Traveling abroad can be very scary, especially when you're traveling to a country where you don't know the language well or have limited access to your support system at home. It was for these reasons that I chose IES Abroad's program. All of their programs were more structured and supportive than any of the other study abroad opportunities that I researched. They were more structured in the form of organized tours and activities that help strengthen our knowledge of the cultural and societal history of the country. We often traveled as a group, which helped you feel less vulnerable or anxious in an unfamiliar place. While at the same time, we had a lot of freedom and autonomy to travel and explore the city/country around us and it gave you the feeling of independence and personal growth. I couldn't have asked for a more influential program experience, because this semester abroad has changed my life.
When I decided to study abroad in China, I knew I would be signing up for a lot of new experiences and challenges. However, in my heart I knew this is where I needed to be, so I took that leap into the unknown and it is one of the best decisions of my life. I would advise someone interested in traveling or studying abroad in any Asian-Pacific country to not let fear and ignorance stop you from taking this journey. At first, the cultural and societal differences can be overwhelming, everything can seem so different and foreign that you begin to feel uncomfortable. But I believe, this feeling is only temporary if you let it be. I learned that its the mindset you approach new situations with, that determines the outcome and overall success of the experience. With that being said; I did have to adapt to customs and societal norms that I didn't necessarily agree with, and it was hard, but I always looked at it as a learning experience. For example: I live in the Midwest, and we don't really use public transportation outside of buses. So coming to Shanghai, and having to not only navigate the subway system, but also adjust to the aggressive and cramped standards and norms of subway culture was something I struggled with in the beginning. I couldn't understand why people pushed to get in and off the train, or how no one seemed uncomfortable being so close to one another. I just had to deal with it and follow along and over time I began to understand why it was this way and that in order for me to get where I needed to go, I had to follow that example. I would sum up my approach to a play on the famous quote: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do", to "When in China, do as the Chinese do"! This allowed me to have a really immersive experience that I feel was culturally rich and authentic. I tried to travel outside of the bigger cities to more rural areas to get multiple Chinese perspectives. Chinese culture is very unique and complex, some areas are evolving with the introduction of globalization, while their core values remain traditional and sometimes conflict with our Western values. However overall, having the opportunity to meet with and connect with Chinese young people to talk about issues and the similarities/differences of our cultures was very eye-opening and necessary. So I would advise anyone thinking of traveling to China to have the confidence to reach out to your Chinese peers and get to know them, because I learned that at our age we all do a lot of the same things and it makes the people around you feel more familiar and relatable. I feel my experience was so unique because I connected with Chinese exchange students before I left and by the time I arrived in Shanghai, some of them were back in China as well. It was nice to have their guidance and support while I was there. We would meet up and they would show me around their neighborhoods and the downtown area, and I got to enjoy the city the way they did growing up. Which goes to show you how important these connections can be.
Its also important to make connections with the people in your program and learn about how everyone's unique path led them to this point in there lives. You may be surprised to hear about what motivates/inspires people to travel abroad and to choose China specifically. Some of my favorite memories are going out with my program-mates to sing karaoke or eat hot pot (which is delicious) and all of the hilarious hi-jinks we shared in the classroom. Its the people that can really make a difference on you're experience, and remember even if you aren't close with everyone in your program you all still share the bond of the being abroad and the challenges you were able to overcome together.
-After 2 weeks decide on a REALISTIC budget per week (you most likely will spend more), and use cash to keep track on your spending
-Bring a rain coat and boots, you will use them and regret not having them
-Learn easy phrases like 'excuse me', 'how much', 'where is the bathroom', these will be VERY helpful in most situations
-Always check for your passport if you plan on traveling outside of your host country
-DON'T take unnecessary risks, if someone does something illegal and gets away with it don't feel bold enough to try it for yourself the consequences aren't worth it
-Stay positive and keep and open mind, this experience will be gone in a flash and you'll regret not putting yourself out there and doing more