It’s been about 7 months since I got back to the UK from my stint in China. When I first arrived, everyone want to know “what was China like?”. I quickly discovered it’s difficult to sum up any year of one’s life, let alone one that happened in China, without launching into a small monologue, which I have discovered is not what people were after in any case. Unless the other person is genuinely interested in China or my year abroad, or one of my housemates who are forced to listen regardless of whether they care or not, I have to defaulted to this answer to the question, “How was China?”: Smelly.
Which is true. In the alleys there is a sweet, meaty stench and every so often you are hit with the reek of stinky tofu, which smells so pungent you wonder why anyone would put it near their face, let alone, actually consume it. Even the smog has a mustiness on the particularly murky days. And just when you think you’ve smelled it all, an acrid alley will open up from somewhere and give you a blast of novelty.
In any case, I don’t get asked a lot about China anymore. If I do it’s normally those who know well enough that I went to China, who put on a mocking tone and ask “Did you go to China?” any time I make any comment to do with last year/somewhere abroad/Germany/chopsticks/Vietnam/smog/my degree. Do I actually talk about China as much as Donald Trump? Mostly year abroad is fading from my memory like some lucid dream. It feels like someone else went and did all that, not me at all. I was here the whole time, stuffing newspaper in my shoes to try and dry them of Manchester rain.
A year abroad doesn’t set you up for final year in the way it should. Your language abilities improve a lot, of course. Having language classes everyday and being immersed ( or trapped ) in the language environment means that you are bound to get better at correcting when it turns out the “chicken snack” is actually “chicken feet”. But in terms of actual academia, it screws you over pretty well. There are lots of difficult things about living abroad for a year, but I’m not going to kid myself or anyone else; it’s kind of like a holiday. I didn’t do much actual “thinking”, and now I am expected to grapple with Chinese history and German linguistics after a year of speaking ( and acting ) like a child. Exams were easier, less was expected, the pass rate was 60% but the lecturers didn’t want you to fail. Life was easier.
Even the language skills disappear pretty quickly. It’s true that if you don’t use it, you lose it. I’m starting to think that maybe learning two languages wasn’t such a good idea, as keeping up with just one is a struggle in final year. My Chinese was damn good at the end of my year abroad, I thought. At the airport in Beijing on my home I had to deal with my excess baggage and spoke to a lady at the check-in desk who I had heard speaking English before, but when I struck up in Mandarin she graced me by not switching to English, even after seeing my passport. I must have been doing OK. Now I can barely summon the words to make up an excuse for my lateness.
I think I have demonstrated amazing restraint in not sharing my blog every time Facebook gives me a post as a memory. As well as Facebook’s forced nostalgia, I have a lot of moments when I wonder what I was doing this time last year and all that kind reflective nonsense. I suppose it was the “looking back and looking forward” of the New Year which prompted this sudden blog post, though mostly looking back at China, and not toward another arduous semester and the inevitable termination of my student-hood in June.
Although life in Manchester and in the UK in general seems rather flat after 12 months in two countries, and I do miss the life I had in Beijing and the friends I had there, I’m not desperate to go back just yet. Some people get the China bug and want to live there at all costs. I’m not one of them. I have ideas to go back in a couple of years, for more than just a holiday, to work for something, or be a foreign correspondent or diplomat or do research for The Lonely Planet guidebook series, but we’ll see. If I go back to the People’s Republic one day, it won’t be the same as a year abroad in the middle of my degree anyway, and with the pace of change in Chinese cities most of what I knew will probably be unrecognisable.
So I don’t know when or if I will be back in China, but if I ever am, you can be sure I’ll blog about it.
Featured image: Makeameme.org