For two weeks in my summer of 2017, I went on a solo trip to Chengdu, China. I stayed with a close family friend, and I was an intern at his office. The goal of this trip was to experience and gain knowledge of Chinese culture before I embarked on my journey to Fudan University in Shanghai.
It was the first time I left my family and friends for such a long time, but I'm always up for new adventures, and with every new adventure, there is a new life lesson. So without further ado, here are the life lessons that I have learnt.
1. I learnt that the best way to learn is to be brave.
The reason why this point is the first is because this is the biggest and most valuable lesson I’ve learnt (the rest of the points are in no order whatsoever).
Before coming to China, I always thought that my Mandarin was alright. When I came to China, I realised that it wasn’t. Many of the terms that I’ve been using were inaccurate and polluted with the ‘Malaysian-slang’, my sentences were riddled with grammatical mistakes, and it took me ages to make a point because I'd forgotten so much of my vocabulary. Needless to say, I was a bit embarrassed to say that I’ve lived in China before and continued learning Chinese in Malaysia.
I’m also a relatively shy person. At first, even at the office, I wouldn’t speak much to anyone. To avoid being embarrassed, when someone talked to me and I didn't understand, I would just nod along. Then they’d ask if I understood or ask for my opinions, and I would have to tell them that I actually didn’t understand and ask for them to explain in simpler terms - which turns out to be even more embarrassing. And this happened several times.
Eventually I gave up. “They know I’m not fluent in Mandarin, what more do I have to hide?” I swallowed my pride. I started asking more questions. “What does that mean?” “Why is it like that?” “How do you read that?” And I started speaking more, mistakes and all. Every time before I'd ask a question I'd think twice about because I didn't want to risk looking stupid. But it’s not stupid to be curious. I was in the best environment to improve my Mandarin, and the only stupid thing would be not to take advantage of it. It was by being brave, being curious and being honest that I managed to improve my Mandarin in a short amount of time.
Another sub-lesson I took home with me was: people are here to help you. The people I was so afraid of turned out to be the people who guided me the most. I strongly believe that people who come into your life are here to teach you, and they’ve taught me plenty. From the time when my supervisor waited patiently for me to use Google translate three times to form one sentence, to the time when I had to explain the book I Am Malala (it was the book I was reading at the time) several times to different people, to the time when I had to explain the difference between Malaysian and Chinese culture and education to parents; there was never a single conversation where someone didn’t try to correct my mistakes. Because of that, I was aware of the areas of improvement and I knew what to learn, and thus I am grateful.
(P.S. Small achievement: I managed to make a proper conversation with a complete stranger!)
2. I learnt how to document my life.
One of the targets on my bucket list was to try a new creative project. I decided to vlog about my trip and compile them into a video. The reasons why this project was out of my comfort zone is because firstly, I hate my voice on videos and recordings, and secondly, I've never made a video before (apologies to all my primary/secondary school ICT teachers). Some people are naturally comfortable in front of a camera, and I’m not one of those people. So I was curious to see how long this little project will last.
Every time i made a vlog, I reminded myself that the whole point of this was for me to learn to do something new. Only I would be watching it and it was for the sake of the memories. However, after several vlogs, I realised how fun it was! I became less insecure, I spoke more fluently with less space-filters (especially my favourite ‘uhmm’s). I shared some videos with my friends to update them about my trip, and they were so excited for me that I became so excited for this project!
3. I learnt what it means to be completely alone, but surrounded by so many people.
Mind you, this is not because China is overpopulated. Even though I had a second family here, I felt insanely alone. I’ve always considered myself to be independent, yet I had just learnt that being alone and being independent are two different things.
I was extremely overwhelmed by the hospitality of my colleagues (they’ve brought me out shopping and for dinner almost every night!) but it didn’t feel the same. While my best friends were out having gatherings back in Malaysia, I was being told-off for having my head too close to the paper when I write. I was so bored at night because I didn’t have my brothers to argue with. I would find silly little reasons to talk to my friends and family back home.
I was surrounded by so many supportive people hoping to make me feel at home, and while I appreciate their efforts, I felt like I couldn't quite fit in. Although I understand this may come with time, I still found it tough. I had to maintain proper etiquette even though everyone told me to make myself at home. I was even questioned several times as to why I was being so well-mannered! I was constantly torn between being a guest and being at ‘home’.
And with this I learnt that instead of worrying about the status quo, I had to start being myself. By being myself and being aware of my actions, only could I be more comfortable in my surroundings. I am here because I am starting a new adventure for myself and I have to live every moment of it.
4. I learnt how to find joy in the little things.
Whilst in Chengdu, I stayed in a village. There wasn’t really much to do there, which is why I found it surprising that the children there could spend all week at home with no television and smart phones. I also spent a few days at Mt. Emei which is further north of Chengdu. We were joined with more children, and as it is a more scenic tourist area, there weren’t much activities as well. Which is why I found it even more surprising that the kids wanted to stay even longer than a week! When I asked the children what they thought was fun to do, they replied, ‘Everything is fun if you make it fun!’
And they weren’t kidding. They raced around with trays and carts, swam in waterfalls and lakes, caught tadpoles, talked to strangers, singing songs and playing the recorder. When I played with them, I wasn’t joining their ‘childish endeavours’, I was letting lose and having fun. From a world where entertainment was limited to the screen, it was refreshing to see children finding joy in simple things.
So instead of focusing on the negative, focus on the positives. The retreat at Mt. Emei gave me the opportunity to refresh and calm my pre-exam-results nerves. I had the chance to research and mentally prepare myself for life at university. While I didn’t play catch around the hotel like the children did, I had my own version of fun.
And thus I end with a quote by Nicolas Chamfort: ‘The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.’ and another by Eleanor Roosevelt: ‘It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.’