I met Jeannie at the University College London international students orientation. I was sitting on a bench in the UCL main building waiting for the twelve o’clock campus tour. Jeannie came up to me and asked if I was also going on the campus tour. I replied with an affirmative answer and we introduced ourselves. Jeannie was an exchange student from Hong Kong studying linguistics. During the entire tour she told me how London is different from her city. Although she said it was not her first time abroad, she seemed too excited for me to believe that was true. Since the tour, Jeannie has become one of my close friends in London.
Chinatown, Excitement, and Nostalgia
Over the first weekend in London Jeannie invited me to explore Chinatown with her. She was so amazed to see the Chinatown gates and all the red lanterns hanging over the streets to celebrate the Chinese New Year. “This is exactly like Hong Kong!” She said. Jeannie ran into all of the pastry shops to see what Chinese buns they sell and told me which ones she usually had in Hong Kong and which ones were obviously not authentic. Later she found a tiny place around the corner selling egg waffle, a popular snack in Hong Kong. “We must have this”, she shouted to me, “I really miss it!” We dug out all of our coins and shared the egg waffle. Jeannie was very satisfied and she finished her half in no time. Then she ran into a Chinese supermarket down the street, carefully looking at the groceries and commented on how they were exactly the same or completely different from what she usually finds in Hong Kong. That night, I saw my fourteen year-old self in her. During my first time visiting a Chinese supermarket in Boston, I was just like Jeannie. I ran around the supermarket like a kid yelling out, “those are what I used to eat in China” every time I saw a familiar product. I realized how much I missed China when I burst into tears as I looked at the candies I always had after school when I was young.
A Similar Experience—The Stages of Adjustment
I came to the United States seven years ago as a sophomore in high school. My high school was a small day school, which does not have many international students. I was the only student from China in my entire school at that time and this made me feel special. Many of my classmates felt the same. They were very curious about what China was like and how it is culturally different from United States. For the first few months I felt excited while telling people about my life in China and learning about a new culture. However, very soon when my classmates’ curiosity faded and my excitement passed, the overwhelming culture shock and homesickness eventually hit me.
I had a hard time adjusting to the new environment. Communication became my first barrier. I used to be very proud of my English skills before I came to the U.S. but then I found it hard to even form a complete sentence. I had countless embarrassing moments when I had to laugh with everyone else about jokes I didn’t understand at all. It also took a lot of courage for me to walk into Chipotle and figure out how to order a burrito. I was worried how people would see me when they realized I didn’t even know how to place an order. It also frustrated me when I had to drive forty minutes to a Chinese supermarket whenever I craved the snacks I used to enjoy. Despite all the struggles, I still forced myself to accept the changes and as my father always told me, “Forget about the past and embrace the present.”
A New Family For Old Traditions
After living in the States for seven years, I am finally used to life there. I can speak English almost like it’s my first language. I can walk into a Chipotle to get myself a burrito whenever I want. I became a chocolate chip cookie lover and get along fine without my Chinese snacks. However, I still miss my life in China from time to time. My nostalgia for home is especially strong during the Chinese New Year season. It’s always been my dream to go back to China, sit by the side of my grandparents and have a family reunion dinner on New Year’s Eve. This year is Jeannie’s first time celebrating the Chinese New Year alone. Instead of feeling sad about being away from her family, she decided to invite many of our good friends from America over to have hot pot, a traditional Chinese meal people usually have at New Year’s time, and introduce them to the Chinese New Year customs. She said, “We can be a new family here! Let’s sit around the table, celebrating this important moment together.”
Wenli Bao is a Student at Brandeis University studying Business and Psychology who studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College London in England in 2017. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-To-Study Program.