I’ve lived in China for about 16 months now over a span of 8 years – 11 months in Xiamen, 3 months in Jilin, 2 in Beijing. As my time in Beijing draws to a close, I feel compelled to reflect on this city and this country.
I first came to China in 2007 as part of an Engineers Without Borders group, to work on sustainable energy project in China’s northeast. I spent 9 days on a farm on the border of Russia and North Korea, building a wind turbine. We lived with an American family who spoke Chinese for us, and I made exactly one Chinese friend, Zaibin, because he spoke English. I don’t know exactly why I wanted to come back – it wasn’t the people and it wasn’t the language, yet. Perhaps the food – Hunchun has the best lamb and beef sticks I’ve ever eaten – or the project itself, the way we “built things out of stuff”.
But for whatever reason, when I left my return was never in question. The next summer I went back to the same place, this time for two months. That time, it was definitely the food. On the farm, we had the best of all worlds, it seemed like – crisp, cold water straight from the spring to the faucet; fresh milk from our cows and enough to make butter, ice cream, and cheese when we had the time; eggs from our chickens, some of which we slaughtered and ate; bread from wheat the girls ground every day. Korean lunch prepared by Adjima, the farm cook, and generally some sort of Western dinner prepared by a rotating cast except for the one or two times a week we went into town to a Chinese, Korean, or Russian restaurant.
But I also fell in love with the people and, through them, the language as well. Most days, I headed a few kilometers across the farm to the shepherd’s residence where my project was based, walking or hitchhiking on the workers’ sanlunche. I was kilometers away from the nearest English speaker, and was left to my own devices to get my design across to the workers. From a combination of grunting and pointing, we progressed to simple sentences (你来帮我, come help me, was the first sentence I understood). I bought a children’s picture dictionary at the supermarket and they were more patient with me, as I clumsily learned my first few hundred words, than most people are with their own children. I thought these people were exceptional, and they were, but this patience and understanding with learners of their language seems to be a fairly common trait among Chinese, to various extents.
Xiao Zhang, Xiao Li, Lao Liu, and Han XiaoGuang were the first Chinese people I loved. And because Chinese was the way that I communicated with them, I think I started to love it too. I remember Timothy expressing surprise at how quickly I learned – the fastest he’d seen, he said – because language learning seemed like a male thing, stemming from a desire to dominate. For me, it’s a desire to communicate, to interact with the people around me. When people ask me why I’m studying Chinese, and I don’t want to give the whole story, I jokingly respond that “I like to talk, and it gives me 1.3 billion other people to talk to.” It’s a joke . . . kind of.
It was on this trip, and even more so on the next – a quick 10-day follow-up visit to the farm that fall that was extended by a couple snowbound days in Yanji – that I experienced and embraced the adventure of living in China. When I travel, I “adventure” towards a destination – hoping to eventually get there, but remaining open to experimental modes of travel and possibly even alternate destinations if they come up as options or necessities. But even outside of travel, adventuring is a way of living, really, being open to the joy and surprises that await when you allow yourself to be flexible and have “yes” as your default answer.
When I was offered a scholarship to study in China for a year, this seemed like the ultimate adventure. I delayed graduation, sublet my apartment, and moved to a tropical island to study something completely outside of my major. Xiamen was a daily feast of all the things that I loved about China – wonderful people, both those native to the country and those drawn to it for various reasons; delicious food that often surprised and always seemed to be worth more than it cost; constant improvement in my language abilities and constant positive feedback on my progress; and an endless supply of adventures.
The magical spell of Xiamen was further enhanced by my freedom in most respects. I had no long-term commitments, no pre-existing demands on my time, no purpose other than to learn Chinese – which is to say, to live in China and experience it fully.
It was hard to leave Xiamen after that year. I remember mostly wanting to go back to Tulsa to prove to others and myself that I still wanted to be an engineer, that Chinese wasn’t everything to me now. But it was my first time leaving China without knowing when I would be back.
As it turned out, nearly five years would pass before I came back again, this time to Beijing. It’s hard to isolate variables and identify what differences I observe are due to the temporal distance, and which to the spatial, but for the moment suffice to say that there have been differences.
I haven’t loved Beijing. I don’t tend to love big cities anyway, so it’s not too much a surprise, but even among big cities Beijing is a tough one to love. It was bad enough, that sometime during Week 3, I did some soul-searching, asking myself if this was it, if China had lost its charm for me.
A month later, most of the factors that prompted that despair having changed, I’m still asking that question, although I’m pretty sure the answer is ‘no’. It’s hard for me to articulate why. Maybe there are just enough threads connecting my experience in Beijing to happier times elsewhere – the people I’ve gotten to know are as wonderful as those I’ve known elsewhere, the food is still delicious and still cheaper than the US, and I am pleasantly surprised almost daily to discover that I can speak and understand and read Chinese – that I can recognize the good things as being Chinese, and attribute the more negative ones to the city only.
I’m glad for the opportunity to experience Beijing, although I am grateful on literally a daily basis that I got to spend a year in Xiamen and two months in Beijing, instead of the other way around. I am also glad for the opportunity to think critically about my feelings about China, to examine the reasons I’ve wanted to come back for so long and to consider whether or not they still hold.
Beijing is definitely the third-best city that I’ve lived in, but honestly after Xiamen and Hunchun, most cities in China would be lucky to get third place. I’m not in China for the history or the politics or the economics, so Beijing was never going to be my jam. Most of the things it’s known for (the clear exceptions being the Great Wall and roast duck) are just not important to me, and some things I value are missing (here I guess I’m referring to breathable air and any discernible trace of beauty).
Probably my favorite thing about Beijing is that, as a big city and major hub, people are always passing through at one point or another. This is one of my favorite things about the Bay Area, too – people just tend to end up here, for a day or a few years. It was great to reunite with a friend from California now working at Apple in Beijing; family friends who visited with the son they adopted from China; a Stanford friend in town for a conference. This never happened in Xiamen. And Hunchun? Don’t make me laugh.
Unfortunately, this goes for me, too, though. I’m confident that there will be plenty of opportunities to come back to China, but many of them will be to come to Beijing.
My secondary objectives in coming to Beijing with EAPSI this summer (the primary objective being the project) were to make professional contacts and work on my technical Chinese. My tertiary objectives were to make friends, eat well, sing, and dance. On this basis, my trip was a great success, and it’s due mostly to my labmates. If it hasn’t been clear from my writings, my labmates were the shining stars of my time here at Tsinghua. Their friendliness, kindness, generosity, patience, sense of humor, and assistance in every facet of my life never failed to put a smile on my face.
So I guess it comes down to this. China’s greatest asset and biggest draw for me is its people. They’re really the only thing that’s making it hard to leave Beijing, but they sure are making it hard.