Reflections on a Year in China

Now that I have been home from China for almost three weeks, I wanted to share some post-study abroad reflections.  People will often ask, “How was China?” and my response of “Awesome/Amazing/I loved it!” will never fully express my accomplishments, emotions and even newfound nostalgia for my year abroad.  When I say, “It was incredible”, I truly hope to encapsulate all the raw emotions of my time abroad.  But how can just a few words explain my love for 小笼包 (Soup dumplings), my frustrations with the blur between individual privacy and safety, my gratitude toward my Chinese teachers, my unforgettable experiences while solo backpacking, my pride in my work at my internship or the character of some of the best and most passionate friends I have ever been fortunate enough to make?

I am very proud of my academic accomplishments and the opportunities I was afforded.  I came to Beijing feeling shy and slightly uncomfortable speaking Chinese, and tested into level 260.  I left Shanghai speaking at a 400 level and perfectly comfortable engaging in conversations about phenomenon in Chinese society.  I conducted research through interviews to learn more about Chinese artwork.  I enrolled in classes such as International Marketing and the Chinese Economy to diversify my knowledge about China.  My ultimate test was my ability to read and translate Chinese documents in order to write client reports at my academic internship at an international consulting firm.

However apart from academics, I have realized that it is these challenges and even more so, the people that I was surrounded with in my time abroad, that made my experience as fantastic as it was and helped me to grow as much as I did.  I want to share below an excerpt from a journal entry I wrote upon leaving China:

“I’m on the train from Beijing to Shanghai now, and I can’t believe that it’s my last day in China, the last day of my beautiful, marvelous adventure.  My eyes are brimming with tears at the thought of the best year of my life coming to a close.  When I arrive in Shanghai, I’ll take a taxi to the airport across the city and finally return home to Boston.  It reminds me of the nervousness in my stomach the day I departed for Beijing so many months ago, when my mom told me to take things one day at a time.  At that time, I couldn’t even begin to picture in my head what this day would look like, and as time throughout these two semesters continued to pass, the less that I wanted this final day to come.  That’s because I’m so proud of the person I have become and the accomplishments I have achieved with the opportunities that studying in China afforded me.  Aside from my academic goals, from increasing my Chinese language proficiency to completing an internship at a consulting firm in Shanghai, I know in my heart my own progress in terms of mental fortitude, confidence, motivation and passion.  But most importantly, and what I think will stay with me the longest, is the relationships I have been fortunate enough to build here, with people who have allowed me to be my most honest and vulnerable self, and who have driven me and supported me in progressing to be my best self.  I’m crying as I leave these people and places behind, but I know that these tears mean that I had a transformative and unforgettable experience.”

Though leaving China came with some of the most profound sadness I have ever experienced, I have embraced it as my part of my journey, and I want others to do the same.

If you are an underclassmen at Holy Cross, or a prospective student reading this blog post, I want to leave you with this final message: study abroad!  Whether you choose to study in China or elsewhere, I know you will grow and gain so much from the experience.

Day 5: Part 1, The Worst Subway Experience of My Entire Life

Unlike the day before, day 5 was crazy! I planned to leave Chengdu in the morning to head about an hour away by train to Leshan, which is famous as the home of the world’s biggest stone Buddha. Seeing the Leshan Buddha had been a goal of mine for some time now, and with the thought of it finally happening, I had a spring in my step when I left the hostel at 7:45 am to make my way to the Chengdu railway station. As Chengdu is a much smaller city than Beijing or Shanghai, I didn’t think rush hour would be that bad, so I opted to take the subway. 

I was crazy wrong! Riding the Chengdu subway at 8 am was 100% the worst subway experience of my entire life. I grew up in the city and rode the train to school every day, so I’ve seen it all: fights, sexual assault, over intoxication, mental breakdowns…literally everything. But trust me when I say I’ve never seen a rush hour so bad. 

The train was packed to the point that no one could move, with other people’s entire body weight weighing heavily on you. At every single subway stop, passengers were screaming because people on the platform were running and trying to push their way into train cars that were already way over capacity. Finally when it came to my stop…no one budged. I pushed so hard but could not make any progress before the train doors closed. I was frustrated but planned to just get off at the next stop. However, after I had worked so hard to make my way to one side of the train, at the next stop the doors were opening on THE OTHER SIDE. Now I tried to push my way to the other side, but right when I was one arms length away from exiting the train, the doors slammed closed again. I felt trapped. Finally at the next stop, now 2 stations away from where I needed to get off, I was able to get off the train. At this point I called a Didi (China’s version of Uber) to take me for what was supposed to be a 10 minute drive back to where I needed to be. This was the only way I could catch my train in time. But of course, Chengdu’s rush hour traffic was so bad that by the time I was able to get to the railway station, my train had already left 20 minutes before. 

