Unlike a lot of Oberlin students, I never studied abroad. Trying to graduate with three majors did not leave a lot of room for international travel. I also was born at Mercy Allen Hospital, went to school in Lorain Country, and never left it for more than two weeks, barring one amazing winter term spent in New York City learning how to cook. So after I graduated, I decided to really go abroad: by teaching film at a college in semi-rural southern China for a year.
I heard of an opportunity that a few recent Oberlin alumni had to serve as teaching assistants at China’s first liberal arts college. Since I am just as committed to a liberal arts education as Oberlin is, this sounded like the perfect post-graduation job! I spent a painful application month in and out of the Career Center, but finally, I scored the position. (Maybe it’s just the recent grad in me talking, but that is one thing that I really love about Oberlin: how much the career office will help you get a job.)
After spending the summer getting ready, I jumped on the plane for my glorious arrival into the Middle Kingdom. My first impression, however, was anything but glorious. I was warned that it was going to be hot and humid, and they were right. It was hot. And humid. To the point that you see water dripping down the walls. (There’s nothing weirder than looking up from your sweat-drenched bed and seeing that your walls, wardrobe, lamp, and curtains are also sweating profusely.) My good mood wasn’t going to be thwarted though by this weather! Ohio has had hotter summers! I could handle this!
Then, there were the bugs. I had never seen a cockroach before in my life, so you can imagine my horror when I encountered my first, gargantuan one. It crawled out of my sink and poked its head up at me as if to say, “Hello, neighbor! Welcome to China! I’m going to poop all over your sink now! I hope you got your polio vaccination!” Needless to say, I freaked out and flung it into the toilet. This cockroach-flinging ritual continued for weeks — to the point where I calmly picked each of them up and dropped them into the toilet, stoically watching them drown in their watery grave. China had turned me into a sociopathic cockroach killer. It was fine though! I could still handle this! I am very much a humanist (emphasis on human)! People are awesome! I love people!
The people, however, confused me to no end. I immediately was hit by culture shock. I had never encountered such a different society before in my entire life, especially in comparison to my homogenous Midwestern family. My first phase of culture shock was to be as inquisitive as possible. If I just keep asking questions, eventually I’ll understand everything, right? So the inquiries began: “Why do you use an umbrella when it’s sunny?” “Why are you wearing glasses frames without lenses?” “What do you mean there’s no toilet paper in public restrooms?” “For God’s sake, why is too much air conditioning ‘unhealthy’?”
Then came the hysterical laughter as the absurdity of the situations hit me. People constantly take pictures of me while I’m walking around town because I’m white. Quirky! Men don’t take off shirts when they’re hot; they simply pull them up and air off their bellies. Hilarious! Cars on the road will literally drive into oncoming traffic. Seinfeld-worthy nihilism!
Then came the despair. The despair that accompanies the realization that you just don’t fully understand a culture that you were not raised in. “Why are you all dancing in the town square?! How do you all know the choreography?! Did you rehearse? Is this Bollywood?! Why do you do this every night?! Why am I not invited!? I don’t like feeling excluded, China!”
By the end of the first month, I was at wit’s end. I was a stranger in a strange land, and the honeymoon was officially over. I was curled up in a ball on my bed, clutching onto my Oberlin hoodie, reminiscing on the simple days of college where I was confused why people didn’t shower. How quaint.
Then it hit me. I had experienced culture shock before. I experienced it before, and I had survived. No, not survived.
Oberlin was the biggest (and best) culture shock of my life. I befriended people who came from every corner and culture of the world. I rolled around in Wilder Bowl as my friends debated the societal implications of shaving body hair. By the end of my first year, I even worked up the courage to talk with some freegans about why they ate things they picked out of the trash. I had been pushed out of my comfort zone before at Oberlin, and I quickly grew to love my weird little college. It was so different from my high school and that’s why I loved every second of it.
After this realization, I pulled myself together and threw myself into this country so different from my own. Oberlin had prepared me for this kind of shock, and I finally appreciated the lessons I didn’t know I had picked up. Oberlin’s crash course in cultural understanding gave me open eyes, open ears, and an open heart, and at the end of the year, that’s what helped me learn the most from my own experience. If it weren’t for Oberlin, I may have never gotten out of that bed for the rest of the year, but instead, I kept on learning, experiencing, and loving.
Coming back to the United States, I recognized the achievements I had made. I survived a night in a ger during the Mongolian winter, I rode an endangered species of horse, and best of all, I got to cuddle with a baby panda. All thanks to Oberlin: for getting me there, keeping me there, and bringing me home.