“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
- Lao Tzu
Where I Came From
I was born in a small town in the city of Fuzhou in the Fujian Province. The town is located on the southeast coast of China. I remember when I was little, most people in the town were fishermen. They sailed out to sea while it was still dawn, and came back in early evening either happy or disappointed, depending on the amount of seafood they harvested. My grandparents were among them, it was always exciting to hear fishing stories that happened before they retired.
Where I Went
My parents came to the United States when I was 4, so I spent many years of my childhood living with my grandparents. One day we received a giant envelope, little did I know the significance of this package.
There were many documents in the envelope. They were all in English. Back then, for a little kid like me, it was super fascinating to see the papers with all the weird symbols on them. I learned later that these symbols make up the English language.
After receiving the documents, we traveled on an overnight bus to the U.S. Consulate in Guangzhou for the first time. Another of many firsts happened as I boarded a plane one month later. After a long flight filled with anxiousness and a memorable dish of scary spaghetti, we landed in a place called “Kentucky”.
That year, I was 10.
Returning to a Place I Once Knew
After I immigrated to the U.S., I lived in Kentucky with my parents for almost six years. I finished elementary and middle school there, and stayed half way through high school. It was also where I found out those weird symbols are called "English".
I finished the other half of high school in Florida, after my parents moved. Now I am an accounting student at University of Florida, where I had the wonderful opportunity to study abroad on an exchange program at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China.
There were several reasons why I decided to go to China (I mean, technically I came from there...)
- all classes taught at the university are in English, so I would not have to worry about Chinese, which I found myself forgetting
- I was missing my grandparents and loved the idea of visiting them in China
- Moving as a young child to the U.S. left me wondering about China, I wanted to re-immerse myself in my root culture
I was very happy to go. It was also a bit weird, because while others were uncomfortable with the torturing long-haul flight, I was pretty excited for the upcoming twenty-hours on air. I felt that it was an adventure to me.
I had taken my first single step on my journey to the East.
And that year, I was 20.
"Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth
- Mark Twain
Arrival to a New City and University
After a series of landings and take-offs, I arrived in the city of Ningbo. It was a beautiful city. The Yinzhou District, where the University of Nottingham (UNNC) campus is located, is a fairly new city development. The streets of Yinzhou are much cleaner, much wider, and less crowded, unlike the town I was born in.
As the taxi brought me closer to the campus of UNNC, I felt excitement and was pleased with the view. I saw the iconic Nottingham Tower, which stood besides a tiny spring. It is a western design, and lights up on the top. I thought it was beautiful, especially since I did not expect to see this kind of architecture in China, so I took a picture the very first day I arrived.
I checked in into my dormitory, after talking with the lady in the reception. Somehow communication was easy for me, the lady seemed to understand what I was saying, especially after I combined Mandarin Chinese, English and hand gestures together to convey my thoughts.
Exploration and Involvement
While I was in Ningbo, I attended lots of events and became involved with several clubs on campus. I joined the Music Club and tried to learned guitar (it was a good experience, although I forgot most of what I learned). I also joined the Drama Club for its annual drama show, where I played the character “Frederick” from the play “Noises Off”. It was very fun working with and getting to know local students. We ended up becoming very good friends and are still in touch.
Traveling was also convenient in Ningbo. The airport is only about 40 minutes away and the high-speed train station about 30 minutes away from campus. By travelling to different regions across China and trying different local food, I realized the vastness of this country. Size is one thing, but more impressive to me was seeing the cultural diversity among Chinese regions.
Light Bulb Moments
Other than the discovery of fantastic landmarks and tasty food, there were also times when I found things to be different. There were many incidents where I found myself in a weird and/or embarrassing situation. I called these “light bulb moments”, where I realized the cultural differences of the social norms and behaviors between China and the United States.
In the Restaurant
While I was in Ningbo, I was out for dinner together with a group of local students. We went to the closest mall near campus, about five minutes away (unlike the food courts in the malls in the U.S., the malls in China always have one story that is solely dedicated to restaurant. Most of them offer dine-in seats). We grabbed some hand-pulled noodles from a well-known noodle restaurant. As we were close to finishing, we got our check; and as usual, I paid and put down a ¥5 bill as a tip on the table and started to walk out.
