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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

Stepping out of Comfort Valley

I’m sitting here in Kunming, China on a chilly day, enjoying the warmth of “The French Cafe” on Wen Lin Jie (Often referred to as “Foreigner’s Street”) and sipping on my hazelnut latte while a relaxing, jazzy version of “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” quietly plays on the speakers above my head. Everything seems comfortable and normal. It seems like it could be home.

In China, there is never a moment that I don’t stick out. I ride the bus, hoping to sneak into a safe seat in the corner without interruption, but am instead bombarded by inquisitive commuters who stare at me in awe and nearly faint when I can respond to their questions using even the simplest Chinese words. I’m no doubt an anomaly casually roaming or biking through the streets of this up and coming Chinese city.

Despite the fact that my presence in China seems strange and intriguing to those around me, now, compared to my first few weeks in Kunming, I barely feel out of place. I wake up every morning at 7 am and eat a quick breakfast, say goodbye to my host family as they head out the door at 7:30, and then enjoy a moment of time home alone before I head out the door with my bike at 8:30. My first stop is language class, where I read outloud from the textbook and take a quick ting xie (vocabulary quiz). I then hop on my bike, riding from the university campus to work at my service placement, where I can spend up to 5 hours a day entering data and counting jewelry and beads. In my very few and special moments of free time, I lounge at a coffee shop reading a book or chatting with my American friends. Everyday’s events seem to jumble together. Each new day no longer feels like an adventure, but more of just a part of my normal, busy schedule.

I can enjoy all of the same amenities in Kunming that I would back home. I can stop by a convenience store on the First Ring Road, one of the main highways circling the center of the city, and grab a quick snack before I hop into an elevator and head to work on the tenth floor of a large office building. I can visit one of the many huge, luxurious malls lining Kunming’s downtown district, where I am surrounded by familiar Western brands such as Starbucks, Mcdonald’s, Gap, H&M, and, of course, KFC. No matter where I end up in this city of nearly 7 million people, I can always rely on my phone, with it’s unlimited data plan, to guide me back home using the always reliable “Baidu Maps” application. Of course, the occasional pedestrian stopping me on the street to take a selfie brings me back to reality for a few seconds. However, I often go about my days in Kunming feeling just as acclimated as any other city-goer around me. Even though to some degree I’m proud to have reached this level of comfort in a brand new, and extremely different place, I also worry that maybe that means I’m not getting the most out of my experience.

After a little over 3 ½ months in China, and 2 ½ months living in Kunming, I think it’s time to inject a little more adventure into my daily life. I’ve gotten over the initial shock of moving into a big, Chinese city, and am ready to start exploring my life in China on a deeper, more thoughtful level. Instead of frequenting areas I’m comfortable with, such as the Western coffee shops on Wen Lin Jie, I can explore new areas of the city and find more places appreciated by the local, Chinese residents of Kunming. I can be more engaged with my host grandparents and brother in the morning before they head out on their daily walk to the elementary school, instead of quietly eating my breakfast by myself and scrolling through social media apps on my phone to see what’s going on back home. Instead of just smiling and saying ni hao to the guard at the gate of my apartment complex on my bike ride home,  I can stop and have a real conversation with him, learning about his day and utilizing the opportunity to speak more Chinese. By being proactive in trying to make each day unique with its own adventures, I can move out of a comfortable state of existence and back into a state of exciting exploration and constant experiential learning.