Leaving for the other side of the world seems to have become a bit of a pattern with me. It started at 17 and I went to Costa Rica for a month but that clearly wasn’t enough. Once I finished school I took it to the extreme and moved to Honduras to spend a year volunteering with the organisation Project Trust. With those experiences behind me it would be fair to assume I was pretty prepared for moving to China this year right?
Even though I have done this before, the mental preparation felt a little different this time. And to be fair, the situations are more different than they might at first appear.
The anticipation for China was very drawn out while it all happened pretty quickly with Honduras. It went from an idea – hearing about Project Trust for the first time at a school assembly – to a reality – flying away – in just over a year. Meanwhile I have always known I would have a year abroad at university. At first it was just because of the kind of person I am and then because I decided to study languages at uni. I’ve even known I would be going to China since I was 17 so I’ve been waiting to get here for 4 years.
In some ways the long run up was not actually helpful. For so long it was too far away to bother thinking about and there were much more exciting things happening – Honduras and then uni and then BAM! It was time to go! Whereas with Honduras, the year running up to departure was completely devoted to it. I went on Selection, I had to fundraise all year and then go on Training all before even getting to my project.
Expectations are also a big factor in any kind of preparation. I carefully managed my expectations for Honduras. I knew very little about it as a country, not having even heard of it before starting my Project Trust journey and while I learnt the basics during my Training, I tried to keep my mind open and stay away from stereotypes. However I had lots of information when it came to my project. I knew about my host family, the school I would be teaching in, how everything would work. Practically, I was all set but there was still a lot left for me to discover on my own.
With China, things were almost exactly the opposite. I had a lot more information when it came to the country after studying the language at university for two years. Alongside having had to take a Modern East Asian History course, almost all of my tutors were Chinese so I picked up bits and pieces about the culture and life there. In the UK, there is also generally a bit more awareness of China than Honduras as well, though I had to question how much of what I already knew was only stereotypes and preconceived ideas – dangerous things to base anything on.
However when it came to the university I would be attending, Dalian University of Technology (大连理工大学), I knew nothing beyond what the names gives away. We had been given vague information on Chinese universities in general – expect it to be intense, be ready for classes to start at 8am – but especially seeing as Dalian is not an extremely popular choice, there was not much specific information available. I did speak to a 4th year student who had spent her year abroad in Dalian but I was really more interested in what life was like there than what her classes had been like.
Another aspect was that when I went to Honduras I was travelling with a big group so we arrived and experienced the initial culture shock together. For the rest of the year I was part of a pair so everything I encountered was faced side by side with someone who is now one of my best friends. I was pretty much never alone, there was always someone to share my highs with and to support me through the lows. China is a lot more of a solo deal. I’m not the only Edinburgh student in Dalian, or China, but it’s just me in my host family and everyone is spread all over China which is a much bigger place than Honduras!
One of the hardest things I faced before leaving for China was the feeling that I was leaving everyone and everything behind, way more than when I left for Honduras. I was 18 and had just finished high school, a very pivotal time in my life, and for everyone else my age. We were all starting the next chapter of our lives so everyone was moving on at the same time. Everyone was heading off to something new and different so it wasn’t out of place that I was too – even if I had taken it to a bit of an extreme! It was always going to be a time of change which I think made it easier to adjust.
Meanwhile it felt like I was leaving so much behind me this time. My sisters are both heading into a very important year in their lives, Kirsty her Highers and Amy the final year of her university degree. Of my closest group of friends at uni, only one other is going away on a year abroad so the rest will be living their lives as normal and I am definitely going to feel like I’m missing out a bit. It feels like I’m as much in the middle of a chapter as starting a new one and those feelings are difficult to reconcile.
And finally, this just seemed bigger. My overwhelming feeling about Honduras was excitement, so much so that I was never nervous and not even sad until I said goodbye to everyone at the airport. This time I was nervous. Scared, even.
Despite this, I have one very important thing now that I didn’t when I left for Honduras – the knowledge that I can do this. I obviously hoped and believed I could when I went to Honduras but there is something different about the certainty of previous experience. I’ve done it before, I can do it again. I’ll be fine. That mantra was incredibly reassuring when it all felt a little too much. This is something I love to do, experiencing a new way of life, learning a language, and I have every faith in my ability to make it through this year.
All of these things have made leaving a very different experience, not that that’s a bad thing. Honduras was the only thing I had to compare this to but it will be a different experience entirely. And now I’m here and none of that really matters. All I know is that China has a lot to live up to!