Sitting over a metal bowl filled with fried aubergine and eggs in a rowdy canteen, thinking that everything was too bright and noisy, and wondering why on earth I had decided to go to China.
That is one of the first memories I have of being in this country. I was still jet-lagged, I had arrived quite early so there weren’t many other foreign students in my position whom I could bond with. And I don’t even like aubergine, but my Chinese hadn’t been good enough to order anything else. I just pointed and hoped for the best.
In those first weeks, there was a thought that occurred to me every half an hour or so: “Oh, I’m in China. What have I done!” It’s a recognised phenomenon in the foreign student community. I was beginning to question why I had signed up for a year in Beijing. The language seemed impenetrable, the supermarkets were stocked with unknown brands and strange vacuum packed meats, the canteen food was a total enigma. The city is huge, and when I was on the subway I felt like an astronaut holding onto the outside of a satellite, and if I let go I’d drift off into darkness and be lost, forever.
Things have changed a lot since that first, unfortunate bowl of aubergine. I can now communicate with everyone I need to in daily life, I regularly get embroiled in Chinese conversations with strangers, I have my favourite beer-serving establishments, I ride the metro on autopilot. I know the city well enough to know if a cab driver is taking the long way round, I know that travelling an hour to go to a hidden restaurant in an anonymous alley isn’t a big deal, and I have discussed Taiwanese autonomy whilst hungover.
I’m not writing this to brag. I’m writing this to say that anywhere can become home. Even somewhere like Beijing, where you can’t drink the tap water, and traffic laws seem not exist, and coughing on the poisonous air is “normal”. At the start, I couldn’t have imagined being familiar with even a few of Beijing’s districts or holding a decent conversation in Chinese about something other than my family or my home town, even though I had studied the language for two years previously. But however you feel when you arrive, and you may well feel pretty awful like I did, you can make a home out of China.
Eventually you get used to life here, and even begin to feel part of it. I might actually miss a lot of things about China. And that is something I never imagined feeling when I was sat in the canteen all those months ago.