60 Days in China: Where Everywhere Else Seemed Upside Down

“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).

road along the east gate of my university

The crunchy burrito costs me 3.50 kuai. That’s $0.50 CDN. Will I ever eat breakfast for that cheap again?

crunchy burrito

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.

gobi desert, inner mongolia

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.

gobi desert, inner mongolia: sand dune jumping

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).

oh my god i'm on the great wall, photo by carolina betancourt

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.

dumplings at the east gate

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.

bathrooms in inner mongolia, picture by karine boileau

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.

outside the lama temple, residential street

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.


in-article-A-plus-banner


Are you following us on Facebook?

Emily has written 123 articles for us.

59 Comments

  1. I studied Chinese for all of college and spent a month in China and I sort of can’t even really comment because I have a lot of feelings. But yeah, this.

    Did you come home with a lot of T-shirts with broken English on them?

  2. Oh, this made me feel all sorts of things. Thank you for writing this. I also studied Chinese all through college and have been in and out of China for so much time now, and sometimes I forget to feel it. And I think it’s important to keep on feeling it, and to keep on laughing at the t-shirts, because some of the time it’s so tempting just to yell at Chinese, for making my eyes hurt and for not being Spanish and for still not being easy after five years. And to get mad at the fact that cereal costs one hundred thousand dollars, and there isn’t any cheese. I always realise just how I much don’t care about any of these things when I’m not there (here).

    • i think cereal was the thing i missed the most (i had like 10 bowls the day i came back). they had some at the grocery store near my dorm but it was suuuper expensive and didn’t look very good.

  3. “China is beautiful because it’s not like anything you’ve ever known before.” Very true. I went to China last year, and while I’ve been to a few places where you experience a kind of culture shock, I think in China it was particularly pertinent for me because it was my first time travelling outside Europe with my friends.

    Also lots of Chinese people wanted to get their photo taken with me. Idk, it seemed like I was something of a novelty in some cities.

  4. This was a great read, and I feel the same way about my own travels to Ukraine.

    I probably bought like 8 broken/random English shirts from Ukraine, Serbia and Japan lol They’re surprisingly the shirts I get the most compliments on.

  5. I am currently in Beijing with a teaching training program (moving to Shenzhen in two weeks) and that second picture looks so much like where I’ve been eating lunch! Thanks so much for writing this! Any suggestions for places to go near Peking University?

    The money is so fun to get used to. The other day I went to a program BBQ and spent 30 kuai. I was annoyed at how much the dinner cost, then I later remembered it was only $5 USD. Still the most expensive meal I’ve had all trip!

    • i actually didn’t hang out much near peking uni because i was at the communications university on the east end (batong line) but there was one place near the south railway station that had the most delicious sweet and sour pork ever. send me a message if you ever plan on going down there and i’ll give you directions!

    • Oh, welcome to the south! I live in Guangzhou, just up the delta from SZ.
      I was an Asian Studies major in college, and now I live and work in China. Emily, you hit the nail on the head when you say “There is nothing that reminds you of home, and when you get home, everything will remind you of China.”

  6. Great article!

    “I think I hoped that things had changed because I felt that I had changed, and wanted my world to reflect that” This is exactly how I feel right now. I’ve just returned home after spending one year studying/travelling overseas and although I didn’t go to China I can definitely relate to some of the things you mentioned.

  7. This was great. Just replace “China” with my own study abroad and the rest was very nearly the same.

    The hardest part for me was coming home…by far… It was all the same but I felt so different.

  8. I spent a month in China during the summer of ’05. It was definitely one of the best experiences of my life (and the most life-changing) This article reminded me of all the things I did and experienced and it was great!

  9. My friend went to China to teach English for a few weeks, and she’s come back so different – she’s considering living there when she’s older. Like everyone else, thank you for the beautifully-written article and for sharing your thoughts. It’s things like this that makes me so excited for my own planned travelling in 2013.

  10. It has been so long since I felt something as new as exploring a new city/country/culture. I live vicariously through your beautifully documented adventure!

    Also, if you want a cheap breakfast, visit West Africa next. My favorite meal of millet pancakes with spicy peanut sauce was only 10 cents.

  11. Thanks for the amazing article. I spent a good amount of time teaching abroad in China, and it was nice to be reminded of why I love it so much and why I need to go back.

  12. This was wonderful to read and makes me want to grab a journal and start scribbling about the ten months I just spent in Israel before I forget everything. In fact I think I will go do that right now. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Also my favorite professor spent 6 years in China after completing undergrad and not knowing what to do next, and she ended up starring in a soap opera there (!) and then came home to the USA and wrote a memoir about it (!!!). I think you would like her book a lot, it is called Foreign Babes in Beijing, by Rachel DeWoskin. She is an amazing writer and was a wonderfully inspiring teacher and I am a little bit in love with her and basically I want to be her when I grow up, but really the book is very good and I highly recommend it.

  13. this makes me feel pretty bad about being in tremblant and calling it a vacation! 😛

    glad you had fun, emily, and welcome back to the strange world of montreal hahaha

  14. off topic, BUT, my girlfriend (who is 5’11” and looks like a giant blonde twink for the most part) says her entire experience during a lengthy school trip in china was having people say something at her in chinese and her friend who spoke chinese saying “they want to know if you are a girl or a boy,” like at least twice a day

  15. I love all the travel articles that run here. This was a great recap of your stay Emily. You really brought justice to a country that many of us just have no idea about other than the stereotypes we often hear.

