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Jessica is currently studying in Suzhou, China on a U.S. Department of State Critical Language Scholarship.


Suzhou is known for its beauty. Pale stone bridges intersect over murky canals, where fishermen guide rickety wooden boats against a lazy tide. If the light is just right, the river shines at some point just above the horizon, and the view is so clear, it takes a second glance to make sure the scene is real. Tranquility is a Suzhou specialty, served hot and humid every morning on my walk to class.

But there is something out of place. Something in this picture is not the same as everything else. I will give you three guesses…and the first two don’t count.

老外。The Chinese love to point out foreigners on the streets. No matter where I go, I get stares and the occasional eager student wanting to practice their English. But, at the end of the sixth week of my Critical Language Scholarship program, I was hoping I would start to blend in.

I suppose it is a little difficult to hide my blonde hair and blue eyes, no matter how 地道 my Chinese may become. Sometimes I forget that I look that much different from everyone else, until I see a picture of a foreigner, normally in a clothing store window, and my mind automatically thinks: “外国人”. The students in my program have made a game of pointing out other foreigners on the streets, and even speaking Chinese to them, knowing that they probably won’t understand. I feel like this is a bit like traveler’s hazing, and I normally don’t take part, but I find myself trying to make a slight distinction between myself, my group, and the other foreigners here in China.

I live, eat and breathe Chinese here is Suzhou. Dreaming in Chinese is not an uncommon occurrence (although I must say it is not nearly as entertaining as it sounds).  But, the language alone does not make me Chinese, does not make me a 本地人。There is a whole culture, a whole way of living that an eight week program cannot even scratch the surface of.

The landscapers of the famous Suzhou gardens have a saying: “如在画图中”. It literally means, “as in paint” or “like in paintings”. The architects and landscapers wanted the beauty of the Suzhou gardens to be so picturesque that their reality was questioned. So perfect that it takes a second glance to make sure the scene is real. But what the ancient garden builders did not account for was 外国人。

However, I for one like to believe that there is a beauty even in seeming imperfection. The intensity of the program gives me so many opportunities for error. In fact, my constant state is error. I have allowed myself to accept that it will be a long time, if ever, before my Chinese will actually sound authentic. I stick out like a white girl in China when I am walking to and from studying, and I am often the cause of slight disturbance to an otherwise authentic Chinese scene.

But, this is also a new picture of China. We, as CLS students, interested in a different culture and a foreign way of life, we are painting a new picture that includes both Chinese and Americans, 中国人和美国人, learning from each other and benefiting from the cross-cultural sharing of ideas. And I must say, the future looks very promising.