Momentarily, I was extremely frustrated about missing my train. I felt angry that I had planned out more than enough time to get there but because of Chengdu’s subway system, I was inconvenienced. Not to say that it’s worse or better, but China’s subway etiquette is just different. China’s subway etiquette is that there is no etiquette. You can push people out of the way to get where you need to be. You can cut people in line. You don’t have to wait for people to exit the train before you start to board. Basically do whatever you need to do to get where you need to go. It has been one of the most frustrating cultural/societal differences I’ve had to come to terms with while living here, until I realized that the only way to live here is to play by these rules. 

After a couple minutes, I realized it was pointless to be frustrated about something in the past that I didn’t have control over. What I did have control over was going to the ticket counter and praying that I could exchange my ticket and still get to Leshan at a reasonable time. 

Five minutes later, I had a whole new mindset. My ticket was exchanged with ease, and in my hand I had a new ticket for the next train leaving in half an hour. My journey would only be set back by an hour! I was extremely happy with the way things worked out and excited about the next leg of my journey. 

Up High in Ninghai

After writing and learning about Chinese artwork in the independent research project I conducted in Beijing, I found that much of Chinese traditional art depicts the beauty of China’s vast and magnificent mountains, as well as bamboo, rivers, etc.  Even on the back of China’s Renminbi currency, one can find sunrises etched over mountain tops and water rushing between karsts.  I feel that it is a traditional image of China that many Westerners hold a preconceived notion of, yet have not experienced, as many expats find themselves living in major cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, etc.  I feel fortunate to have been able to see some of this natural beauty for myself last weekend when I went hiking and kayaking in Ninghai, which is about a 4 hour drive outside of Shanghai.

We began our hike following a trail surrounded by waterfalls and lush greenery (and of course about 50,000 mosquitoes that all wanted to bite me).

As we continued to ascend, the trail opened up to see more of the surrounding mountains, but we were not nearly at the top.

We passed by an area where locals grow tea.  I was even surprised to see how many wind turbines were built in the surrounding area.

As we continued on our way, the luscious trees became less and less prominent and the trail opened up into a steep and very rocky environment with bad footing.

We persevered to make it to the peak, only to witness one of the most satisfying views I’ve ever experienced!  Mountain came after mountain, seemingly infinitely folding behind each other until reaching the touch of the sun.

Descending the mountain, we passed through a forest of bamboo.  This was one of my favorite parts of the hike, as I’ve never had the experience of hiking through bamboo before.  To me, it felt like a very distinct “China experience”.  The bamboo was so green, and much thicker and stronger than I expected it to be.

The next day we had the opportunity to go kayaking, which was both beautiful and an absolute blast.  The sunburn I received was 100% worth it!

While I will always consider myself a city girl, having opportunities in China like those of the past weekend, or climbing the Great Wall, have really helped me realize an underlying interest I have had in hiking.  I love the exercise aspect of it, but even more so getting to see beautiful parts of China that I feel can be so often overlooked.  I am looking forward to pursuing more opportunities in this regard when I take off for my spring break travels this week!

The Truth about Pollution in Beijing

In my experience over the past five months, the pollution in Beijing has not been anywhere near as severe as I had thought it would be.  From what I have learned, a decade ago the pollution in Beijing was much more serious because a lot of factories operated on the outskirts of Beijing.  However, around the time of the 2008 Olympics, in order to create a much more attractive Beijing and reduce the pollution, many factories were mandated to move further outside the city to other areas of China.  In the time following, the pollution (within Beijing) has lessened significantly, however I still see about 30-40% of people wearing masks on any given day.  On days where the pollution is more serious, it is common to see about 80% of people wearing masks (while ironically I’ll still see people smoking cigarettes even in the midst of it all).

The buildings in the background should be crystal clear…instead you can see the haziness of the pollution on a mild day

Days here can range from really no pollution at all and a perfectly blue sky to finding it hard to breathe while walking under a dismal grey sky.  I purchased a reusable mask because there have been days when my normal walk to class in the morning didn’t feel right.  When the pollution is at its most serious, it gives me cold like symptoms of stuffy nose and sore throat.  I love checking the air quality index (AQI) on my iPhone weather app every day; it’s a great way to know how serious the pollution may or may not be without having to go outside.  0 – 150 range I feel is normal, anything from 150 – 200 I will consider wearing a mask depending on how I feel, 200+ I am wearing a mask for sure.

