Undergraduate students at Duke Kunshan University (DKU) in China will be contributing written and multimedia content to The Chronicle to be published every other Friday.
“Are you sure? Your poor parents!”
“What is it again? Duke China?”
In the weeks after I announced I would be spending the next four years of my life studying at Duke Kunshan University, I heard all of these expressions of shock and confusion over and over.
Did I feel crazy? Absolutely.
Was it a little crazy? Without a doubt.
Nevertheless, in August my classmates and I stepped off the plane in Shanghai from our various countries, many of us for only the second time in our lives with little to no knowledge of Mandarin, how to navigate public transport or accomplish any trivial task we took for granted back home. But we were ready to take it all on. The idea of being the second class of a university that had so much potential was almost too tantalizing—it proved difficult to resist. We wanted to get involved in everything from sports to academic conferences to student affairs.
This attitude served us well, because if we hadn’t initially attacked our challenges with such zeal, we may not have succeeded in figuring out how to set up bank accounts, open new phone numbers, order train tickets and find food that didn’t make you feel sick. We might never have gotten through trying to communicate or answer questions from strangers on a meager three weeks of Chinese 101 without the willingness of the Chinese students and sophomores to lend a helping hand. The level of support and individual attention we received not only as students but individuals was more that we could ever hope for.
In addition to the culture shock of moving to another country so ideologically and socially distinct, I also encountered a culture shock within DKU itself. Sure, it’s a ‘Sino-American’ joint venture university, but with such a diverse student body, it’s almost a world in and of itself—not really American, but not quite Chinese. Instead of partaking in the typical college activities, I found myself spending my free time in office hours with my professors debating contemporary issues dominating the news cycle and doing additional research on topics I never found interesting before, like quantum computing or social activism in Taiwan.
My classmates and I began spending late nights in dorms and common areas, trading stories of our respective homes. We began to notice particular thought trends emerging from students of similar cultural backgrounds. Some ideas and values that seemed pertinent on an individual level suddenly seemed emblematic of our national identities as a whole. It was fascinating and rewarding to see not only how different we all were, but the similar drive we shared toward making the most of this intercultural experience. The heated yet respectful debates over topics ranging from political ideology and international relations to educational systems reached levels I could never imagine reaching elsewhere.
My changing worldview was not only limited to my experience on campus. At the beginning of the year, leaving the safe bubble of the University put me on edge. Going to the bank or the grocery store suddenly became a complicated, potentially hours long endeavor as I had to translate and figure out exactly what I needed. When I left the University, people would stare from their cars as I walked, or asked if I would take a picture with them. Many people had never seen a foreigner, or it was so rare that the novelty hadn’t worn off yet.
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Eventually, however, the unease wore off and was replaced by relieving familiarity I feared might never come. I began to practice my (admittedly barely understandable) Chinese on the train with friendly strangers. I remember the first time I stepped off the train into Shanghai in late September for grocery shopping and it felt like ‘my’ city, not some foreign and slightly intimidating place we went with friends on the weekends.
Three months in, I can confidently say that I’m so grateful for taking a leap of faith to come here. Even working through all the inevitable challenges that come with such a multicultural experience, I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.
Johanna Crane is a first-year in the second-ever graduating class of the Duke Kunshan campus’ undergraduate program, located outside Shanghai, China.