As a Taiwanese American, I grew up speaking English and Chinese. When applying to study abroad, I was looking for an immersive experience. I narrowed my search to exchange programs in Asia and ultimately settled on Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Tsinghua, which is a STEM and research powerhouse, is China’s most prestigious university.
China has humbled me. I realized that I took a lot of things for granted. First, I experienced a lot of lifestyle changes, including the lack of clean air, clean water, and public amenities. Additionally, I would not recommend being a vegetarian in China. Been there, done that. Second, I experienced an unaccustomed amount of control, including the Great Firewall of China and security cameras and checkpoints everywhere. At times, I couldn’t fathom how my local peers were able to academically excel on pay-per-GB-WIFI and the absence of Google. Last, I used to think that Houston was the most bicycle and pedestrian unfriendly city until Beijing, where I frequently experienced near collisions.
Despite these inconveniences, I learned so much about my identity and culture. As a native Houstonian, China was my first time living away from home. (Ironically, I felt the most American I’ve ever felt in China.) I was now living in a country with 1.4 billion people compared to the 326 million in the U.S. I had to be tough. Most importantly, I learned to be independent in a foreign country 7,000 miles away from home.
Through travel, I was able to delve into my Asian roots. China’s high-speed rail is so extensive and convenient. I visited Xi’an, Shanghai, and even traveled to Huangshan with the members of the Tsinghua immunology lab that I joined. I tried so many different cuisines and conversed with many locals in their native tongue.
I was very lucky to be assigned to Asian Youth Center. Through this unique housing arrangement, I was paired with a local roommate. I knew that I was going to meet locals, but I never expected to meet so many exchange students from all over the world. My favorite part about studying abroad is still the many insightful conversations I had with friends from Australia, Korea, Canada, and Singapore while drinking bubble tea until 3 AM.
My advice: My only regret is not having studied abroad earlier. If I had, I definitely would’ve considered staying longer or going to another country. One of my business professors at Rice recently published a study titled, “The Shortest Path to Oneself Leads Around the World: Living Abroad Increases Self-Concept Clarity,” and I strongly agree. I was originally hesitant about going abroad because I was worried about missing friends and family, falling behind on coursework, and being gone for 4 months. However, I can guarantee that in the end you will be a different person than when you first stepped onto that plane.