Biting the Bubble

In The Art of Travel, 8. Bubble, Shanghai by Rachel

I am a big fan of making impulsive decisions in the name of expanding my comfort zone. I decided to go to school in New York because I knew it would scare me the most, but give me the most opportunities. I decided to study abroad in Prague because I got a little bit too comfortable in New York and wanted to branch out. I decided to spend a consecutive semester abroad in Shanghai mainly because my time in Prague fostered this intense connection to place at a level I’d never experienced before, and I wanted to feel that rewarding, yet scary connection again.

When I studied at NYU Prague, I felt like I only began to understand the true Prague once I started spending most of my time with non-NYU students in non-NYU-centric neighborhoods. School, and NYU in general, became a secondary priority to me in the light of the new people and experiences. I think a majority of why Prague has still held such a strong place in my heart is due to the distance I maintained from NYU, and the people I met and memories I made as a result of that distance.

My experience in China has not been the same. Whereas I thoroughly popped the NYU comfort bubble while in Prague, I think that at most here, I have only stretched the bubble a few times. Most of the time, I surround myself with friends that I already knew from Prague and New York. I take the NYU shuttle bus to the one academic building, spend my day inside that building taking classes, then take the NYU shuttle bus back to the dorm again at the end of the day. I’ll either cook myself dinner or get take-out from one of the malls next to the dorm for dinner, then do my homework. The only times I find myself out exploring China are on the weekends.

I think studying abroad as a way to immerse yourself in a new culture and lifestyle can have both pros and cons, especially when you already have expectations of what studying abroad should be like. On one hand, there is no better way to understand a foreign place than to live there. On the other hand, it can be difficult to really get a sense of a place when you’re mainly spending all of your time studying from a Western curriculum with students who mostly come from the same background as you.

In Prague, there were three dorms, and none of the people I knew before going into the program lived in my building. I was thrust into newness and the only way to survive and thrive was to forge new bonds with people I hadn’t met before. Those people are now some of my closest friends. However, in Shanghai, all NYU students live in the same gated community. There has been no moment where I really felt like I had to make new friends in order to enjoy myself – I came to the country with some of my best friends. Even though I have made new friends here, I haven’t felt the same motivation to create deep connections with new people because I know I’ll always have my close friends here to fall back on if needed.

I don’t regret coming to China even though finding my way out of both geographical and social bubbles has proven to be difficult. I still find small moments during the day where I’m struck with the realization that I’m in a new place and slowly expand my understanding and radius of Shanghai.

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