HANGZHOU, China -In the course of my time in China, I've visited 15 cities, traveled down two rivers, and crisscrossed the country by train, plane, taxi, and bus. I've learned to dodge phlegm spat onto the ground and to look out for infants urinating in bushes. I've picked up a vocabulary of basic Chinese and I know to walk a straight line on sidewalks, lest a soundless electric scooter be about to pass me on either side. I also know how to use a toilet that lacks, well, a toilet.
Many Americans are curious about China, but few travel there. To be sure, It's expensive to fly to the other side of the world, and it can also be intimidating. Chinese, unlike Spanish, French, or Italian, cannot be guessed at easily, and China is certainly crowded, hectic, and developing. But the country needn't be considered scary. Violent crime is rare, given that fact that it is difficult for Chinese to acquire guns.
Busy streets may make pickpocketing more common, but they also create environments that are well-lit and well-trafficked at all hours. It is sometimes said that the most dangerous thing for visitors in China to do is cross the street - this is true, which is both good and bad in its own way. Safety-conscious Americans like me worry over the lack of seat belts in most taxis and cringe at the sight of young children sitting unbuckled on a parent's lap in the passenger seat of a car.
On the surface, China seems different from the U.S. in so many ways: in language, history, culture, and government. And it is still a relatively poor country, meaning that not far from the gleaming skyline of Pudong in Shanghai or the government compounds of Beijing live migrant workers from interior provinces crowded into pre-fabricated temporary housing built next to their construction sites. Throughout the country, you can't flush toilet paper or drink tap water.
But the longer I've lived in China, the more I can start to see some similarities between the U.S. and China. The two countries are about the same size in terms of geography, and China is actually relatively ethnically diverse, like the U.S. (While over 90 percent of Chinese are of the Han ethnicity, there are still 100 million Chinese who belong to 55 different minority groups.) Both countries value hard work, financial success, and education.
In the U.S., we are proud of our traditions of freedom, democracy, and equality. The Chinese are proud of their five centuries of history and traditions in art, literature, and philosophy. And just as most Americans still feel proud to be American even if the political party they support is not in power, Chinese feel proud to be Chinese, regardless of their feelings of or treatment by the national government.
This is not to say that it is not frustrating to live in China. The country is polluted, media (including the Internet) is censored, and prices are rising. But as a foreigner, I have advantages that Chinese do not: because China is not my permanent home, I can leave whenever I choose to. I experience problems while I live in China, but I also know that my frustrations are temporary. I will leave China and have access to clean air and Facebook again, and I will vote for my government officials in the U.S. Everyday Chinese are not as fortunate, and I try to act humbly given my privilege. An American passport is still an extraordinary gift, one that many Chinese would like to have for themselves or for their children.
I did not expect to find myself living and working in China; of all things, I studied American history and literature in college and took Spanish classes. Over the past year, I've found myself developing a taste for foods I'd never known before (like glutinous rice and xiaolongbao), learning new a set of values and manners, and gaining the perspective of living among a billion people on the other side of the world.
To me, now, China is no longer scary - it is place where I've spent a year of my life, met people and made friends, and come to an appreciation that for all the ways in which the United States and China are different, there are probably about as many ways in which we are the same.
A year abroad teaches a person many things, but the biggest, most valuable lessons come down to the most basic: a year in China may have taught me the rudiments of a new language and how to cross a busy street, but more than anything, I've gained a new understanding and a new sense of humility.
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Brittney Moraski, daughter of Robert and Bethany Moraski of Bark River, graduated from Bark River-Harris High School in 2005. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in American history and literature in 2009. In February 2010, Brittney moved to Shenzhen, China, to work with Chinese students applying to U.S. universities. In July 2010, she moved to Hangzhou, China, to work as a program coordinator and to continue working with Chinese students. She plans to return to the U.S. this summer. You can follow her blog at www.brittneymoraski.com.