Would you believe me if I said that I wouldn’t mind the abominable smell of stinky tofu burning my nose hairs off, walking a mile to the night market just to get a plate of noodles because another night of plain white rice and mystery meat with hairs sticking out of it from the cafeteria just wouldn’t cut it for dinner, breathing in the cigarette smoke of the other unfortunate souls who could only get standing tickets on the K-train, or carrying a five gallon jug of water up five flights of stairs every couple of days? Permanently etched into my brain are these rough and sketchy memories from abroad. I’d even go so far as to label them “negative” when I compare them to my fonder memories of white water rafting through the Chinese jungle or riding a moped through the Yangshuo countryside. I would gladly handle those negative experiences with grace and understanding time and time again if that meant I’d be living in China again.
I landed in China almost two years ago without a single clue. I followed my head teacher and other members of my volunteer group through customs, while freaking out internally because I didn’t know the address to my new China home to put on the customs form. Would they let me pass and enter their country? Phew, they did. Myself and the 24 other very tired and disoriented volunteers in my group boarded our bus from Shanghai to Changzhou. We were given an itinerary of the next couple days: welcome meetings, teaching trainings, lesson planning workshops, dinner at Muslim noodles, and a cultural excursion in our city. We arrived in our city of Changzhou in the middle of the night. As we were all unloading our luggage from the bus, I almost laughed when someone mentioned that we had to carry all of our bags up to the fifth and sixth floor of the building to our rooms. It was really no laughing matter because they weren’t kidding in the least. To make it even better (ha!), the staircase didn’t have lights so we had the not-so-cool challenge of doing all of this in the dark. I successfully resisted the urge to cry. Finally, when all my bags got to my room (I thanked God all semester that I was on the fifth floor and not the sixth), I was able to plop my lifeless body onto the bed. Ouch. Oh yeah, beds in China are made out of freaking wood. This might take a little while to get used to, but I was so tired I didn’t even care. On each of our beds was a single Ferrero Rocher chocolate and rose from the school given to us as a welcome gift. I decided to save the chocolate for the following day and sent my dad a quick text to let him know I arrived and that I loved him. Somehow even having that small and quick communication calmed my nerves and made me feel more comfortable. My similarly exhausted new roommate and I fell fast asleep after a long journey of travel across the world; however, not for long.
Because jetlag is the worst I woke up before 6 am that day and it still hadn’t hit me that I was in China. I was literally across the entire planet from everyone and everything that I have ever known. My roommate and I unpacked our things and I wasn’t even in China for 12 hours before I started breaking into the stash of American food snacks I brought for the semester. Salt and Vinegar chips, along with dried mangos were my breakfast. After a few group meetings we headed down to the cafeteria for our first taste of real Chinese food. The only thing I remember about this meal was white rice, tomato and egg, and some weird oily green vegetable on my metal tray. I tried to keep an open mind; I really did—but ew! I would get used to this right? Lord, I hope so.
A few days later was our cultural excursion and somehow we managed to get all of us to a mall via multiple city buses. Up until this day, I was struggling. The food was gross, I was eating my American food stash faster than I should, the streets were dirty, I was showering in my own sweat from the consistent heat and humidity, I was still having trouble aiming into the squatter when I went to the bathroom, I just about croaked and fell over from the smells at the night market and when we went to the supermarket to pick up some things for our room, my roommate and I couldn’t even distinguish shampoo from conditioner! However, during this cultural excursion the school so graciously bought us teachers chicken wings down in the food court and it was the most normal looking and tasting food I had since I arrived there. There was hope for my stomach. Additionally, my head teacher gave us some advice (that you can read in this post) that really helped in turning my struggle around. As one might have guessed, things really improved throughout the semester once my initial bout of culture shock passed.
Day by day living in China became easier. No longer did the pungent smell of the night market faze me. In consequence, I was able to go to the night market to eat dinner when the food being served in the cafeteria made my stomach turn upside down. I got a routine going: I started going to breakfast early in the morning because it was the best tasting meal of the day from the cafeteria. I started getting groceries and making my own lunches because lunch was the scariest meal of the day. I started reading, playing games, and hanging out with the other volunteers at night. On nights that we weren’t completely exhausted from teaching, some of us would go exploring in our city. Life in China actually began to seem normal. I remember walking home from Muslim noodles one afternoon and thinking to myself these exact words: “living in China doesn’t seem weird anymore”.
