Study Abroad Changed Me
It is perhaps the case for everyone that as one ages, one comes to dislike one’s former self. Yet I believe it was studying abroad in Australia which gave rise to this feeling in me. I remember as I prepared to come to Australia at the age of 18, I confidently assured my parents that even after leaving China, I would still love my homeland exactly as before. I vowed I would give Australians the best and most perfect impression of Chinese people possible. Nowadays, however, when I hear people make similar declarations, I can’t help but smile wryly to myself.
Arriving in Australia, I didn’t think it seemed much more developed than home; on the contrary, I was very sensitive to anything relating to Australian people which I considered uncivilised. Every day I acted as “guardian of the motherland”, resisting and refuting any criticism or negative comments towards China. I arrogantly thought I must be from the world’s best, most fortunate, most united, and most honest nation: conceitedly, I believed all my thoughts were absolutely correct, and I considered myself an utterly good person. My way of thinking was egocentric even to the extent that I believed if I could dictate how everyone else lived their lives – according to my ideas – the world would be a better place, and there would be far less conflict.
Naturally, since living in Australia, all of this has changed. Of course, that’s not to say I’m not still a little egocentric! It’s simply that my originally firm beliefs and values rapidly collapsed; my sense of identity began to shake, and subsequently became increasingly blurred. From ignorant arrogance, to an increased understanding of myself; from the anger and hatred which came of seeing through the flaws and falsehoods of my mentality; now, I have emerged relatively calm and at peace. Going through such twists and turns and experiences has allowed me to take a good look at my own personality. In what concerned my intrinsic qualities, I originally believed I was made of only good ones – yet as a matter of fact, I was entirely mistaken! Furthermore, the longer I stayed in Australia, the more distant I came to find my homeland. My former ideas and memories of the place – high-rise buildings, resplendent and dazzling night views – were gradually replaced by smaller details: for example, whether or not office buildings had disabled access; whether there was toilet paper inside bathrooms; and whether there was personal and political freedom of thought.
Before going abroad, I was a typical example of a loyal young Chinese person with extreme nationalistic tendencies, my politics cultivated by ignorance through conservatism and autocracy. The me of that time believed in power, was fully convinced by all superficial shows of might, and also greatly enjoyed all grand yet empty formal ceremonies. I was only mildly concerned for the poor and weak of society – yet because I did care a little for China’s poor and vulnerable, I felt righteously certain that my political belief held a moral high ground.
Once I came to Australia, there was no-one to press their own ideologies onto me, or to encourage me to think in only one particular way. With nothing but the words and deeds of friends in college to serve as examples, the ideas and beliefs I eventually formed were actually strong and lasting. Little by little, the ideas with which I came into contact – such as developing an egalitarian attitude towards people, fostering an independent lifestyle, and not necessarily favouring my own opinion – exerted a striking influence on my thinking and my character. Firstly, I noticed people’s basic standard of respect towards me, and value of me: it wasn’t conditional on my grades or my abilities, and people did not take my political bias or point of view as a reason to look down on me. Secondly, the Australian sense of humour and optimism was simply contagious: no matter how many prejudices I had, or how much the Australian government and its officials had been satirised to me, in the end Australians’ sincerity and conscientiousness brought my assumptions to shame. Moreover, the kind-heartedness without exhibitionism, the simplicity, and the friendliness of Australian society weakened the hold of many of my former ideologies, rendering them unappealing to me. I realised being a friend to strangers was a greater act than to self-isolate out of devotion to what I had considered a noble creed. Finally, the freedom of speech and tolerance of dissent in Australian society gradually permeated my life: it allowed me to come into contact with more authentic news sources, and to challenge my opinions, enabling my little box of ideas to expand.
I remember back in 2008, when the Olympic torch relay came to Australia, a lot of Chinese students invited me to join them in carrying our national flag and guarding the safe passage of the torchbearer. I went along with everyone that day, shouting slogans and waving the national flag with pride and excitement – but only until I realise that the people I was with were cruel and intolerant of anyone who disagreed with them. It was a further turning point for my heart and mind. From that day on, I began to have thoughts which an exchange student should not have. I tried to convince my brain to think otherwise; to justify such intolerance as reasonable; yet eventually I concluded that I have no means of explaining the thoughts away. I now simply live according to my own standards of good and bad, have faith in myself rather in someone else’s teachings, and make my own decisions and judgements.
Once the first brick fell, naturally the whole wall collapsed. Later, when unable to hold myself back from sharing my realisations with family and friends back in my homeland, they were angry and unable to be reasoned with, believing I had been misled and brainwashed. Yet my heart and mind felt quite clear; I finally feel as though I have found some purpose. Furthermore, now that I have been relieved of my former heavy ideological restraints, I also feel I have regained the ability to think independently.
My past self never imagined that someday I would believe in democracy, freedom, and equality. Before studying abroad, I only believed I would encounter sunny beaches and lazy, obese Australians. In any case, the former “I” did not believe Australians – with their “lack of cohesion, and poor work ethic” – would end up teaching me the most important lessons of my life.
When studying abroad in America, Mr. Hu Shi (ed note: a famous Chinese philosopher, essayist, and diplomat, and a key contributor to Chinese liberalism) said: “In truth, the world is not divided into Chinese and Western; it is only divided by only good and bad, right and wrong, and useful and useless. Moreover, whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, and useful or useless, can be universally determined.”
Living an as exchange student in Australia has made me very firmly believe that being a good person is more important than anything else. I also now believe that we each have our own individual worth, special qualities and that therefore nobody has the right to demand that others live in a certain way. Regardless of appearance, ability, or IQ, everyone deserves respect and attention within their society. And at present, only democracy, the rule of law, and a free society can adequately assure the needs of each individual.
Translation by Rosalind Moran