identity. The Indian side of me helps me understand things on a global scale, and see beyond the idyllic cultural bubble of the northern hemisphere. I understand that people lead different lives in every part of the world because, for a time, my life wasn’t what it is now. But I would be lying if I said there isn’t a big part of me that is completely American. I credit my sense of agency and often bull-headed inability to accept failure to the country that I grew up in. The combination of these value systems is what makes me believe that everybody should be a global citizen. In an effort to not sound like a broken record, I urge people to take the advice of those PSA’s on getting little kids to eat vegetables: you won’t know what its like till you try it. It's exactly that approach that leads millions of people to immigrate to the United States and millions of others to set out around the world to explore how they can be members of a global community beyond geographic and cultural borders. Its why I cherish my annual summer visits to India, and why I am skeptical of forfeiting my Indian passport when I am up for American citizenship in a few years (don’t worry this hasn’t all just been a ploy to get India to offer dual citizenship). Finally, it is why I made a conscious decision to make studying abroad a key component of my college education. What better way to learn how to be a universal thinker than by exploring the way people think all around the world?

By Emily Golden

In your original post, you defined yourself in your own words. Review this post and reflect on your own internal changes. Do you still identify in the same way? Has your time abroad given you new insights into your own identity? Has anything changed? If so, what? What do you think will be the hardest part of leaving your international community? How do you think you will stay connected to this community?

Noticing the changes I’ve gone through since my first post was surprising for me. While I did expect my outlook and perspective on my identity to change, I did not expect it to change in the way that it did. The lack of confidence in my language ability and my fear surrounding my conversational skills is quite evident in the tone of my first post. I remember feeling that anxiety in the beginning but I feel so detached from that now. I think that fear stemmed from me going about my abroad experience trying to trick everyone in China into thinking that I was not Chinese American. Not only did I have the language skills to explain how I’m Chinese, but not really, and how I moved to the US when I was 1 year old, but how I have a single white mother, but I also felt embarrassed and burdened to answer the inevitable question of “where are you from?”

But now, having taken an honest survey of my language abilities and having 3 months of being asked the same thing, I approach the question with a whole new attitude. Instead of dread, I take it as an opportunity to start a dialogue. For many Chinese people I am challenging what that think an American looks like to them and I look at it with this perspective now instead of thinking they’re going to judge me. I also understand that I’m not going to become fluent overnight and it’s ok to not understand when people engage you in conversation but its important to try. While this isn’t a change in identity, the pretty obvious realization has changed the way I carry myself here.

I also thought it was interesting how I identified strongly as an New Yorker in my first post. While I’m still impatient as the next person and dare to cross intersections while others wait, this identity has become less and less important. I’ve heard that identity is all about locality, so when I’m in America I feel the need to call myself a New Yorker but when I’m abroad, especially for a longer period of time, American is the only “marker” that I feel is super important. But I can tell, the moment I step back on American soil that part of my identity will probably change again.

For me, I think the hardest part of leaving my international community is acknowledging that it’s even happening. Just 4 months ago I didn’t know anyone coming into the program, didn’t have any of these amazing people in my life, and didn’t know how fast the semester would fly by. Now, just 4 months wiser it is going to be extremely difficult saying goodbye to the people I just met but who have become family so quickly. You build your community bonds so quickly when you’re abroad, and I can’t believe how many lifelong friends I now have when only 12 weeks ago I didn’t even know who they were.

Beyond the social media that everyone relies on here to stay in touch, I want to visit my classmates at their homes around the country. This journey would take me North, West, and South and I can’t wait to see how our relationships will grow from here on out. Regarding my teachers who I also consider my friends, they’ve shown how they still stay in touch with students from over a decade ago. I hope to be among that group too and stay in touch as the continue to change the lives of study abroad students likes me.

It is truly impossible to put into words the speed in which this semester has flown by and yet how many lessons, activities, and friendships have been fit in at the same time. Having my perspective on identity to guide me has been instrumental in my experience and I wouldn’t trade it for anything else.

