“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” -G.K. Chesterton
I’ll start with something simple. There were two things we might usually eat for breakfast in Beijing (“we” being me and my friends): the breakfast sandwich, and the crunchy burrito. Later, when breakfast sandwich guy added a new dish to his menu, the potato wrap, we had potato wraps for breakfast.
Of course, they aren’t really called those names. I have no idea what they’re called, and if I had asked I wouldn’t have remembered. Chinese is like that; you can hear a word 1000 times and it might still have no meaning.
I liked the crunchy burrito the best. These stands are all over the place, but I particularly liked the guy who makes them at the East Gate of our university, across the (tiny) road from the breakfast sandwich guy, and fifteen feet away from the place where we bought our juice in the morning. So close to Korean (lunch option) and Muslim Noodles (another lunch option).
The crunchy burrito costs me 3.50 kuai. That’s $0.50 CDN. Will I ever eat breakfast for that cheap again?
I am Chinese-Canadian. I went to Beijing, China for two months through my university to learn Chinese. That is why I was there. And I did learn some basic Chinese, but as probably with anyone who travels, I learned a lot more about other things.
I want to tell you about it but it’s hard to because I’m here, home, and China feels very far away. ‘There’ is so different from ‘here’, which may sound obvious, but I mean on top of the cultural differences, I was different. I had to live my life differently. And now, here, it’s back to the same way things were before, which is not a bad thing, just… different. And now, when I’m here, the feeling that I know how to live in Beijing is becoming hazy and slipping away.
I guess I first had to deal with getting used to having all this money in my pocket. It didn’t feel like my money. I think this is what happens to a lot of people when they travel; it doesn’t feel like yours because it looks different and it’s worth a different amount and you must spend it on things you wouldn’t normally spend it on. In China I learned how to spend money on food. In China I had 6 times more money in my bank account than I did back home and I learned how to still spend it well.
I had to get used to having freedom. That also might sound strange when talking about a country where its people are not free, but picture this: you’re in a new place where nobody knows you. The only people who speak your language are the 25 people who came with you. You have 6 times the amount of money you did before, you’ve got two months with an open schedule, and there is nobody, nobody, telling you what to do.
One of the things I loved most about China was that I did things. I don’t think I wasted a single day in China, unless it was recuperating from the night before or that one time I fell asleep at 1pm and didn’t wake up until 6pm thereby cancelling my own trip to the China National Museum.
In Montreal I’m lucky if I get out of my pyjamas before 1pm (or at all), but in China I did things! I did so many things!
I went bungee jumping and it was terrifying and amazing and literally breathtaking. It cost the equivalent of $20 CDN and a lot of nerves and I would never have done it if I hadn’t been where I was, just off a boat in the middle of a gorge somewhere in the Chinese mountains.
If you can tell by the look on my face that I’m about to die, you’re right, I did die. I died and came back to life and heard my breath in my ears and felt like maybe I was someone new, someone braver than before.
I went to Qingdao, where they make Tsingtao beer, and I stayed in a hostel for the first time. I puked my brains out one night and then found myself on a bus to Inner Mongolia where I lay on the grasslands and saw a shooting star. I went to the Gobi desert and rode a camel and jumped down sand dunes and it felt like jumping on the moon (or at least that’s what I imagine jumping on the moon might feel like). I went to an electronic music festival headlined by Fatboy Slim right under the Great Wall of China, and I went to the actual Great Wall of China. I stole flags from a decommissioned Russian aircraft carrier at a party in Tianjin. And when the party was over, I was the last to leave (seriously, we missed the last bus back to Beijing).
And those are just the big things. Those were the big thrills, the wide-eyed, can’t-believe-I’m-really-doing-this things.
I loved it all. I loved every second of it, and I never wanted to come home.
But I had to. Coming home was the strangest thing, like I was going to a foreign country again, except that maybe I’d been there once before in a dream. I expected everything to be the same, and then was surprised when it was. I think I hoped that things had changed because I felt that I had changed, and wanted my world to reflect that.
But it didn’t. Everything is the same. I picked up right where I left off, with the same job, same house, same friends. But that’s okay, because this is life, and China was a beautiful summer vacation/semester abroad. Now I have something to save up for, and something to look forward to next summer.
I miss the cheap food. I miss my broken bicycle. I miss the bad English translations and the Chinese signs I can’t read and I almost miss not being understood by anyone. I miss feeling like I need to do something everyday, I miss needing to get out of my room because there’s no food in there and there’s nothing on the internet.
I miss being eager to learn and not being complacent.
I want to tell you and everyone you know to go to China, but it’s not for everyone, at least not yet (though if you want to see China before it comes more and more Westernized, the sooner the better). There were so many times when I thought to myself “my step-mom would hate this”, or “[x] would starve here”. There are many things to get used to, starting with just the sheer number of people around you. there’s the people who solicit you for just about everything, there’s the seeming lack of rules on the road, and the honking every two seconds even when you see the car and they see you, and the spitting/hocking that comes from some place deep down inside. There’s the bathrooms that are half the time just a hole in the ground, and you’re lucky if they provide toilet paper.
But China is for me. China is where I learned to speak, and to be less afraid. It’s where I was the kind of person who would actually jump off a cliff with only a bungee cord attached to my feet. It didn’t feel like home, but I don’t think I wanted it to. It felt more like a place where everything is upside down, until one day you realize that everywhere else is upside down. In China I looked at the world from the other side, and I just saw things differently, with wider eyes. In China, I thought, maybe I’m the one who’s been turned around. It made me have feelings about the East and West, and I’ve found I’ve come to love a country that a lot of people in the West hate or don’t understand. It feels like Beauty and the Beast a little bit, though maybe China really is just a beast and not a prince in disguise. I still don’t know how I feel about that.
I want to continue to study China. There is so much to learn and so much stuff that’s just been existing this whole time that I don’t know about yet, so many things to do and see and touch. I don’t want to think that I’m the best because I’m from the West, but I want to better understand the relationship between the East and the West, especially now that China is playing such a prominent role on the international stage. I want to know China so I can talk about it, and be part of the conversation about how to make our world better.
China is beautiful because it’s not like anything you’ve ever known before. There is nothing that reminds you of home, and when you get home, everything will remind you of China. Montreal is home for me, and it always will be, but for now it’s just a rest stop until the next time I go. The best thing about coming back though? I got to take that fearless, bungee jumping girl home with me, and I’m a braver, better person.
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.