I have lived in China for over one month.
In that time I have been gawked at, photographed, scolded, manhandled (in the context of a very brusque medical checkup so it's fine) and generally pushed around. But here’s the thing, being in China has been missing the existential crisis I was preparing myself for. Before I left everyone I spoke to acted like I was going to another planet and that in the off chance I did return free of some bizarre MSG related illness, I would be irrevocably forever changed. But being here, China doesn’t feel like some mystical far off land.
Here’s the reality of the China: it’s not as big of a deal as everyone makes it out to be.
China, in my experience in the U.S., is largely regarded as some huge ugly “other” entity. It is either ancient and novel in how mysterious it is, or it is deeply unpleasant and weird. There was no one who told me of the possibility of finding anything pleasant or normal in the whole experience. And I think that is unfair to the culture as a whole. Yes it true, there are plenty of ugly aspects to be found. There are parts of the culture that I objectively do not like, I still very much do not think communism is a good idea at all and the country’s insistence that Chairman Mao wasn’t all bad is baffling to me. And I appreciate the West very much for the sake of its superior plumbing.
However, and it's a big however, there are so many other parts to the experience that are totally worth the discomfort. There are the little victories, that are almost depressing how small they are, but we will still high-five and celebrate over being able to understand random signs and having successful (not failing) exchanges with taxi drivers. It turns out that Europe does not have the monopoly over the world’s cute cafe’s; drinking tea while watching the rain against window panes is lovely everywhere, not just in Paris. I actually do eat like a lot of rice based dishes, because they’re just so darn cheap with a surprising amount of variety. There are the moments that seem so weird that they can’t be actually happening, like the massage I received from a blind gentleman (a surprisingly common thing here) that not only left me in so much more pain than before, but cumulated with him promoting my circulation by performing a minute long bongos solo on my fully clothed butt. I was a little uncomfortable to say the least.
A lot of this experience is uncomfortable, actually almost all of it has been. Absolutely nothing is easy and this can get extremely disheartening. When you can’t even buy some fruit without coming into language barrier problems it’s easy to feel defeated. But uncomfortable doesn’t have to mean bad. I am fully aware of the tropes of travel blogs and romanticizing every single detail to an absurd extent, and while that is highly doable here, I feel like it doesn’t do the experience justice. There’s this pressure to make every aspect of a new adventure eye-opening and life changing, but that’s not reality. Being here is weird and hard, but its also exciting and challenging and even occasionally pleasant. When I walk to get dinner I can pass two shoe stores, a bakery with a window full of the most beautifully decorated breads and cakes, almost trip over a tank of eels on the sidewalk (The eels are always there, usually thrashing in some way, because in China “fresh” means “still living”) and then be cut off by a moped all in the space of five minutes.
So that’s my big revelation one month later about being in China, about being able to be uncomfortable and being okay with that. Being okay with not knowing exactly what it is you ordered and are eating (pork maybe?*). Accepting that yes, that cab driver was laughing at your pronunciation and there’s nothing you can do about it. Hopefully I can continue to be okay, or at least I better be, since we leave for Vietnam tomorrow. Many Forrest Gump jokes and pictures to come.
*(It was duck tongue, we were just happy it wasn’t an insect)