During 2004-2005, I spent a year teaching in Shanghai, China. That year overseas changed my life in some fairly significant ways. Some of the changes, of course, turned out to be mere adaptions that got me through the year and then wore off shortly after I returned to the States.
Some change, however, remains.
The Change that Remains:
An Unshakable Conviction that the Ground Is Gross
The Asian understanding that the ground is gross and that outdoor shoes are disgusting, germ-infested disease carriers got into my head pretty quickly and took up permanent residence. I simply can't believe that most Americans wear their outside shoes indoors, tracking public-restroom germs all over their own carpets - and I can't believe this concept never occurred to me before traveling to China. I never walk around barefoot now, try not to sit directly on paved steps or walkways when I can help it, and I wear slippers in my own home. Since studies show that a scary percentage of shoes track e. coli and C. diff all over your carpet, you might want to consider joining me.
An Ability to Tell Asian Cultures (and People!) Apart
I find it startling that for all America's pride in "multicultural education," most of us just clump all of Asia together, not knowing (or seeming to care!) which country gave the world Sumo wrestlers, which gave us Samsung electronics, and which gave us Ang Lee. Granted, Eastern countries tend to have some linguistic and cultural overlaps (as do Western ones, I might add), but Japan is not Korea is not China is not Thailand is not Laos is not Vietnam is not the Philippines, and so forth. All Asians do not look alike, sound alike, or think alike. They are a diverse assortment of peoples, histories, and languages; and their distinct cultures have contributed greatly to our world.
Yes, I learned to eat with chopsticks. Yes, I kept eating with chopsticks after I came home. Don't get me wrong - I don't eat every meal with chopsticks, but I do use chopsticks regularly -- during meals I eat by myself, of course, so as not to seem pretentious. This isn't some sort of affectation, either: once you learn what you're doing, some foods are actually easier to eat that way.
Besides, my ongoing chopstickery helps me keep my hand in. That way whenever I travel in Asia, I'm not dribbling noodles all over myself.
Prayer for China
Before my year in China, I assumed that every single Chinese Christian was persecuted and in danger of being thrown into labor camp at any moment. Such is not generally the case. While the government still has some work to do on religious freedom and human rights, much political change in the last twenty years has paved the way for more freedom.
The Christian church in China is currently growing by leaps and bounds; and most Chinese believers are reached with the Gospel by other Chinese believers. My understanding of the situation has affected how I pray for China's overall spiritual development and how I pray for specific friends and former students still living on the Mainland.
Travel in Asia is crowded and complicated, and the less carried around, the better. By the spring of the year, I was going on two-week trips with just a standard-size Jansport backpack. I've traveled light ever since.
And just for fun...
Changes that Did Not Remain:
Speaking Mandarin (It's been over a decade. I've forgotten almost all of it.)
Drinking hot water after meals
Spitting fish bones directly onto the table
Using an umbrella in the sunshine
Drinking hot soup in summer to cool down
Riding a bicycle to work
Drinking loose-leaf tea
Elbowing people aside at subway stations and bus stops
Balancing "hot" and "cold" foods (Admission: I never really grasped this concept anyway.)
China Things I Still Do, but Only When Traveling:
Wearing my backpack on my front to discourage thieves
Maneuvering easily through crowds
Bartering like a boss