I love this mask over disposable ones because I can wash it after 10-15 hours of wear and continue to use

The pollution is actually most easily seen as soon as the sun goes down.  Just look under a streetlight and you will see some sort of hazy fogginess hovering under the light.  On one day when the pollution was over 300 (which is considered hazardous to health), I was walking to the subway at night.  It was the eeriest night I’ve experienced in Beijing; the pollution felt like an eerie fog cast over the street.  When I reached the subway station it seemed that the pollution had actually seeped into the subway underground.  It was totally bizarre, and I’ve never experienced anything like it since.

Overall though, I feel that the pollution is not nearly like what I thought it would be, and I’m not too concerned about its effects on my health.  I am very much curious to see if there is any difference as we transition into spring and more plants start to bloom.

Sushi on Thanksgiving ?

As my first semester in China is coming to an end, I have been reflecting on how much I have learned here, the amazing relationships I have made, how much I have learned about myself and what makes me happy; I truly am the happiest I’ve ever been living here in Beijing, challenging myself and growing every day.  It has been an experience and opportunity that I’m so happy I chose to take.  I am so thankful to have two more months in Beijing before I move to Shanghai!

Carve that turkey up!

Celebrating Thanksgiving here in Beijing was bittersweet – while I missed my mom’s amazing Thanksgiving stuffing, seeing family and friends from back home, and participating in some of our most cherished American Thanksgiving traditions, celebrating Thanksgiving in Beijing made me appreciate all of that so much more, while also making me so grateful for the amazing people I’ve met in Beijing and our memories together.

My two best friends in Beijing, Alex and Jason. Beijing wouldn’t be the same without them!

My program organized a great event in which we were all able to come together and share a Thanksgiving meal.  We had two turkeys, and some of my classmates helped prepare some fantastic traditional (and nontraditional) dishes such as stuffing, mashed potatoes…and spring rolls and sushi.  Who knew you could eat sushi on Thanksgiving??

Two seconds before our Thanksgiving feast got demolished

Overall it was really moving to see how much we have all bonded since the start of our time abroad together, and while I stay here in Beijing during the holidays, it is going to be really sad to watch some of my favorite people go back to the States…

[SPOILER ALERT] The Lama Temple doesn’t have lamas…

Hi all – sorry it’s been a while!  Undergoing some internet access issues abroad, but that’s all part of the experience right?

I want to share with you all part of my experience at the Lama Temple in Beijing, or Yong He Gong.  Sadly there were not actually lamas there…but the experience of walking through the temple leaves me with a feeling I will never forget.

My initial impression of the Lama Temple was its vast beauty – the architecture, the way the bright saturated colors pop, the intricate details – it was almost a sensory overload, yet uniquely beautiful.  Throughout the air you can see waves of smoke, and the strong scent of incense envelops you.  I decided to burn incense and take a moment for prayer and reflection.

A little background on the temple was that it was built during the Qing Dynasty in 1694 as a palace, but later became a lamasery for Tibetan monks after emperors started living in Beijing’s arguably most famous historic spot, the Forbidden City.

Each building hosts rooms celebrating various Buddha where visitors can pray.  Entering the largest building, I was shocked at the sight of this Great Buddha.  Standing tall at about 85 feet, this beautiful, glowing golden Buddha was absolutely breathtaking…

Walking through the temple, I felt an almost indescribable wave of peacefulness and tranquility wash over me.  I have never felt anything quite like it in my life, this feeling of being content and more in touch with myself.

As the season quickly begins to change to winter, I am looking forward to hopefully going back to the Lama Temple to see it in winter time.  I feel that this temple is so special, it would require multiple visits to even begin to brush the surface of its history as a Beijing landmark of Chinese culture, as well as Buddhism in China.

I just wanted coffee and then this happened…

If you know me, you know I cannot start my day without a piping hot cup of coffee.

In a country known for its amazing tea selection, finding a decently priced cup of coffee in Beijing is not an easy task.

My friends and I started on our way to find the perfect coffee shop to study at for our upcoming test; we were headed to a local place one of our roommates had recommended.  About 45 minutes of walking later, we still had not found the coffee shop we had set out for.  We were tempted to head back to campus, but decided to take the opportunity to continue checking out the area of 五棵松.  The area seemed relatively empty, with expansive parking lots and a couple fast food chains (KFC is HUGE here).  However, in search of the nearest train station, just slightly below street level we found a hidden area brimming with life.

