Ever since I was younger and started become aware of social problems and the real world started to creep into my periphery, I have not been thrilled with the US. Throughout the later years of high school as I was planning my adult future and immersed in college searches and the question “what are you going to do with your life”, one of my main focuses was on getting out of the country. First I had elaborate plans to join a dance company in Europe. When dreams of a dance career ended, I directed my dreaming energy into plans of going to University abroad. And even though I happily found myself at a university within the States, I dreamed of studying abroad (whether it be a month, a semester, or an entire year). But three years went by along with graduation and I hadn’t strayed from America. But I did continue to entertain hopes and fleeting visions of graduate school in Europe and future jobs in Australia.
But while these dreams persevered, my disillusionment with the “great” United States of America increased. Though certainly not planting the seed of disillusionment and my intolerance of the public’s misplaced American pride (in my opinion), many classes and discussions with colleagues throughout college solidified my skeptical beliefs about the majesty and flag-waving of the US. Upon graduation, I was emotionally done with the never-ending battles over welfare, political sides, gun rights, abortion and sex education, the place of God in schools, the rights of the military, the NSA, structural racism, political correctness, and what seemed to me to be completely unfounded claims of greatness by the American public. I completely understood why so many people in other countries around the world aren’t too fond of these arrogant people called Americans.
And all of this partially fueled (I see now) my quick latch onto the idea of moving to China. I’d never had any particular interest in China (at times I’d even been heard to make the exaggerated claim that “I’ll never go there!”) but it seemed like an adventure, an opportunity to learn and grow, it offered a job and travel opportunities, and it was a chance to live, once and for all, out of the country. So it may not be that far of a stretch to say that I entered China with grandiose dreams of perfection to make up for where I thought the US was lacking.
As this year draws to a close, I find myself reflecting on the experiences we’ve had and the ways I’ve grown more and more frequently. I’m certainly more patient and tolerant and less quick to judge. I have accomplished my goal of becoming less emotionally reactive to less than positive situations. And I have learned a truly significant and life-changing lesson about what it means to be part of the ostracized minority both in appearances and in cultural differences. All of these experiences I believe have shaped me into a more thoughtful and empathic person along with grounding in me the importance of a well-rounded education.
We have had many times more positive experiences than we have had negative experiences, but we have certainly learned the most from our negative experiences. And I seem (surprisingly enough) to have become an adult (of sorts) during this year in China. One of the biggest components of that to me is my disillusionment with perfection. I’ve always been a perfectionist (I blame ballet for that, for better or worse) and I left the US and entered China seeking perfection. And I have not found it. There are astoundingly beautiful places in this country and more history than a single person can possibly wrap their mind around, along with many, many cultural differences that make me smile foolishly and love life. But living here has also allowed me to intimately see the shortcomings of modern day China, leaving the country far from perfect. My unofficial (and certainly mostly uninformed) opinion is that the lack of critical thinking is negatively affecting almost every aspect of modern-day Chinese culture. Without a doubt, it’s certainly the biggest problem in the education system, but we can see the effects in almost everything. And whereas traditional China could be characterized by honor, respect, and the importance of community, modern-day China could be characterized by how those qualities are quickly fading and being forgotten, especially in the younger generations (that have been named by some “little emperors/empresses”.
Realizing that China is no closer to perfection than the US is, along with my burgeoning awareness of global politics, has led me to the conclusion that nowhere and nothing is perfect. Each place has its own problems and if I’m picking what problems I want to deal with, I think I’m going to choose the United States where I’m also blessed to have a fairly high standard of living, good education, independent thinking, freedom (though China is definitely not without its own freedoms), and the protection of the military available to me simply because I am an American citizen.
Other people after an experience like we’ve had this year may not come to the same conclusion, but that’s partially why an extended experience abroad is so important. It forces you to question every aspect of life as you’ve known it and become aware of the things you’ve taken for granted and be grateful for the things you have or don’t have. When thrown completely out of your comfort zone, and if you have the mind to succeed and follow through with the commitment through the challenges, you (or at least I), are able to come up with original and experientially-founded conclusions for how you/I feel about things that may or may not have aligned with how you/I felt prior to coming here. And that’s probably one of the biggest ways I’ve changed during this time. My view of the world has changed shape and I’ve accepted perfection as an inspiring nonexistence.
And though China will certainly hold a special and memorable place in my heart for the rest of my life, for the first time, I can honestly say I’m proud to be an American.