Foreign, Yet Familar: My Life in Xi’an as a Teenager

Article by Yujeong (Erin) Lee

I walk through the metro passageway to transfer at the Hongdae station in Seoul, South Korea, listening to music in an effort to isolate myself from surroundings. As I constantly look up to the metro station signs to prevent myself from getting lost in a familiar, yet foreign city, I’m taken aback when I notice a crowd of people who look like me and speak the same language. I then think back to the times I’ve spent in a foreign, yet familiar country. I was born and raised in South Korea and I had received primary education in a Korean public school. I am not sure if I was one of the patriotic Korean kids or an indifferent one. Maybe I was a bit of both, but all I know is that I was born to be an expat.

I made a big transition in my life six years ago when I moved to Xi’an with my family. I was one of the happy cases, in which I was more than glad to be able to move to an exotic place. The emotional struggles of moving to a new nation, such as those caused by the language barrier or culture shock, never bothered me. Of course, there was the time when I was rejected from attending a local Chinese school due to my lack of fluency in the Chinese language or the year-long period of being “English deaf,” when I was not able to understand most, if not all, of the classes I took at the international school I eventually got into. However, such situations came to me not in the form of an obstacle or a barrier, but as an auspicious chance to learn.

What really bothered me instead was the lack of opportunities available to me in the city. Although Xi’an is considered a rising city in China, especially in respect to economy and tourism, the city does not yet fully accommodate the needs of those from outside of China. As a student, I was hearing from friends in Korea, the USA and bigger cities in China about internships, conferences and various academic and extracurricular programs they got to take part in. When I turned to Xi’an for similar opportunities, I found many activities were only available for Chinese students and those conducted in English were quite mediocre.11

That’s how I began my adventure in the city. A place full of opportunities lets you explore them, but a road less traveled lets you pave it yourself.

Find Your Passion

It seems that, a lot of times, people puttheir passions on the back burner after moving to a new country. I hear about those who stopped dancing, drawing, or playing their instruments. This is daunting, but I don’t think it’s necessary. In fact, I believe moving to a new country provides a chance to realize your passion in the new city. One of my friends was able to find a local dancing institute and continue pursuing her passions with people just like her. Another found a Chinese tutor and played cello.12

My passion is art history. Though I would definitely have loved to live in places like Florence, Amsterdam, New York City, or even Shanghai, where there are heavy concentrations of renowned museums and art pieces, I lived in Xi’an. Before disappointment got to me, I first recognized that I was living in one of the oldest cities in China. I visited multiple museums and art galleries, recording my experience in writing and photography. Some of the museums were well-known, such as the Shaanxi History Museum (陕西历史博物馆) and Beilin Museum (西安碑林博物馆); some were less common like Xi’an Museum (西安博物馆) and Xi’an Banpo Museum (半坡博物馆); and some needed to reconsider their museum titles. One of the museums I visited the most was Xi’an Art Museum (西安美术馆), which was more of a city gallery. For over fifteen months, I visited all the exhibitions held in the museum and was interested to see the growth of contemporary art in China, as well as calligraphy that began to take a new form in modern society.

Most museums in a small city can only bring in small exhibitions from outside because they cannot afford to rent works of well-known artists. The silver lining is that I was introduced to less common and rarely seen works of such artists. Xi’an Qujiang Museum of Fine Art (西安曲江艺术博物馆) at the Westin Hotel had showcased pottery works of Picasso, 16th and 17th century Flanders still-life paintings, and even some small scale sculptures of Rodin.

Turn to the Community and Network

Although I attended an English-speaking school for international students, various extracurricular programs such as the student government or the Model United Nations provided me access to the local culture. From a small group of acquaintances, I was able to expand my circle largely through social media platforms like WeChat or QQ. I kept a tab on any local student programs through posts that I came across, which eventually introduced me to larger connections like the local student leagues, bilingual student book club and even TEDx conferences. I didn’t make “Chinese friends”; rather, I made friends in China.

Aside from the local community, there was a diverse body of international youths that I was introduced to through is put on through the cooperation of the four international schools in the city. With a group of intelligent youths, I eventually set out to organize a TEDx conference in the city that connected us to the local and the expat communities.

Learn the Language

I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that living in the country is the best way to learn the native language. For youths like me, learning Chinese in a young age surrounded by the local culture and people came to be an incredible advantage. I tried getting the most out of the Chinese classes that were offered every day, watching Chinese movies and television shows, and looking up unfamiliar words from WeChat posts. Most importantly, I talked to people—in supermarkets, classes, museums and conferences.

To me, understanding the local language or making efforts to do so is a display of respect for both one’s mother culture and the host culture. I believe that teens living abroad should understand and take advantage of their situations in striving to learn the language—and if possible, beyond the conversational level of proficiency. It is, after all, to interact with the local community that we learn a language, not to merely pass a test or appear slick on a resume.13

As cliché as it is, it is true that our experience often depends largely on how we look at it. I was able to experience different cultures, become trilingual and interact with people of truly diverse backgrounds since a young age. It only made sense to know the city and its history when I have lived in Xi’an for six years. I wanted to have an answer ready if someone were to ask me where I’ve been. I know I quoted Robert Frost, but I’m no pioneer. I just wanted to prove to myself that it’s not where I am, but what I do, that will make a difference in my life.

Erin is a third-culture kid, an organizer of TEDxWestFurongRoad and a graduate of Xi’an International School