On September 5, 2015, I got on a plane to study abroad for the semester in Shanghai, China. Prior to this, I had only traveled outside of the US once and that was to the Bahamas on a cruise (which, let’s be honest, to a Floridian that’s basically the equivalent of going to your next-door neighbor’s). So, needless to say, I had very limited worldview.
I knew Shanghai was one of the most populated cities in the world. However, I didn’t anticipate feeling too much culture shock, given Shanghai’s status as a huge international hub for finance and trade and its equally large international population. But, I quickly learned that I couldn’t have been more wrong.
While Shanghai is full of wealthy citizens and expats, it is also ridden with extreme poverty: pollution floods the streets, and it’s especially hard to take a full breath of air without a mask during the fall/winter due to the intense levels of smog. People work at least 14-hour days (mostly labor intensive jobs) and still struggle to make ends meet.
Of course I’ve witnessed poverty and pollution in the US before, but nothing like this. And, of course, I did have an idea about the extreme poverty and pollution in China, but it never really seemed tangible. Studying abroad makes you see things in a new perspective. Being an outsider looking in was surreal; it really makes you think about how privileged you are to be living as a visitor in a country solely to study.
Essentially, my American privilege slapped me in the face—I was so appalled by my ignorance and it was a much needed reality check. It’s so easy to share a post on Facebook or Twitter to raise awareness or express your abhorrence for problems going on in the world; however, when do you actually do something about such problems?
At what point do you go beyond “Wow, that looks really shitty…I’d hate to live/be there” and actually put yourself in someone else’s shoes, or better yet, figure out ways you can make a difference? We make a mockery out of these problems by using hashtags like #firstworldproblems, but do we ever really stop to do anything about the very real #thirdworldproblems?! Poverty, access to education, human trafficking, pollution, as well as so many other issues are rampant in Chinese society (and many other developing countries). So ask yourself this: How do we live in a world that makes it so easy to distance ourselves from such real issues going on in developing countries?
I could say that studying abroad was thrilling: I got to live as an expat, traveled whenever and wherever I wanted, was treated like a VIP at clubs (thanks to promoters and my “foreign”/Western appearance), and never worried about spending too much money (I could live on $3USD/day). And while all of those things are most certainly true (and extremely shallow), I’ll say this: studying abroad made me come to terms with my severe ignorance of global issues and cultural differences. It made me realize that my dreams aren’t big enough, and that I need to think more globally, as opposed to stressing over the blatantly trivial matters that so often consume my thoughts.
And while many students think studying abroad is just going overseas to party and travel (which, to be fair, I definitely did my fair share of), it’s so much more than that. Although all study abroad experiences are different, no matter which country/countries you study abroad in, you’ll leave with a more global perspective and a real awareness about what the hell is actually going on in the world. I’m certainly still ignorant on a lot of issues, but my experience abroad has forced me to think outside of my protected, privileged, first-world bubble, and has made me more passionate about human rights issues than ever before. And this is exactly why over a year later I’m still so obsessed with it.
*My study abroad program was through International Studies Abroad (ISA)
*I received the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship to apply toward my program costs. If you receive the Federal Pell Grant and want to study abroad definitely apply!
*I had the chance to visit the Shanghai Marriage Market for my Chinese Culture & Society class, and it was one of the most eye-opening experiences that I had while living in Shanghai. Watch this video to learn more about the “Leftover Women” and many of the other stigmas women face in contemporary China: SK-II: Marriage Market Takeover.