I’m still struggling to believe that this will be my last post during my semester abroad in China. The semester has been officially over for one week now, but it still hasn’t hit me that tomorrow, I’ll be leaving what has been my home for over four months now. With the semester over, I’ve had some time to explore the city one more time and reflect on my time here. With so much to be thankful for, I couldn’t possibly sum up these four months into one blog post, but I thought I’d dedicate this last post to explaining some of what I’ve learned here, and what I feel so grateful for having experienced.
I’m especially grateful for having had the opportunity to improve my Chinese as much as I have during these four months. Having the ability to comfortably communicate with native speakers was my most ambitious goal before my study abroad, and I’m happy to say I’ve achieved that. I’m nowhere near fluent, and I know that there’s much more to learn, but my Chinese has improved in ways it never could have at home. Prior to studying abroad, I rarely spoke voluntarily in Chinese class for fear of speaking incorrectly. I never willingly spoke Chinese outside of class, again for the same fear. Now, however, that fear rarely crosses my mind. It’s unusual for me to speak more English than Chinese on any given day. I want to practice speaking it every chance I get, knowing that every conversation allows me to learn something new. I may not have the same opportunities to practice after returning home, but I’m determined to make sure that my Chinese continues to improve. I feel so grateful for having had so many chances to work on my language skills, and for discovering how important that is to me.
Another aspect of Kunming that I’m so grateful for having experienced is the genuine friendliness of its people. I’ve always felt that in cities like Philadelphia or New York, it’s uncommon, and maybe a little strange, to have simple conversations with strangers. You can ask for directions when you’re lost, and if you happen to meet someone nice enough, you’ll have a pleasant conversation and end up where you need to go. However, for the most part, we keep up a guard when it comes to talking with people we don’t know. In Kunming, though, I’ve found that guard isn’t necessary. People are so willing and so happy to talk with someone new. Even when I can’t understand their 普通话 (“Putonghua” or standard Chinese), they are so happy to meet an unfamiliar face. Having a simple human-to-human connection, even just a smile for a stranger, goes a long way here, and I’ve appreciated that a lot.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned here, one that I hope I’ll remember to carry with me even after I’ve left this city, is something that is hard to name with just a few words. The best I can do to sum it up is, “慢慢走” (pronounced “manman zou”). The phrase translates literally as “walk slowly,” but means more than that. It’s a common phrase used more or less as a goodbye, especially when leaving shops or restaurants. To me, it reflects the pace of life at which people here like to live. People in Kunming never seem to be in a hurry, even when they’re late. I used to find myself rushing past others on the sidewalk, annoyed by how slowly everyone around me seemed to move. As I adapted more and more to living here, though, I realized that the city itself is just slow-paced, and that it isn’t a bad thing. It has its urbanized parts where you can go to feel a little more like you’re in a big city at home. For the most part, though, Kunming is a place a little less modern than most cities I’m familiar with, and I’ve become so comfortable with that. Wander through any of the city’s parks, and you’ll see people walking at what seems to be an especially slow pace with their arms crossed behind their backs, as is the Chinese way of walking. They’re usually walking not to arrive somewhere, but for the sake of walking. And when you walk simply for the sake of walking, you realize what you missed before when you were in such a rush. It’s so easy to get caught up in everything you want to accomplish in a day, but taking just a few minutes to slow down is often worth it.
These are just a few of the things living in Kunming has taught me, and they nowhere near sum up everything I’m grateful for this semester. I’m disappointed to see the end of my time in Kunming approaching so quickly, but I know that this won’t be the last time I see this city. This semester has, in some ways, made me even more unsure of what I want to do after graduation. Spending four months without any computer science work has made it difficult to see how everything I’ve studied this semester can fit in with my major. I do know, however, that speaking Chinese often is more important to me than ever, and that I want to see Kunming again some day. There’s still time for me to figure all of that out, and in the mean time, I have so much to remember and appreciate from my semester abroad.
(“xiexie ni, Kunming. zai jian!” – “Thank you, Kunming. See you again!”)