After we walked out, one of the local student poked me and said, “Jackie, you know that we do not need to leave a tip, right?” In great surprise, I answered: “uh..wait! We don’t need to pay a tip here?” And then all I saw was a group of local students looking at me. They were surprised that I did not know that tipping is not necessary in China. Tipping culture does not exist in China; in fact, workers from traditional industries, such as restaurant and taxi services, do not expect tips from customers.
While we were heading back to campus, I was thinking about how much money I had “wasted” on tipping before this dinner, and what the waitress would think of that extra ¥5 bill.
I think she must have been surprised too.
In the Hospital
My second week in Ningbo, I caught a fever. I was heading toward a hospital around campus, and as I walked up to the windows for reception and registration, I saw a busy line. It was not a line of people waiting to see the doctors, but a line of objects, similar to the following picture:
There were chairs, water bottles, and even sleeping mats, etc..I stood at the end of this line, and thought to myself, “what is this? Did people put their belongings here? Should I put down something too? Let see what I have. I got a hat, glasses, etc..” I was confused, but I still decided to put down my backpack before I went to ask the staff about this weird line of objects.
A few minutes later, I found out that this is the line. One of the staff explained to me that the hospitals are crowded most of the time, and everybody wants to see the doctors. The registration windows are always busy, especially during peak time, so it can take up to couple hours for a patient to register. Thus people put down their belongings one after another as a placeholder for their position in the line.
“It makes sense,” I thought to myself, “nobody wants to be physically standing in a line for two hours.” So I was glad that I put down my backpack, at least I was in line somehow.
“This is so different than the hospital in America,” I also thought.
I always considered this story to be the funniest. As a new student to the university, I introduced myself numerous times to local students. I tried to be friendly to all the people I met.
There were several times, when I went out for dinner with groups of local students. After we got back to campus, I figured I should give them a hug, that is what friends do. So I hugged my local friends while we said goodbye, but they seemed to be a little bit shy, and their face were like this when I hugged them:
“Well, maybe they were just shy.” I told myself, and walked back to my dorm.
I continued this hugging habit throughout the semester, but I also realized that more and more of my friends were showing the face above.
One day I was visiting my personal tutor’s office hour and chatting about my semester so far. I started talking about the facial expression I kept encountering. My personal tutor is a native Chinese who speaks English well. She immediately pointed out that people were showing this face, probably because they did not expect a hug from a friend, especially in China, where hugs are usually between people who are in a relationship. She told me that people might think that I am having feelings for them.
So there I was, sitting in her office hour, now with the same face as above, and thought to myself: “oops..this is so different..I was just trying to be friendly.”
“Listen and see from others, I learned knowledge. Experience by myself, I gained wisdom."
- Jackie Lian (feeling deep here)
The American Me
I arrived back to Orlando during the summer of 2016, and was back in Gainesville for the semester thereafter. As I walked through campus, I felt like a freshman again after spending an entire year abroad.
Most importantly, I started to ponder about one question: what is my identity? Do I see myself as American, Chinese, or half of each?
As I look back at my exchange time, a lot of the light bulb moments answered this question. I tipped when I went out to eat; I hugged my friends when we hung out; I acted the same way as if I was in the U.S., not realizing that some behaviors and social norms are different in China. And when I did realize the differences, I also realized how American I am.
I always think of this as a positive thing. As I spent half of my childhood in China, I still remember part of my root culture and heritage. And after spending a year in China, I have re-immersed into my root and heritage, and gotten a well-rounded understanding of it.
Now I don’t feel strange when I think of all those funny/embarrassing/weird moments I had in China. There is nothing better than understanding both cultures that have impacted who I am.
I am forever grateful that I decided to study on exchange to China for a year. Books, videos and other people’s words are good sources of learning, but my journey to the East is where I gained wisdom.