THE FINALE! Lele Chen’s six amazing months working in Shanghai, China has come to an end and she returns to Duke University.
For my final article about my experience in China, it seems fitting to come full circle and go back to the beginning. To why I traveled across oceans in the first place to live in a city where I knew no one.
It was because I was unhappy, the most I had ever been in my entire life. I did not like who I had become– during college I changed from an exuberant freshman to a jaded junior. The summer before my senior year, my disillusionment was so complete that the thought of returning to school brought involuntary tears.
So I had the strength to leave everything behind and start anew. At least for six months.
And here is what I learned: Many of your beliefs and values are cultural constructs. Once you strip those away, you know who you really are. This is why people tend to “find themselves” when they travel. Not because they must face stark differences, but because those differences highlight and confirm their true selves.
Fashion, race, love, etiquette…in some ways, cultural attitudes were similar between China and the United States. In other ways, they were starkly different.
Fashion. There are fewer rules to dressing in China. Polka dots can be worn with stripes; black can be mixed with brown. On the other hand, this styling freedom is constrained by a modesty of the body. Clothes cover more skin, with a higher cut on blouses and a lower cut on skirts. Trying to find a sexy, backless halter dress in China was a quest of Holy Grail proportions.
Race. Americans still stand out like a beacon on the street: blonder, taller, and fatter. Hispanics are considered lovers and dancers. Blacks are a complete mystery, with all knowledge of them garnered from the NBA and The Cosby Show reruns. Conversely, many Americans still harbor confused images of China as geishas, cheap labor or Jackie Chan-martial arts.
Love. Relationships start at a later age in China; they are taboo during the middle school years and frowned upon during high school (though this is changing as China modernizes more). The average age to lose your virginity? Higher than the U.S. Though love in general? Just as confusing in China as it is in the United States.
Etiquette. In China, it is far more acceptable to push around and cut lines, whether while waiting for a bathroom stall or buying train tickets. On the other hand, it is considered rude to sit with the soles of your feet showing. And business cards must be handled with great respect, received with both hands and a low bow.
For me, the values between the two countries differed so much at times that I simply ignored them and had to search for my personal morality. In the simplest of examples, I am no longer comfortable showing the soles of my shoes, but I still wear my skirts above the knees. On a deeper level, my time in Shanghai has revealed what I truly find important – family, friends, and the necessity of being honest to myself. Simple values that I had learned long ago, but had also lost over time in the rush to grow up. Regaining them faded the unhappiness that I had six months ago. In this way, my experience in China fulfills the true archetype of a journey: “To find your own way is to follow your own bliss. This involves analysis, watching yourself and seeing where the real deep bliss is – not the quick little excitement, but the real, deep, life-fulling bliss.” (Joseph Campbell).
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