by Gabriel Heckt
When going abroad, what sometimes comes to mind are adventurous trips to incredible monuments and unforgettable locations and people, I think the story that really fits my study abroad experience is one that can be seen as slightly commonplace, but represents the day to day experience of living immersed in a civilization I was completely unused to.
My friends and I had taken a taxi down to the middle of the city to look for gifts we could get for our families. The place we went was known for its bargain prices and authentic merchandise, so we were excited to try to find things we had never seen in the U.S. However, as soon as we got there, we started to run into problems. The place was extremely crowded, unlike anything we had experienced back in Washington. There were thousands of people, so many that we couldn’t figure out where we were supposed to go. Also, we couldn’t seem to find the place that we were trying to go, despite talking with several shopkeepers in Chinese. We always wound up at extremely pricey name brand shopping centers, the opposite of what we were trying to find!
As if to make matters worse, it suddenly started raining. This didn’t seem to be much of a problem to me. After all, I’m from Seattle, so there was no reason I should be worried about a little rain, right? I didn’t even bring an umbrella because it didn’t seem like it was going to rain that day. I couldn’t have been more wrong. This rain was nothing like even the heaviest rain I had ever experienced in Seattle. It came down in sheets, drenching in literally seconds. It was almost comical just how fast the streets cleared of the massive amounts of people. They seemed to know how to respond to the torrential downpour, but we had no clue. The rain was so heavy, that the streets started flooding, and police had to start blocking off intersections.
Now, not only had we not found our destination, but also we were completely soaked and were running out of options on how to get home. Had we been in Seattle, I’m positive we would have known how to respond instantly, and have been able to navigate our way in and out of an area. But we were in a completely unknown area, and had no knowledge of how to proceed in a situation like the one we were in. Completely by chance, we actually managed to find the shopping place we were looking for, but then we had to start the process of bargaining, which is full of subtleties and very difficult even with the decent grasp of Chinese we had. I spent around twenty minutes bargaining for a pair of shorts with a saleswoman because she wouldn’t give me even a slight discount. I was almost positive it was because I wasn’t Chinese, because I had seen Chinese people in other shops bargain to almost half the price of very similar goods. It was a pretty challenging, but also rewarding process when I finally got a small discount on what I wanted.
Trying to get back to the Sichuan University was another problem in and of itself. Because of the extreme rain, almost everyone was trying to catch a cab, and people kept moving in front of us to grab them, because unlike Seattle you have to be assertive and even appear somewhat “rude” to obtain something if there is a wait in China. Thankfully, we eventually found a very unsafe looking box motorcycle to take us back. We managed to negotiate a price and describe how to return to the University. Although we were drenched, freezing, and tired, we felt happy that we had managed somewhat successfully to navigate our way through some of China’s cultural differences that day.
Though every day wasn’t as hectic and confusing as the one above, almost every day was a learning experience, whether it was buying food or just asking for directions. Learning to adapt and fit into such a different culture through events like this was one of the largest parts of my study abroad experience, and that day is an excellent representation.