By Megan Gardner

If there’s anything I’ve learned from traveling, it’s that Murphy’s Law is very real. Everything that could possibly go wrong, will go wrong. However, it teaches lessons that can’t be taught in any other way. You learn quickly that nothing is solved by being passively apathetic. Unexpected challenges will pop up and all you can do is adapt to the new circumstances. It can be difficult to accept a certain turn of events, but it is necessary to overcome particular obstacles. Besides, these road bumps often end up being the most memorable parts of the journey. They make something that was supposed to be mundane become an adventure.

Two weeks ago, my program was returning to Tunisia from an excursion in Italy. The entire journey was only supposed to take an hour. But, it did not go as planned. We were scattered across the airport terminal for hours before learning the flight was cancelled. We sat in plastic blue seats, shared overpriced snacks, and swapped stories for our last grand Italian feast together.

Last semester, my friends and I planned a weekend hiking trip in the north of China. We traveled overnight for hours by bike, metro, taxi, bus, plane, and train to get to the mountains. What we didn’t plan, however, was a hostel. We thought that there was a town full of hostels at the top of the mountain. After hours of late night trains and planes, we hiked for 10 hours up the mountain with all of our bags to find beautiful views, but no town and no hostels. We wandered around tiny villages until we stumbled upon a woman who offered us rooms and a hot dinner. At the time, we were all exhausted and starving and thirsty, but it ended up being the best meal of my life and one of the most memorable experiences in China.

The trips themselves were incredible, but these happy accidents are what made them so memorable. I never would have remembered a canceled flight or basic hostel, but memories of sitting in the airport swapping stories with friends over the cheapest bottle of airport wine and memories of wandering around small Chinese villages will stick with me forever.

So cheers to the missed flights, the late trains, the broken down cars, and the poorly planned plans because they are what make travel worthwhile.

By Emily Golden

My community and my journey of discovering my identity have been interlocked since the beginning. I was born in Shanghai, China and adopted as an infant by my beautiful mother. I grew up in a white family and attended predominantly white schools from kindergarten through college. The community meant to support my identity was simultaneously the very thing that made me so confused about it in the first place. Growing up and not looking like your mom, or your grandparents, or just about anyone you’re surrounded by is a tough obstacle in accepting and embracing your identity. My family and friends definitely supported me and didn’t box me into an “Chinese-American” identity and raised as just American. My mom also made the topic of adoption very open and easy so I’ve never been uncomfortable talking about my adoption.

I remember in first grade the first time a boy asked me why I didn’t look like my mom. I gave a sassy, first grade response to this poor boy but when I went home I remember wondering why other people didn’t get asked the same question and why they didn’t have to defend their identity like I did.

I love my family and I know my family loves me, but I knew from a very young age that at least physically, I will never full fit in. And on the other side, even though I may be physically Chinese, I can’t relate to many experiences and backgrounds of Chinese Americans with Chinese families. The limbo was and is an interesting place of self discovery where neither community can really help you along your journey. Coming to the realization that just being you is enough, regardless of where you come from or how the world perceives you, was a process that I needed to come to on my own.

Since being abroad, everyone expects that I speak fluent Chinese and are confused when I sit with my other classmates or have an accent when I speak the Chinese I do know. When still deciding whether to do an internship or language pledge, I re-evaluated my intentions for doing the language pledge. I started learning Chinese in 8th grade because I thought it made sense being Chinese, that I learn how to speak Chinese. That intention developed into genuine interest in the language and culture of China, but I also discovered that much of the world would expect me to already speak Chinese. I briefly chose the internship, because I didn’t want to commit to a language just because it is an expectation. But I finally chose to do the month long language pledge because I wasn’t doing it for expectation’s sake, but for my own. I don’t think my time abroad has largely effected the why I identify myself, but has definitely made me reflect on it in new, eye opening ways.

By Emily Golden

Fostering a sense of community has always been at the forefront of my mind. Having a trust worthy support network that you can rely on can make or break an experience entirely. But how do you do such a thing when you’re half way across the world and when there are only 5 other students on your program for an entire semester? This was a pretty big concern for me prior to my departure. However, from the moment you land, there’s no choice but to build a new support network and community from the ground up.