    Well done. Now I have a huge urge to travel.

  16. China is where I lost my depression and found myself. Once you realize you are capable and smart (and privileged) enough to orient yourself on the other side of the world, it’s difficult to believe that your life is a waste.

    Also, $.60 煎饼 for lunch every day! It’s all I crave some days, three years later.

  17. hi emily sometimes when i am the one who reads/publishes an article i feel as though i have engaged with it and then forget that i have not publicly done so by commenting on it so that’s what i’m doing right now. i love you, you’re the best daughter ever and this was beautiful.

    you won this day

  18. Thank you so much for writing this! I’m actually leaving for Beijing in 2 days for a 4 month study abroad program and am currently going through stages of terror, excitement, and frantic packing.

    This article was so beautifully written and your descriptions and pictures are making me get so excited to explore China. I think I’m beginning to realize how much China is going to change me 🙂

  19. I just got back from China nine days ago after having spent four months at Qingdao University and then another month doing research with a professor in Southern China. It’s really great to see so many other people expressing interest in China. I’ve been studying Chinese for five years and I graduate next year with a degree in Chinese and Asian Studies. My time in China was the most amazing experience of my life. Like a lot of other people have expressed, I was able to find myself in a way that I’d never been able to in America. It’s really liberating to be thrown into a foreign country where a majority of people don’t speak your native language and then be expected to be independent. I became a part of an international community, made friends from all over the world, and greatly improved my Chinese proficiency. I hate when people assume that China is just a backwards, polluted place and don’t bother to notice that it has a longer history than any continuous society in the world.

    *ramble ramble*

    (Shameless self plug: I periodically wrote a travel blog about my experiences in China http://www.xueqinginqingdao.blogspot.com)

    • Everything Joelle and everyone else has said. All of it. I’m so amazed that everyone who’s spent at least a small amount of time in China comes home expressing the same sentiment, that the country changed their lives and helped them settle into themselves.

      The lesbian scene in China is not so small. I think an eventual China autostraddle meetup is a thing that should happen.

      Ps. Hi Joelle!

  20. Its rather amusing I see this article on here after I edited a few photos from my trip to HK/Guangzhou back in May to visit family. Even though I was there for a month…I still miss it. The trip helped me out of my slump of figuring out what/where my life will be going after college (I left the US 4 days after graduation). It also helped me out of my photography slump I’ve been in during the semester.

  21. I’m living in Beijing right now. I’ve been here since mid-April. It’d be great to have an Autostraddle meetup in Bejing!!! Maybe the last week of August? What do other ppl living in China think?

  22. I leave for China tomorrow but I won’t be in Beijing until The first week of September, but then I’ll be there until mid-December. I’d love to have an Autostraddle meetup in Beijing!

  23. Great post and one which brought a lot of memories back. I went to China on my own about 10 years ago (work, not holiday) and to this day I still can’t believe I did it. It was certainly an adventure too, & you’re right, it is a free for all on the roads! I thought my number was up on the bus trip across the border from Hong Kong – made me appreciate traffic lights when I got home!!! Also the area I went to they certainly weren’t used to seeing fair haired English girls either!

  24. Hey, thanks for writing about your experiences in China. So much rings true, the feeling of life there comes rushing back from reading this piece. Being half Chinese I have visited China many times and each time the same contradictions arise. I feel like writing an essay but you’ve already done it for me.

    Still, it’s nice to see that other people share the same sentiments. Especially on how life feels different, especially that living there makes you feel more alive than ever living in north america has. Maybe it’s partly nostalgia and I’m sure it’s partly the privilege of being free to move and not worry about money, rent, status; but living in China I felt more at ease and confident (and less alienated from the rest of society). There is a quality of things in a country so large that you can get lost yet everything is still so accessible, it feels like what I imagine america 50 years ago may have been; expansive but fully within the reach of the average person. It also helps that while some people may be judgmental they don’t judge “you” or even really care beyond whether you are fed. It might not be a fair comparison but I really feel people I’ve met just care more (about the important things like food and friendship) and are more accepting. I’m happy you enjoyed living there. Thank you for reminding me how much I miss it there.

  25. “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.”

    this is my life. my dad works for the foreign service so i grew up in a bunch of different countries and coming back to america for the summers always gave me the worst culture shock. nothing is stranger than realizing nothing’s changed except for you. thanks emily, i really enjoyed this. 🙂

  26. ugh. i was in hz, china last summer for 2 months. it was exhilirating, weird, fantastic, eye-opening, exactly everything you wrote about up there. i love this article.
    also, i’m black, and i had pictures taken of me all the time. people would also touch my hair (at least most of them asked before…)
    i had mixed feelings about this wonderful, but sometimes invasive curiosity-but i do want to go back, and i do want to learn more. i’m on my 2nd semester of chinese and it feels like i’m not learning anything…i just want to live in china for an extended period of time…beijing, hopefully.
    love love this

  27. I’m from America and I came to China for a short term study abroad program. I’m here now, but I leave on Monday. Everything that you described in your article depicts Beijing perfectly. I’m coming back to live in Beijing in September. Thank you for putting China into the words that I couldn’t find.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.