After graduating high school in the United States, and having stayed in that one location for eight years, I decided to seek an adventure. Having only lived in democracies (having said that, I have lived in a fair few) I was intrigued by the East and what an experience living in a non-democratic country would be like. One day, while browsing through possible locations and programs I could attend somewhere in East Asia, I stumbled upon a language school located in the centre of Beijing. The People’s Republic of China is notorious for being a non-democratic regime and has one of the most spoken languages in the world – Mandarin. With this knowledge in hand, my father convinced me to get my visa, pack my bags, and start my adventure into the (somewhat) unknown. Eighteen-year olds are, after all, supposed to seek adventure (at least that’s what a majority of coming of age novels had told me). So, on December 30th, I left my home, my parents and everything I once knew and arrived in what would be my new home for the next 6 months.
The first month in Beijing was challenging due to my lack of knowledge of the language, having no-one I knew on the other side of the world, and not having access to the basic functions of the internet. After three weeks I was finally able to get a VPN, which allowed me access to the simple comforts of being able to watch YouTube videos, or text my friends through social media applications. Slowly but surely, I started learning the language, got used to using electronic money through WeChat, and created a large circle of friends. Although most of them were international, they taught me the do’s and don’ts of life in China. For example, always make sure your phone is in a warm place so that it does not run out of battery in the cold, or always drink when your boss drinks, and most importantly always know that you are being watched through cameras. This surveillance state seems particularly odd to some Western countries, but at the same time it also feels weirdly safe. In fact, as a young woman, the only place I felt safe walking home alone in the middle of the night was in Beijing. By far the oddest aspect of China is that as a Westerner, you get certain luxuries that native Chinese people do not receive. From free meals to free entrances to free hotel stays, the benefits in China that I received were incredible. Somehow just through knowing one name of a journalist I was able to get an all-inclusive paid trip to Guangzhou during the Chinese New Year. As much as some people claimed that this was the way that the Communist Party makes sure that people do not focus on the negative aspects of the government, it is rather convincing.
Due to the restrictions on social media, a lot of the Chinese population, especially from rural areas had not ever seen a non-Asian person, much less met them. Consequently, whenever my friends and I would walk through the streets of any city, we would get stopped like we were celebrities and asked if we could take photos with random strangers. This displays that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) undoubtedly has a stronghold on its citizens, but still cares about the external image it portrays to the rest of the world. Therefore, my experience of living in a non-democratic regime was at times strange and completely different to anything I had ever experienced before, but at the same time also positive. By the third month, I had actually forgotten that I was not living in a democracy at the time. Other peoples’ experiences may have been different, but I am grateful for mine being so positive. My experience in Beijing and travelling around China influenced me personally so much that at university I have continued studying Mandarin and specialised in the East Asia region for my Bachelor’s degree International Studies.