Any time you wake up at 4a.m. to go somewhere it feels more like a dream than real life. It didn’t feel any less surreal when I landed in Beijing at 6a.m. local time after an 18 hour journey, with all my life packed into a single hold bad and a backpack, or when I was staggering about campus jet-lagged out of my mind. My thought pattern was something like “I’m in actual China, what have I done?” For at least the first month that was the refrain of my internal monologue.
If I had started the blog sooner, I would have written this a while ago. But because I didn’t, this retrospective and overly reflective piece is coming out now. I’m writing from a regular cafe haunt, reading, learning characters, ordering drinks in Chinese, all pretty normal, and I only have the “I’m in China” shock once a month, rather than every other minute.
Before I left, there was this gaping hole, an empty box with BEIJING written on it: where I would live, what the campus would be like, what I’d eat. Rice, I figured ( I was right ). It was a 10 month blank. I could imagine life when I got back ( return to Germany, go to a New Wine/Soul Survivor, summer). Without getting too poetic, it was like looking at the edge of a waterfall and being able to see right up to the edge, and not knowing how big the drop was, or what it was like down below, or if my Chinese would be good enough when I was down below. I knew how to get there: packing, farewells, tickets, visa, travel vaccinations, go to the airport. After that there was no way of knowing.
It’s not like I wasn’t expecting this. I signed up for Germanic and Chinese Studies, after all. A year abroad ( mostly in China ) was part of the package, and a pretty good part too. When I started university I was all “Yeah, I do German and Chinese, how crazy am I? I’ll be going to China!” But two years eventually came round and I was actually laying out clothes and books on my floor and deciding what to take ( more difficult to choose books than clothes ).
You might think from the way I’m writing that I didn’t want to come to China, and that’s not true. If someone had told me that I couldn’t have come, it would have been disheartening to say the least. I was excited, but I was scared stiff. A mixture of fearing the unknown in China, and missing out on the known in the UK. Friends are in final year, and will have graduated by the time I return to Manchester. Then there was Christmas ( not the sorry affair I had imagined ), now Easter ( he is risen, but no eggs in China ). And all the while life goes on at Church in Manchester and I’m not there to be part of it. On the flip side, if I had stayed for all that, I’d have missed all this, so it cuts both ways.
I’m not exactly sure what the point of these musings are. It certainly isn’t the usual comedy gold, definitely more in the “finding myself” category which I do a good job to avoid ( I like to think ). I suppose I wanted to write about the whole year abroad experience: the good, the novel, the funny, the difficult, before and during, the weird. I also wanted to go back and cover the beginning part which I missed.
Now that I’ve been here nearly 7 months, I look back and wonder how it could have been any different. Bantering with locals about how I don’t understand their southern accents, playing occasionally in a “token white band”, moaning about watered down beer, scaring Beijingers when it turns out I actually speak Chinese; if I’d known all along that I would end up doing these things, then I wouldn’t have worried at all.
In any case, I am developing the opposite problem. I feel quite at home and in June I’ll have to give it all up and return to a place that should feel “normal” but it most likely won’t for a while. Until then, Beijing goes on.