As we entered it felt like we were suddenly entering an entirely different world from where we came from.  Our senses were completely overwhelmed from the live musicians on every corner, the video games being broadcasted on a huge electric screen high above us, the shiny and inviting luxury stores at every turn and the bars and restaurants that sent aromas of delicious noodles and pastries wafting through the air.  We were surrounded by dancing neon lights, bold contemporary art statues, and even a giant slide to move from one level of the development to the next.

While I was immediately struck by the modern, and even, to an extent, Western feel of this new wonderland, there were elements that felt, to me, so distinctly and traditionally Chinese – whether it be the locals singing karaoke and dancing on the sidewalk, the delicious smell of hot pot, or the market full of Chinese goods, with everything from jade to tea leaves.

I am even writing to you now from my new favorite coffee shop, Holly’s Coffee, which I came across in this mysterious new world.  I could not resist going back because I could not get this place out of my mind.  Despite all the beauty and history to be seen in some of Beijing’s most historical and well known sites, I could not help but feel that this new place gave me a vibe that distinctly represented the Beijing of the past and the future.

Today in class I learned a Chinese idiom “古今并存”, which means to exist as old and new simultaneously.  This idiom undeniably applies to Beijing, and even more so to this wonderful new location I found.  Part of the beauty of Beijing, and why it is so attractive to me, is its constant evolution toward what is new, but also its adaption and celebration of what is old.  It creates a truly original place that evokes a feeling I cannot liken to anything I have ever felt before.  I love this new feeling of being in Beijing!

Looking back, I am so glad that my classmates and I did not just go straight back to campus that day, otherwise we may have never found this special place at五棵松.  I think this experience really emphasizes why it is so important to be willing to explore the unfamiliar, as you never know what you will find or learn!



I am not a morning person but I woke up at 6:45 am for this…

It’s 8:00 am and I am standing on top of the Great Wall of China.

I’m looking out over the sunlight just beginning to graze over the tops of the trees, and I’m standing strong in the face of the wind that could literally knock me over.  In this moment, every difficulty I’ve faced since coming to Beijing doesn’t exist to me anymore, and I know it’s moments like these that I may never have again, and moments like these that inspired me to study abroad in the first place.  I feel so incredibly grateful to be standing here and for having the opportunity to study in China.

My classmates and I got up at 6:45 to start our climb.  Especially with the wind, it’s colder than you would expect for a September day, and we learned this pretty quickly as we began to hike up the steep trail that would eventually lead to the Great Wall.  We are hiking an unrestored section of the Great Wall, which means two things: 1) there will be no other people there besides us and 2) it is a more difficult and dangerous trek than that of other sections of the Great Wall.  When we finally reach the Great Wall, we continue to climb as the wind gets stronger and stronger, even climbing some sections of the Wall so steep that they almost feel vertical.

At the highest point, I stop and see water in the distance, and even buildings that look like specks, and I think about how people are probably just beginning to wake up down below, or how my friends on the other side of the world are probably finishing eating dinner or studying.  I think about how many people helped build this wall and wonder how many people before me have walked along these stones.  By now, my phone has died from the cold, and I am not able to take any more pictures to show to my friends and family back home; I try to soak everything in, from the invigorated feeling washing over me to the beautiful blue hue of the sky.  It’s moments like these that I want to remember for a long time.

From Eating Scorpions to Exploring the Great Wall: My Top 5 Goals While in China!

Hi everyone!

As I prepare to depart for Beijing in two weeks, I have given a lot of thought to how I want to make the most of my time abroad and develop as an individual.  I have set goals for myself including (in no particular order):

  • Try some new street food (maybe a scorpion?)
  • Achieve fluency in Mandarin
  • Connect with HC alums living in Beijing
  • Visit the Great Wall of China, the hutongs, and the Forbidden City

However, one goal I have set for myself which I am focusing most heavily on right now is to live as a traveler rather than as a tourist.

According to Merriam Webster, a tourist is “one that makes a tour for pleasure or culture”, while a traveler is “one that travels: such as one that goes on a trip or journey”.  While there is nothing wrong with being a tourist and site seeing for pleasure, it is really important to me to live as a traveler because I want to live abroad experiencing my own journey, both physical and mental.

I believe that the beauty of study abroad is that I have been given this amazing opportunity to live and study in China for two semesters, and it is imperative that I take full advantage of that.  I think that operating as a tourist in a foreign country can provide a disingenuous view of what that place has to offer.  By living as a traveler and truly investing in immersing myself in the culture and the language of China, I will have a much better understanding of the culture and country, and I will be able to genuinely say I took advantage of everything I could in my time abroad.

Coming soon: look out for my next post on my experience preparing to depart for China!