At first, a dynamic of only 6 students was a little hard especially because we all came from different backgrounds with varying levels of travel experience and language ability. In addition, because Kunming is a relatively small city and there are very few Americans or foreigners, our group can feel even more isolated. But after simply being around each other and experiencing similar things, I’ve come to truly care for everyone and know that they will have my back in return. It’s also become clear that our love for adventure is something we can all relate to and is something that profoundly bonds us together. A defining moment was when I was still deciding between doing an internship or an intensive language study for the last month of the program. I knew I had found my people when everyone sat down and helped me write an extensive pro and con list for each option. Everyone gave thoughtful advice and genuine support when they didn’t have to. I knew then and there what a special group of humans I had the privilege of befriending. When people told me that your study abroad friends would become you lifelong friends, I had my reservations. But only a month in, I know for sure that we will stay friends long after this semester ends.

In Chinese culture, the relationship between teachers and students is quite different from the US. Here, we can text our teachers on WeChat casually and form deep relationships. Both of my Chinese language teachers are parents and it definitely comes across in their patient, compassionate treatment of us. Having a quasi-parent figure has also aided in my adjustment to life in Kunming. Similarly, even though we call them “teacher,” the other staff members are viewed more as friends and helpful resources instead of formal authoritative figures. Also, all the staff members and teachers are genuinely good friends so it’s so refreshing to see the kind of community that SIT as a program fosters here.

To complete my sense of community, movement and (manicured) nature are both critical components. I’m my happiest when I’m dancing or incorporating some sort of artistic movement into my daily life. Our daily Taiji lesson definitely satisfies this aspect for me. Our Taiji master is 64 and moves with such grace and agility it’s beautiful to observe. Beyond keeping us physically fit, it really helps me clear my mind and appreciate a new form of cultural movement. In addition, going for a walk in a park always helps me maintain a peaceful mind whether it be in Central Park at home or the national mall back at GW. Luckily, our apartment complex is right next to a beautiful park called 莲花池公园 or Lotus Pond Park. You can see elderly people practicing Taiji in the morning, or kids and their families spending time together after school. I found this park by chance our very first morning in Kunming and I frequent it when I need to think or when I want to just appreciate the scenery.

Adjusting to life in Kunming has been incredibly challenging and rewarding at the same time. Finding your people happens quicker and easier than you might expect. What may take months back at school can happen almost instantaneously when you’re abroad. And establishing your nooks and happy places in a new place is critical for mental health and makes you feel like a local. The Chinese language has a particularly saying, 入乡随俗 (ruxiangsuisu) which means when you’re in a new environment you should do as the locals do. While this is extremely important in acclimating, it is just as valuable to bring your own sense of community into the new environment with you.

Photo #1: Group photo
This was our very first day of orientation in Beijing when we were all still just getting to know each other. It’s funny to look back at only a month ago and see how much we’ve grown together and how important they’ve become in terms of my new community.

Photo #2: Lotus Pond Park
This is the park that is directly across the street from our apartment. They have an all you can eat buffet (my kind of meal) with outdoor seating where I do my homework sometimes. My mind becomes as tranquil as this photo when I’m here.

Photo #3: My Taiji master and me
This is me and our Taiji master, Zhu师傅 practicing one of the Taiji combinations. Taiji is always a highlight, especially because of the crazy tangents and random noises he makes during class. I’ve come to respect him as a teacher, an artist, and a friend.

By Emily Golden

Hiya and welcome! If you’re curious as to what it’s like being a Chinese-American traveling in China, then you’ve come to the right blog.  It’s hard to believe I arrived in China only two weeks ago when feels like a lifetime. We had orientation in Beijing for five days before flying to our host city, Kunming in Yunnan province. Having just completed our first week of class and slowly adjusting to life in China, I’ve definitely had some eye opening experiences.

From the moment I landed in Beijing, I was taken aback by how familiar being in China felt. In addition to having traveled here before, it was still an incredibly immersive experience right away. Because I blend so seamlessly with everyone else, no one has any reason to think I’m a foreigner. With lots of nodding, “谢谢”-ing (saying thank you), and looking confident, I made it to my hotel without any trouble. However, the cat’s let out of the bag when I try to speak coherent sentences or when people try to talk to me in coherent sentences. I feel like a secret agent with a hidden identity but there’s is a definite sense of anxiety and shame about being “found out”. When I don’t understand what someone is saying and reply with a blank face, I feel both their confusion and my own disappointment. However, the little wins when I do understand or reply correctly help me through the tougher times.

