Notes from Beyond the Bubble
After leaving Hong Kong to study abroad in California, I encountered more than a few surprises in this incredibly complex country.
By Jessie Yang, University of Hong Kong
As summer approaches, so does the day that I leave this country.
Since I set foot in the always-sunny California, the last six months that I spent studying abroad have been a unique opportunity to experience an entirely different culture. Though things have not always gone smoothly, I gradually began to appreciate the setbacks along the way and observe my own growth as a person. In my time studying at an American university, meeting hundreds of different people from all different walks of life, here is what I have learned about American culture.
1. My Communication Education
The U.S. is a place without much social pressure, where making mistakes is not quite as big of a deal. Sharing your opinions is something that is encouraged without judgment from others, which is different from where I come from.
My English improved a lot through speaking, trying and learning. I thought I was going to have a tough time in an English-speaking country, but I was wrong. Even if I speak slower or have a hard time describing certain words, people are willing to listen and help.
In addition to my improvement in speaking English, I found myself more willing to express my opinions. Before, I was too concerned about saying the “right” thing and would often just stay silent in fear of saying dumb things, but I am now more confident in myself, and find that I have questions and my own ideas to share instead of sitting quietly, absorbing others’ words without second thoughts.
2. No-Fear Friendship
Making friends has not always been easy, especially in a foreign country, and my friend from Hong Kong University and I have both met ignorant and inconsiderate Americans who gave us a hard time because, sadly, communication is not our biggest strength. In Hong Kong or Taiwan, people tend to consider others with more respect. Nevertheless, I eventually made friends with exchange students from Korea and Japan, as well as with some local students in my classes.
Before coming to the U.S., I heard stories about how hard it is to maintain friendships here, but I’ve found that, if you take it easy and don’t give yourself too much pressure, things will be alright in the end. The key is the willingness to make the first move to start a conversation, because it’s true that you won’t know if you could be friends with someone unless you talk to them. Moreover, I realized I have nothing to lose, and stepping out of my comfort zone has always ended up much better than being afraid of others’ judgments.
3. The West Is Not the Best
The media has portrayed the U.S. as a powerful and superior country, but the truth isn’t so cut and dry. People often say that Americans are creative and good at expressing their opinions, and that is undeniable, but, while different cultures shape people differently, there is no such thing as better or worse.
After six months in the U.S., I realized that the country is as complicated as any other. The media creates only a partial representation of society, so I was unable to fully understand the country before I came here. It is divided and diverse, and undergoing dramatic political changes. Although it has achieved glory in the past, the economy and society still pose challenges for the younger generation.
Sometimes, I feel like Americans live in a giant bubble, not noticing how their country is starting to lag behind while other countries are rising rapidly. Only when the bubble breaks can people really understand, but until the day arrives when everyone can view their country from an outsider’s perspective, most Americans will still live under the illusion that everything is just fine.
4. What’s Good, U.S.A.?
Still, there are two aspects of this society that I really appreciate: the common parenting style and general tendency to encourage each other. During my trip to LA, I saw children running around a fountain in Universal Studios theme park, freely having fun. Then, in a restaurant, I saw a child throwing a tantrum, but the parents did not scold him harshly; in Taiwan, many parents would have given the child a slap in the face.
I also like how parents here treat their children as individuals and that the relationship is less patronizing. No matter how old I become, my parents will always treat me as their little kid, but I think the parenting style here gives children a sense of responsibility to become adults in a way that my culture’s doesn’t.
Plus, people here don’t hesitate to give out compliments for small things, in addition to praising each other’s achievements. While they can seem like meaningless niceties, compliments really have the magic to make someone’s day. Since coming here, I have begun to pay attention to the little changes in people’s appearances or attitudes, and to tell them I like it. Somehow, giving compliments makes me happy as well, and it has helped me appreciate the small things in my life.
5. The Importance of Being Myself
The greatest lesson I have learned here is to be true to myself and live the life I want. I used to care too much about how I “should” act and what others think of me. Ultimately, others’ opinions don’t matter, because only I decide what I should do, not the people around me or even the society.
I have the right to make mistakes, and no one else has the right to tell me I am wrong. The struggles along the way are tough, but I will never give up, and I will seize every opportunity to make the most out of my experience.