Friday, February 22, 2013

China and What It Means to Me

I've thought about writing this for a while now, unable to decide if I should or not.  It's multi-faceted; I can't even articulate it well to myself.  Yet I suppose if I've invited you along for the ride, I should try to explain why going to China means so much to me, rather than simply a semester abroad.

Well, I can't write that part off-- studying abroad is a tremendous privilege.  At St. Lawrence, our small college of 2,400 students has an off-campus study participation rate hovering around 55%, and is even higher including summer programs.  It's natural to arrive at school and begin planning which part of the world you want to explore for the semester or year, after the first few days!  Especially for juniors, there's such enthusiasm for breaking out of the SLU "bubble" for a while, then upon return appreciating campus so much more.

However, for many others, studying abroad isn't second nature.  In 2010, the U.S. had 20.3 million students of higher education, which includes associate's degrees, 4 year schools, graduate school, etc.  According to the Institute of International Education, there were 273,996 students abroad for the 2010-2011 academic year.  I guess that gives a sense of where my peers and I fit in the larger context of privilege with our educational opportunities.  And for me, being able to study in a foreign country for the second time!  

I was one of the students that knew exactly which programs I had to take advantage of as soon as I was accepted to St. Lawrence: France and China.  In retrospect, France was dissatisfying in the sense that our program was so well established, that we were essentially coddled.  Having a group of 12 students in the same classroom, on every trip together, interacting daily, with the same recurring conversations-- was exhausting.  I wished for greater immersion with other French students, in spite of the institutional, social and cultural boundaries.  I did achieve that a bit, exemplifying the importance of taking risks beyond the comfort zone and reaping the rewards.  Regardless, I had an incredible semester, tested my confidence and intuition, and realized my capabilities (sort of).  I have deep fondness for la vie francaise, so I'll definitely keep going back.

China, on the other hand, may prove to be an entirely different level.  
I was adopted from the People's Republic when I was two months old, at the glorious blessing of my parents  who are from Buffalo/Rochester/Honeoye/currently Florida.  I was abandoned at a hospital without any records, documents, notes; whisked away to an orphanage and fortunately placed under the foster care of a British missionary.  I've known my entire life that I was adopted, but the circumstances are merely up to speculation.  Growing up has included the defense of my cleft lip surgery ("Why are your lips so weird?" quipped second graders), the frustrating moment when my middle school science teacher scolded me for not filling in the genetic inheritance section of my homework (and he knew my parents, so...), and the sobering insult from a Chinese student at college who blatantly said that because I cannot speak Mandarin, I am not really Chinese.  That one hurt.  But it's true: I am American, born Chinese.  This past fall I did intensive exploration on my cultural identity, trying to ease myself psychologically into the pending trip.  I'm bracing myself to return to my country of birth for the first time in 20 years. 

The hand over... there ain't no turning back now! 

 Hi, Mom.
 Chubby cheeks since November, '92.

At this point, I'm so thrilled to finally be on my way.  This has been the longest winter break ever, but actually I've appreciated the time to reflect (and tan).  I have to admit, though, that I'm scared.  I'm scared of misunderstandings, scared of feeling lost, scared of discovering things or not finding what I want, scared of wanting to fit in and not knowing how, and scared of feeling so different.  But this anxiety is overcome because I know that I have the endless support from my family and friends, their love and faith in me that has carried me this far.  It's going to be tough, but this is what I want to do, what I have to do.  My goal is to embrace China and any of its rough edges, and hopefully reconnect in some sense to my heritage.  Patience and an open mind will guide my way.

Thank you for taking this time to read this personal explanation of why going to China means so much to me.  I'm leaving tonight, at 9:45 from Boston with two other SLU girls in my program.  I still can't conceptualize this, but ready or not Shanghai... here I come.


Allison said...

You are a beautiful person. I didn't know all this about you and think it's incredibly brave that you opened up about so many personal things. You have so much to be proud of, and your parents are absolutely so blessed and fortunate to have you in their lives.
I'm proud of you for going back to your birth country, and can imagine that there are mixed emotions going back, but I think it's going to be a beautiful and empowering feeling. I can't wait to hear about your trip - I'm so, so proud of you, love.

Regine Karpel said...

I hope you enjoy China, and get out of the journey what you wish!
God Bless!

A Normandy kitchen said...

Hello Nicole,
What a touching post and thank you for sharing, your Mom looks so proud, surely destiny. How exciting to be able to add this to your journey, what an experience and I look forwards to to travel along with your blog! be safe.
(sorry so late writing - flu!)