Studying Abroad in China: Feelings you get when away from home (Study Abroad Series Part 1)

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It’s the spring semester of my junior year in college, and I’m spending it abroad in Shanghai! I chose to come here to confront a lot of the fears I’ve had about going to China, a place I’ve always associated with being confused and uncomfortable about my identity. I was going to live in Shanghai to force myself to learn Chinese, get acquainted with 21st-century Chinese culture, and to gain some independence.

But I quickly learned after getting here that me living here in Shanghai isn’t one long seminar about Gloria’s identity problems. It’s about living in a new country, where I’m not at the center of it. Throughout the next couple months, I’ll be working on a multi-part series that’ll capture, as comprehensively as I can manage, my four months studying abroad.

Here are a few snapshots of what it feels like to be abroad. These thoughts and experiences are ordered loosely in chronological order.

The “Wow I am so far from everything I know and am familiar with” moment

The realization that you’re going through a surreal time in your life splashes you like cold water. I never would have thought Gloria would spend any significant stretch of time living in China because I’d always have an excuse on hand (not enough money, career commitments, life getting in the way)… but here I am.

I’ve been getting these fleeting moments of clarity that happen especially when I’m alone with my thoughts or simply enjoying myself in Shanghai. Last time this happened, I was taking a solo midday walk through a new neighborhood. For a few moments, while trotting down some empty wet sidewalk, hearing just the clicking of my boots and the whooshing of passing cars, I suddenly became aware of the fact that I’m all alone over here. Like thousands-of-miles-from-all-the-people-who-know-and-care-about-me alone. It was exhilarating and freeing in a way that’s hard to put into words. Imagine taking a hike in really thin air: there is beauty and novelty surrounding you, and you walk around with a slight tightness in your chest — the giddiness that comes from the sheer aloneness and anonymity. Also, a thought crossed my mind that if some random guy on a moped were to bash me on the street and leave my body there, no one would know who the heck I was, where I was from, or who to call. With the vastness of the city and the oceans of people, Shanghai has been triggering in me a sense of smallness and awe I thought only natural landscapes could produce.

“Poor connection. Try switching to audio”

Being in China forces me to get used to all the complications of communicating with people back home in the US. 12-hour time difference, spotty VPN, grievously bad WiFi connection, you name it. Lately, China’s software developers seem to have been waging an arms race against the developers over at ExpressVPN, with the insane neck-to-neck action confusing the heck out of my electronic devices. I’d go days at a time without Google and Facebook, which I guess doesn’t sound that terrible as I’m writing it down. But let’s say I understand now what people mean when they say that it sometimes takes absence to value presence. The inner optimist within me sees some good in this, though. It’s probably God’s way of telling me to cut my love affair with my own laptop and everything American that’s detracting from my experience abroad. Greater self-reliance is a sure result from all of this, so that’s good.

Feeling out of touch with what’s happening back at home

I’ve been seeing discussions and posts on my university meme page and realize I’m not in on some of the jokes anymore. Controversial private donor dinners? Freak snowstorms? The news catches up to me through the grapevine eventually, taking about as long as the lag on my FaceTime calls, but it’s okay. Sometimes, though, I’d get this dull depressing thought that I’ve been losing relevance to the people I’ve left at Brown and that life for everybody is going on fine and dandy whether I’m there or not. This might be how it feels for fresh college graduates still in denial, who are only just coming to terms with the fact that they’ll forever be outsiders looking in through the windows of the beloved institution they used to call home.

“I’m not putting myself out there enough…”

Upon first arriving in China, I went through a honeymoon period where everything was a new and exciting event. Walking to school, going to the supermarket, and grabbing some bites of street food… journal worthy. Inevitably, I reached a point somewhere during week 4 where I realized that I have gone to eat at the same food court six times in the same week. The spontaneous milk tea run had become the “after class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 1 pm” place. Up to that point, I’d barely explored the city except on the few occasions I’d gone out with a group somewhere. I had compiled a wicked bucket list for Shanghai when I first arrived, but it became apparent that the items on the “will do sometime while I’m here and have time” would never get done if I didn’t get my ass out of my dorm to break the routine. Feeling emboldened, I made a plan to use my Wednesdays for solo travel and reflection. For anyone else who studies abroad for any period of time, I hope this moment hits you sooner than later — your time abroad is way too precious to be wasted.

“Talk to the person. Say hi and strike up a conversation. Do it. Say HI.”

In the process of challenging myself to engage more with China and to step out of my comfort zone, I thought it would be a good idea to saddle up next to some local students at SUFE and make some friends. I played in my head the scenario of me walking towards random people and flexing my Mandarin with some small talk, but I guess even the Gloria inside Gloria’s imagination wasn’t very bold. I decided the best plan was to plant myself in a busy public space so that I could casually open with a line about the nice weather before going in for the kill and announcing that I’m American and he/she should be my friend. One day, I tried putting this into practice. I marched up to one of the school cafeterias during peak lunch hour and strategically sat on the outside of a long booth so that anyone who wanted to sit inside needed to shuffle past me — golden opportunity to make eye contact and to say some words. Soon enough, my table filled with students who all hastily ate while staring into their phones. The signal turned green for me to say hi at that point, but DAMN was it hard to break the ice. Maybe it was because everyone at the table was pointing the intimidating crowns of their heads at me, or maybe my awkward self was really good at making excuses to chicken out. I waged an internal war inside my head for two minutes before finally saying something like “Hi are you all students?” at the table. The guy sitting across the table looked up at me and gave me a “…Yeah…” look. “I’m an American student studying abroad here in China to study Economics.” A painfully long silence punctuated by silent chewing around the table. “Nice. Your Chinese isn’t bad.”

Needless to say, I didn’t make any new friends that day. But I’m proud of myself for putting in the honest effort.

This ends part 1 of 4(?). More study abroad posts to come in the next few months :)

Written by

Writer, Cog-Neuro Research Assistant @ Yale. Presenting my thoughts about self-development and life as a former college student ||

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