Every time I come across another article containing tips for stepping outside your comfort zone and adding spice to your routine, I can’t help but laugh.
I know how it feels when Nine Inch Nails’ single, “Every Day Is Exactly the Same” becomes the soundtrack of life, but now I also know how it can easily become something more like Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.”
The recipe for change is surprisingly simple. Choose to study the Chinese language and take a four-month course at one of the top universities in China.
Life can never be the same after such a trip.
How would an average, young, quiet European react to the opportunity to leave home for a faraway country, where people don’t use a Western alphabet and don’t eat with forks?
Disbelief comes first. Then, it’s delight coupled with sincere determination. Suddenly, they are knocked down by a wave of overwhelming fear. But this wave breaks when they accept the inevitable.
I needed that opportunity badly. I needed to get out of my gray town and away from my university studies, volunteering at the Red Cross, and my on-again-off-again relationship. That’s why I braced myself, sent my application to Nankai University, Tianjin, and kept my fingers crossed.
The invitation for a four-month Chinese language course arrived in the middle of January. I had to wait until March to depart, and that winter was probably the longest of my whole life.
It was my very first trip abroad. I anticipated a bit of culture shock, expecting to find sci-fi skyscrapers, bizarre foods, fictional characters everywhere, and huge crowds of people.
But there was one more thing I hadn’t anticipated: just how much my life was about to change.
Everything that happened during those four months would make a good novel. Not only did I learn about the language and modern culture of that country from my laoshi (“teacher” in Chinese), I learned a great deal about myself. And I must confess: there were some facets about myself I didn’t like at all.
Nevertheless, despite being initially unwilling to experience this adventure and way of life, it turned out to be a remedy for my depression, to say nothing of the improvement of my language skills.
My stepping out of my comfort zone became a deep dive into a seething cultural medley. So, what could that challenge teach me?
These are the most important lessons I learned while abroad:
Be very careful with personal documents.
Not only keeping an eye on them so they aren’t forgotten in a taxi or stolen, but also filling in all those official papers correctly—with accurate block letters and neat numbers. I learned to read any document I was required to sign or instructions I was expected to meet slowly and carefully. (To my great relief, most of these papers included English translations.)
The thing is, it can be difficult for the Chinese to make out handwritten Latin letters and even some Arabic numerals, though they use the latter everywhere. Plus, being absolutely new to the regulations, restrictions, and customs demands you pay extra attention to your communication with university admissions officers, bank workers, or shop assistants.
In order to avoid any misunderstandings (and their subsequent consequences) in this country, it’s still better to look before you leap into the quicksand of Chinese law. But experience shows that the same is true all around the globe.
Try to adapt quickly to a new, strange environment.
I tried not to notice what I had gotten myself into while changing flights on the way to Beijing. I quickly realized that I was all alone in a huge plane with more than 100 Chinese people, all flying back home—and even that was fine. But nervousness finally took control of me when I found myself lost somewhere in the Beijing Capital International Airport. Fortunately, my slightly worried face led others to offer help, and that combined with my speaking skills helped me find the bus stop and buy a ticket to Tianjin.
The first month living in Nankai campus, which is actually as big as a normal European village, was like living in a labyrinth. Wisely, I found the college for international students the day before my classes started. But during the following four or five weeks, I kept getting lost in new places if I was walking alone.
I was lucky to make a few friends in the dorm who had already been living in Tianjin for half a year, and they showed me the city.
The dorm for overseas students was safe and comfortable. And despite some differences of opinion between roommates on how a bathroom should be cleaned, we became good friends anyway. But it did take time and wisdom (and some nerves) to resolve our minor differences in a mutually beneficial manner. The ability to work out a timely compromise remains a helpful life-skill.
I was also surprised to learn how the need to adapt develops our self-discipline and the so-called AQ, or adversity quotient, which measures our ability to deal with life adversities, and can be considered one of the indicators of our success. I haven’t passed a test for it, but I’m sure that study and life abroad, especially in such an exotic country as China, can significantly increase it.
Stay tolerant—no matter what.
There were almost 20 different nationalities in my group. But this diversity didn’t frighten me.
It was awesome to realize that no one knew me and that I could be a better person to all my group-mates than I used to be at home.
Koreans hung out with Russians. Germans went traveling with the Japanese. And my friend from Poland married a guy from Saudi Arabia, voluntarily converting from Catholicism to Islam. Plus, we all got along perfectly with our Chinese friends and teachers. It was an example of an ideal global society, where you learn to respect and care about foreign cultures and where people from those cultures care about yours.
Value most of the things I own at home.
I began to look at everything and everyone differently. With my full suitcase, many bright memories, a smartphone full of photos, and my soul full of fresh and positive emotions, I was ready to come back home to my usual routine.
My new knowledge and experiences illuminated what and who I had, as well as what and who I didn’t need. My town, my university, my parents, and my friends, and even the Red Cross hadn’t changed during my year abroad. But the ways I treated each of these parts of my life did—I valued them more, and enough to make me set new goals and find new inspiration in my life as well.
Despite having to leave our comfort zone, if the opportunity to do something different with our life falls into our laps, we should grab it and follow it. Even when it leads to China.
Author: Daria Shatsylo
Editor: Catherine Monkman
Copy Editor: Nicole Cameron
Social Editor: Nicole Cameron