China is the oldest civilization known to man. Roughly 5,000 years old, the up-and-coming world power has everything that is new and everything that is ancient. Seeing the sites in China earlier this summer was easily one of the great privileges I have ever had. From the Great Wall to the World Expo, China has a lifetime of travel within its borders. But I have to say one of the greatest parts of traveling abroad is not what you learn about other countries, it is what you learn about your own. Being in China for six weeks gave me the opportunity to look into my own culture, from the outside, and discover some new perspectives.
There is a stereotype in the U.S. about Asians and there intellect. Apparently, they are all great at math and they are all prodigies at a musical instrument. There is also a belief in the U.S. about our educational system and how it is going down the tubes. There may be some truths to these, Asian societies highly value schooling and the U.S. could do a little more to strengthen schooling, nationwide. At the same time, I believe we have two different approaches to education. Asian societies seem to be more book smart; they study very hard and spend many hours making sure they get good grades. In the U.S., we seem to be leaning towards getting street smart. Have you ever noticed those “Immersion Projects” being promoted so much around campus? These put students in an environment where they get hands-on experience and create, instead of reading a book and taking a test. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather do that than take a test. Besides, some of the greatest minds of all time didn’t finish college (Johann Sebastian Bach, Bill Gates, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin). I’m not saying you should you drop out of school; just don’t freak out so much when you get a B+ on an English exam.
Speaking of English, we are pretty lucky when it comes to language in this country. For the most part, everyone speaks English. Yes, there is the occasional hotline call where we have to decide #1 for English or #2 for Spanish (it’s so hard isn’t it?), but other than that we have it pretty good. In Asia, there are large amounts of the English language in so many places. From train stops to grocery stores, being an English speaker in Asia is a lot easier than you would think. Asian school systems start teaching English in kindergarten (unlike the U.S. where we have a few mandatory semesters of foreign language), and while it is true that the English-speaking world is the most economically prosperous, that may change in the near future (so don’t get too comfortable). Get out there and learn a little bit about some other languages; it’ll let you into the other parts of the world that the English language can’t (which is a lot).
When I first arrived in China I couldn’t believe how much American food was here (and when I say food I don’t mean real food, I mean fast food). From McDonald’s to Burger King to KFC (which is the most popular of all), if you only eat American fast food, you would not starve in China. What’s extremely interesting is what possibilities might occur in the future as a result of the fast food boom in China. Asians, in general, are known for being at a good, healthy body weight (unlike the U.S. where there is the occasional Jaba the Hut strolling down a Wal-Mart aisle in a motorized cart). Unfortunately, Sumo Wrestlers might not just be athletes, but also office workers. Let’s hope they won’t ever have to deal with that problem (and we can get rid of ours).
I’ve seen a lot of differences during my time in China and it has helped me see the U.S. in a new way. There was so much to see and even after I saw it I couldn’t believe it existed. At the same time, the most important lesson I learned while overseas was this: all humans are exactly the same, but in a different way. At our core, we generally all want the same things: food, water, shelter, and companionship. What makes us different is how we fulfill these wants: rice versus bread, bottled water versus fresh water, small apartment in the city versus big house in the country. Before learning about other cultures and the way they operate, it all seemed so… well… foreign. But after seeing and learning what it is about, it makes perfect sense.
Exploring the planet is one of life’s great joys. The opportunity to see new ways of living has made me a fortunate person. It is funny how a foreign country can feel like an alien planet, but after awhile, it starts to feel like home.