Caleb Kostreva is an official CAPA blogger for fall 2016, sharing his story in weekly posts on CAPA World. A public policy and civic leadership; social science (global studies emphasis) major at Howard Payne University, he is studying abroad in Shanghai this term.
In this week's post, Caleb shares 10 of the best ways to make your study abroad trip worth it.
1. Eat something crazy
I’ve eaten a laundry list of foods that a lot of people would (and do) gasp at, but I believe that one cannot truly experience a country without trying at least one thing that is not… shall we say… normal.
2. Eat something normal
By no means make weird foods the only thing that you eat! I do advise, though, to refrain from eating Western food as much as possible, especially if you are only in China for a few weeks. I must admit, I’ve been really craving Chipotle (and Mexican food in general) for the last few weeks, and I have certainly had a few American meals here and there. I absolutely love Chinese food, so this advice isn’t too difficult for me to take, but I really recommend eating Chinese food for as many meals as possible.
3. Get outside of your comfort zone
Talk to strangers. I know this is completely contradictory to everything we have been taught our entire lives, but conversations with strangers are the interactions that brighten my day and help me gain a deeper understanding of China and what it means to be Chinese.
Photo: A friend I met while climbing Yellow Mountain
Volunteering will help you see the inequalities in any country first-hand, and seeing these imperfections will help you see the nation as a whole, and not only as a vacation spot. It is full of people who have faults. Whether it be China, the US, Germany, Uganda, or any other country, they all have inequalities and atrocities within.
I am volunteering at an orphanage. Every child has a disability of some sort – mostly cleft-lip, but also Down’s Syndrome, heart issues, and others – and in China, it is unlikely for a child with disabilities to be adopted, so this orphanage gives the kids the care and pays for the surgeries they need so they can have a forever-family. The saddest thing for me to see is the kid with Down's Syndrome; he is one of the happiest kids that I have ever seen, yet I know that he has little chance to know what mom or dad means.
5. Go beneath the surface
Besides volunteering, another way to see a country from a complete perspective is by exploring it. And I don’t mean just going places and wandering around here and there; I mean really explore it. Intentionally go out and seek out the places that aren’t supposed to be seen. The places that are advertised are everywhere. You don’t have to go anywhere to see the face of a nation, but you have to see the dirt to see any country. I have been to a number of sub-poverty areas, including a slum, and I can honestly say that my time in China would be incomplete if I did not visit these areas and spend time there.
6. Get out of the cities
… and if you have time (and it’s reasonable), travel like the average people do! It will take longer, and will almost certainly be less comfortable, but you will not be isolated in a bubble of wealthy business-men and -women. You will be immersed in the China that Chinese people know. I went to Huangshan on the K train, and it was the best decision of my trip! (I devoted one of my posts about my trip, so see that post if you want to read more!) :)
7. See the sights!
There’s a reason they are famous. In the same way that visiting China without seeing the inequalities in it first-hand would be lacking, being here and failing to visit the places that make it unique would be similarly lacking.
8. Open your eyes
Step out of your shoes as a foreigner, and try to slip into the shoes of the locals. In essence, apply all of these 10 things, and you will also achieve this. For example, you cannot observe the inequalities, eat the foods, and visit the landmarks without having your eyes opened and experiencing it at least on some level similar to a local. (See my post on identity in China for more)
9. Ask questions
Don’t be satisfied with merely visiting a country. Find out why things look the way they do, how they got to be that way, and the cultural influence places have on the country or the city. Why do people act the way they do? What is the social construct of the country? Who rules, and why? In China, why are people from rural areas discriminated against? The answers to these questions, along with many others will allow you to see through the veil covering any country, and will mean that you can more accurately assess the reality of a country and its people, which will ultimately lead to a better perception of the world, and if enough people do this it will lead to a more relational and rational world. The answer to a better world is not by policy or peace talks; it is by relationships and understanding other cultures and how to communicate effectively with them.
Photo: The view of Shanghai from a ferry
10. Relax – live life in the moment
Believe me, I only have 19 days left as of the writing of this post. This is me preaching to myself here. I’ve tried to make the most of every moment in China, but the reality is hitting me exactly how short my time here really is. My days here are numbered, which makes every meal, every day that I wake up, every moment I get to experience, all the more valuable because it forces me to not take it for granted.
If you ever get the chance to come to China, don’t get caught up in the schedule or in everything that can go wrong. If you do, you will only spend your time worrying, which gains you nothing. But if you take the curveballs life throws at you and run with them, you never know how things might work out. For me, those days have given me some the best stories and experiences I have had in China.
Caleb's journey continues every Thursday so stay tuned.