Another experience I think is unique to my journey in China, is the way foreign looking foreigners are treated. When one of my classmates says something Chinese, there is instant praise and encouragement. But when I do something similar or even something better, I feel like I’m just barely measuring up. I’ve also reflected a lot on my desire to become fluent in Mandarin and came to an interesting conclusion. While having an undeniable interest in the Chinese language and culture, I felt my desire to learn came more from a societal pressure and obligation to know my “mother tongue.” Being a Chinese American adopted into a white family is an ambiguous position for understanding one’s identity. The criticism of “not being Asian enough” from both society and myself shaped my intentions more than I previously thought. ...continue reading "My Yunnan Exploraration Project"

By mahaliasmith

A couple of weeks ago, my mom came to visit me in Shanghai. When she came she said, “Look, it’s not me who’s holding your hand and guiding you along anymore, it’s you who’s holding mine.” The entirety of her stay, she kept remarking on how well she thought I could navigate the city and how generally confident I was in myself in Shanghai.
In the moment, I mostly pushed those comments aside, but as the semester comes to a close, I’m realizing that I genuinely believe I’ve accomplished a lot this semester.
The semester has been full of just about every kind of exhilarating yet humbling experience. From being chased by wild monkeys through the forest in Zhangjiajie, to summiting five of the sacred peaks in China alongside grannies in heels and Gucci track suits, kayaking down the Li River, sprinting along the Great Wall in the frigid cold and heavy snowfall, fending off relentless market vendors (and harassing a few of my own), late night cramming for term papers and exams, experiencing the variety in night life, trying the most unique and somewhat terrifying cuisines, and making friends from all over the world: Shanghai has opened my world to a plethora of new experiences.
One of my favorite parts about Shanghai is how the enormity of the city makes me feel like such a small dot in this world. Despite that, I’m no longer scared to ride the metro home alone at night or to go on my own biking expedition across the city with nothing but a GPS for navigation and my music as companionship. In fact, I’m not afraid of embarking on any other adventure in Shanghai, or China for that matter. I welcome the opportunity for new experiences in addition to the roadblocks that might arise along the way.

...continue reading ""

By Shannon Fitzpatrick

It’s a beautiful thing to bring happiness to others through doing what I love. During my past few months in China, I have found that despite the major changes that come about from living in a different environment, the things in life that have always made me happy, continue to do so. I have discovered that the flame of a true passion is not easily put out- it may flicker and change with changes occurring around it, but passion runs deep enough that regardless of the circumstances, it perseveres.

As mentioned in my previous post, I have been volunteering at V Yoga Studio in Shanghai- helping out around the studio and teaching English lessons to the yoga teachers who speak Chinese. In my case, my passion for yoga has allowed me to connect with a specific community that shares my same passion. With this, I have been lucky enough to contribute to the studio’s community in sharing my perspective and knowledge of yoga, and have learned so much from the warm and welcoming women around me in exchange. In our time spent together, it is clear that we enjoy eachothers’ company. With different things to learn from, teach to, and share with one another, we constantly empower one another and have thought-provoking interactions.

One of the most interesting aspects of my time spent at the studio is that every interaction feels so meaningful and thought-provoking, even when no words are exchanged. With a large language barrier between myself and some of the women who speak only Chinese, our interactions are often oriented in gestures and involve translation apps. Nonetheless, we still find ways of understanding each other and learning from one another.

The studio describes itself as a family and welcomes anyone into its doors to practice. Employees are constantly looking for new ways to share their passion for yoga with the community around them. In an effort to expand and achieve their goals, the studio manager has decided to create an outdoor cafe space on the roof of the studio where people can enjoy the positive atmosphere of the studio, without feeling obligated to practice yoga. I have been fortunate enough to be able to contribute to this action of passion sharing- helping to renovate the studio space for the new cafe. I definitely didn’t feel qualified when I was asked to help paint the walls of the new cafe, but had a blast doing so anyways.

I am so excited to watch the community of V Yoga grow and transform, and will continue to use my passion to help fuel the community’s fire.

Partner yoga sesh!


Cafe painting quickly transformed to face painting


Just a little V-Cafe advertising


The V-Yoga family’s newest edition coming soon!