As the plane flew low over Beijing suburbs — which seem to stretch from Russia to the sea — my nerves sank lower into my stomach. This was not only an unfamiliar city, but also a dirty one. My previous experience in Beijing had been limited to three days, and my only consolation was that I knew the language in a basic way. This plane ride was an exciting one, though, and I picked up my bag and told the taxi, "Please walk with me to Wudaokou neighborhood." That neighborhood was more than 20 miles away. As with most experiences with a foreign language, this would be the first of countless embarrassing speaking mishaps.
Fast forward three weeks, past the initial culture shock and difficulties starting bank accounts, cell phone plans and housing arrangements in a different language, and Beijing had given itself over to my friends and me completely. We rode the subway like locals, and knew the best restaurants to eat at. We had gone to all the best bars, and met as many expatriates as possible. Beijing's old alleyways were no longer a frightening labyrinth, but instead a vast network of unimaginable possibilities. However, we soon grew restless, and began making plans for our week-long break in March. Vietnam made the top of our list, and a swift decision was made. We would go for nine days, with no Vietnamese language abilities and scarce hostel bookings. The lack of planning proved simultaneously frightening and invaluable. There were nights spent wandering around looking for a room in the red light district of Ho Chi Minh City, prop plane flights to tourist-less islands, $8-a-night bungalows on white sand beaches, midnight scooter rides into Jurassic Park-esque jungles, and world class Brazilian churrascaria barbecue in the heart of a growing Asian metropolis. We couldn't get enough adventure, and every moment was spent generously. This was just one week of my four-month stay, and every week was just as memorable, from sleeping in a fire tower on the Great Wall to philosophizing over Confucius' tomb.
There seems to be a sentiment among many students that study abroad programs are a "break from reality." In my experience, the opposite is true. Beijing, and China in general, embedded itself deeply in my life. The discomforts of back-country travel are juxtaposed against beautiful Chinese mega-city skylines and rooftop bars. My international experience wasn't an escape from my stateside life; it was a logical step forward in my education, both academic and otherwise. It is permanently in my future plans for my career and life.
Upon my return, nearly everyone asked, "How was China??" The first words out of my mouth were words of complete positivity, no regrets other than that time had moved too quickly.The second thing I told them was how difficult it was to be back. Many people talk about the people they met abroad as the most important thing. For others, experiences, location, parties or an "escape" are what they take away. However, for me, it's the knowledge that the world is so much larger than what I knew before, and more beautiful than I could have ever imagined.