Ultimately, I started traveling. Shanghai became one of my favorite cities in the world. Shopping on East Nanjing Road, bargaining in the fake markets at the Science and Technology Museum metro station stop, soaking in the view of the Bund during the day and all of it’s glowing glory at night, getting a taste of ancient China and visiting the Yuyuan Gardens, holding baby lions and playing with lemurs at the Shanghai Wildlife Park, and staying in the coolest hostels with travelers from all over the world were some of my favorite parts of this city. Wuxi was home to a 288 foot copper Buddha statue whose toe was almost as big as my little Kia Rio back home. The Grand Buddha at Ling Shan was comfortably engulfed in beautiful mountains from every side and I was able to get a short but meaningful glimpse into the Buddhist religion in practice here as my eyes scanned passed Chinese individuals kneeling down before various Buddha statues and sending out their prayers. Yangshuo became another city I automatically knew that I’d have to return to one day to reclaim the piece of my heart that was left there. It was touristy, granted, but for great reason. The almost unearthly-like karst mountains that sprouted up all over the landscape was a sight that I wish every person could have the blessed opportunity to see. Renting a pink moped and zooming through a monsoon on the country side, gripping our raft for dear life during our hour-long river drifting adventure through a jungle that I swear could’ve been the amazon (had I ever even been to the amazon), receiving painfully authentic Chinese massages, and getting to treat ourselves to the Western food that we’d been missing for months was the vacation that made all the struggles of culture shock at the beginning of the semester worth it. The couple trips I made to the Venice of the East, Suzhou, also took my love of the country to new heights. It finally set in that I had been living in China for a semester when I set one of my travel-worn Converse shoes on the snowy Great Wall of China in Beijing.
My time in China was so much more than these grand experiences that I had through traveling, though. Anyone who visits China can do all that I did in Shanghai, can see the giant Buddha in Wuxi, can float down a river through the ancient part of Suzhou, and especially hike along the Great Wall of China. It was the experience of actually living every day life in this Asian country across the world that made the experience so special. It was finding a noodle stand at the night market we really liked and becoming regulars. It was getting excited from finding our favorite American songs and singing our hearts with each other in our local KTV. The experience was about eating five Snickers bars in a day because you’ve developed a Snickers dependency (for the record, Snickers are ten times better in China than they are in America). Hey, there are worse things to be dependent on though, am I right? It’s coming down to breakfast at the cafeteria in the morning and seeing that they’re serving your favorite (red bean rolls!!). It’s being innovative and putting coffee creamer and sugar in your rice because you can’t handle plain white rice anymore. It’s no longer thinking that chopsticks are a weird utensil. It’s realizing that you don’t have to do everything in Shanghai in one weekend because you can just come back the next weekend. It’s using charades as your primary form of communication and laughing when they still can’t understand you for the millionth time because you’re so used to it now. It was looking back at the beginning of the semester and plainly seeing how far you’ve come. It’s finally admitting to yourself that even after all the culture shock, challenges, and disgusting things you’ve seen, you would still want to return to China—again, not just to visit, but to live. Since I returned home from China in December of 2015, I have missed it every single day. Some days of missing it are worse than others, which is why I’m writing this now. The longing to return to my home across the world is almost unbearable.
I’m not going to be able to put off this aching homesickness for much longer. I’ll be back soon—I’m sure of it. There’s still so much beauty to see, adventures to go on, and challenges to conquer. In the four months I lived here, I only experienced a small chunk of the country. There are still so many places that I want to experience first hand: Zhangjiajie National Park, Mt. Huashan, Xi’an, Sanya, Huangshan, Chengdu… and the list goes on and on. There’s also a good amount of things I’d do differently the second time around (e.g. not spend so much money on souvenirs, go more places, etc).
Next month, a new semester with ILP starts and a handful of people that I’ve recommended ILP to will be flying to Asia to start out on their own China adventure. While they’ll be exploring China, I’ll be spending those months living in and traveling through Thailand; nonetheless, would you believe me if I said I’m a teensy bit jealous of them? I’m telling you guys: that’s how pathetically in love I am with China. Don’t get me wrong– I’m absolutely giddy and unfathomably excited to spend the rest of the year in a place as beautiful as Thailand, but that doesn’t mean that a part of me isn’t still just a little bit jealous at all those volunteers that get to live in the country that holds my heart.
China is such an incredibly mysterious and unknown vast part of the world. If you haven’t been there, what can you honestly say about China? What do you know about it? Can you even begin to think about what you might expect from this perplexing and chaotic country? Until you live there, you’ll never know. You can read about this place all day long but until you visit and actually live your daily life in the Middle Kingdom (aka China), you won’t understand it nor appreciate it. I’ll tell you one thing: it’s completely unpredictable. The only thing you can come to expect is the continuous chaos and uncertainty; this is what makes the entire experience an incredible and consistent adventure. Spoiler alert: Whatever your expectations are about China, you’re most likely wrong.
My one piece of advice for those who are courageous enough to leave behind the comforts and convenience of home in exchange for culture shock, mystery meat, and the best experience of their life: Always look on the bright side of each situation. You got lost? No problem, try again. You got food poisoning? It’s part of the experience. Even though it’s crappy (pun intended), look at it as a traveler’s rite of passage. You lost your phone? Good, now you can fully immerse yourself in the country without being distracted by a phone. You’re whole SD card erased? Guess that’s a viable reason to return to all the places you lost pictures from in the future. China will screw you over time and time again. It’s not personal; you’re just a foreigner and that’s not either of your faults. Don’t let the challenges or the bad situations pollute the extraordinary experience you’ve worked so hard to get to. I can say with 97.8% certainty that you’re going to come back to America changed– equipped with a better attitude and so much more grateful and aware of the important things in life.