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Experiencing Similarities and Differences in a Foreign Land

By JoAnna Enos

When I was 11, I went abroad for the first time. I was part of an exchange program that paired students at my middle school in Portland, Oregon with students at a high school in Suzhou, China. I remember being very interested in other countries and cultures at the time. I loved learning about the ancient history of other countries and I loved the idea of going to palaces, temples, and other places that people had built and inhabited centuries ago. I knew going to China would be an amazing experience, especially since I would be going with friends and would be staying with a Chinese family, but at the time I didn’t realize just how influential a single trip to another country would be on my future interests, both personal and academic.

A few months after the Chinese students had visited Portland, my classmates and I traveled to China to stay with them. We flew into Shanghai and drove about two hours to Suzhou, where our host families lived. During the drive, I was amazed by what I saw just by looking out the window. I was expecting everything to look completely different than what I was used to. I thought China would look similar to how it’s described in old history textbooks and I wasn’t expecting to see so many things, like cars, clothes, buildings, restaurants, etc., that looked just like they did in my hometown.

The landscapes weren’t all that different either. Growing up in Portland, Oregon, large wooded areas and forests, rivers running through the center of a city, and mountain ranges not too far off in the distance were all things I was used to seeing on a daily basis, and those were things I was seeing in China too. Of course I knew that similar landscapes and geological features exist in many different places all over the world, but I was still expecting everything to be new.

Then, when I finally got to Suzhou and arrived at the home of my host family, I began to realize how cultures mix and match and adopt things from other cultures while still retaining some fundamental differences from each other. The apartment my host family lived in looked just like any apartment in the U.S., but what made it different was the culture of the people that lived in it. That was true for most of the things I saw and places I visited. Stripped down, they weren’t too different from the things I was used to, but then when you add in the factor of a completely different culture, things started to come alive and the new images were fascinating and exciting. I wanted to see as many things as possible and learn as much as I could about how things in China were different or similar to how they are in the U.S.

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