Living in China: My Assumptions vs. Reality

Shanelle at the Great Wall of China copy

I knew all about the Great Wall before I ever stepped foot on it. 

When I began my freshman year of college, I began studying Chinese with this half-baked idea of studying abroad in China someday. Why China? To be honest, I thought that it seemed so “foreign” and exciting.

dragon-boats copy

I think I imagined something like… dragon boats floating down the river by the Summer Palace

In my application essay to my program, I specifically remember writing that I wanted to go there because I couldn’t imagine a “day in the life” of a typical person in China. I wasn’t even sure what the typical person in China might be like.

Frankly, the only significant exposure to the Chinese lifestyle I’d had was condemning news articles about all of China’s problems. Other than the bleak picture painted by the media, my other impression was of the ancient dynasties that I’d learned about in history class. It was easy for me to picture the ancient palaces and traditional forms of dress. But what was there now?

china-mansion copy

And I definitely pictured architecture like this mansion

Of course I knew that Beijing existed as a real city in modern times. And, therefore, I also knew that it must share a lot of features with other major cities I was familiar with. But I wasn’t sure how a country on the other side of the world might actually manifest itself.

Surely there were some major differences I’d have to deal with. I had so many questions:

  • Would I be able to survive with the year of Chinese I’d taken so far?
  • Would everything be written in Chinese?
  • Did people speak English?
  • What was the food like?
  • What should I wear?
  • How would people treat me as an American?
  • How would they treat me as a black woman?
  • How different from American culture was it really?
  • Was I worrying about all these things for no reason—or was I not worried enough?
Wuyutai-tea-shop copy

Yes, everything is written in Chinese (but sometimes in English too).

As it turned out, there was only one assumption that I should have gone in with: that I had a lot to learn.

At first I was struck by all the apparent differences: the people, the language, the fashion, the food, the markets… there was a lot to take in. I’d been correct in imagining that things would be different from home.

carrying-bundles-of-wood copy

One of the first photos I took in China; even the most innocuous things fascinated me

But once I started to get over my initial shock, I was suddenly struck by all the similarities as well. I realized that—believe it or not—people were just people living their lives even halfway across the world.

Sure, sometimes I felt like a spectacle simply walking down the street. Yes, the food was a whole new experience. And of course the language, the etiquette, the shopping culture and many other aspects came with a steep learning curve. There were countless new things to contend with, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. It didn’t take long for me to learn to love China.

jumping-photo-china copy

Stay tuned for to read more about my experiences in China!

Have you been to China, or are you thinking about traveling there? Comment below!

One thought on "Living in China: My Assumptions vs. Reality"

  1. Keanie T. says:

    Hello, my name is Keanie and I’m thinking of applying for the Teach in China or Teach in Korea program. I am also an African American woman who is curious about what life would be like in one of these places. I do not have a bachelors but I am willing to obtain a teachers certificate in order to take part in this wonderful opportunity. I have always had a passion for teaching and helping people. There has many many obstacles in my life stopping me from obtaining this dream of mine. Now that I have discovered this program my dream can start anew. Is there anything you can share with me on your experience living/working in China? Also are there any tips that you may have for me to be prepared for this new experience? Anything helps.

    Thank you,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *