For the past ten months my two large, red suitcases have been hiding behind the curtains in my room because there is nowhere else to put them. I look at them in the corner of my room and admit to myself that those suitcases have wheels- wheels that were made for rolling. I remember when I bought one of the hardback red suitcases before coming to China because I remember taking it off the shelf and testing its rolling ability. And the color: red for China. I remember my mother standing at the other end of the shopping aisle, the fluorescent lights, the shopping list I had in my hand, and I remember looking at the wheels-
- wheels that roll, stop for a while, gather dust in the corner of a dorm room in a foreign country, and then one day you look at the calendar, there are only two weeks left, and it’s time to think about letting those wheels roll again soon. The girl who bought those suitcases over ten months ago was so excited to pack them and unpack them, and the girl who is writing this can’t believe how much has filled the space in between.
There’s a scene
in the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice where Elizabeth is perched on a swing, all wound up. The ropes slowly unwind as she watches her surroundings change with time, frame after frame. I used to remember that scene and think that maybe, after spending my senior year in Nanjing, it would feel a little bit like that by the end- that I would have been able to watch the seasons change as the ropes unwound themselves. I arrived in Nanjing on the tail end of summer with nothing but a backpack, I shuffled through crispy autumn leaves, I shivered at the bus stop in the snow, and then finally I was able to open up the windows again and let the spring breeze (and the mosquitoes) in. I sat on that swing and watched the world turn around me. Like my memories of the beginning days, it began so quickly, that unwinding- a blur, the wind, your face, blending together until now it slows down, down down down
the swing stops for a second, and it’s almost time to stand up.
Like a fool I thought I would just watch the change and observe, watch Nanjing and China from my perch.
Ten months have passed. I wasn’t just watching the seasons change. There are a few things people don’t tell you about doing this, and here is one of them: at some point it hit me that inevitably, I have changed, too. With the passage of time, sometimes you look around you and see the changes in your surroundings, and then you think, maybe, just maybe, this has changed me, too. I came to China to learn the language and to see the changes, to study it and observe and report back- as if I could touch and see but not be influenced myself- and I was swept up in those changes because I became a part of the surroundings, a part of the environment I live in. Detaching oneself is nearly impossible. I am a victim of China, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I remember when the biggest concern on my mind was how to say goodbye to my place and people across the ocean and, months later, the relief I felt when I knew that it was going to be okay; now, it’s about the art of going home. The difficult part is remembering how to be in a place you once called home when that place is blurry at best. That place that was once a foreign country that you were preparing to spend your senior year in? Yeah, it’s not so foreign anymore. It feels something like home, if you knew what home was. And then as soon as you decide to settle in, the place mashes you, and it’s time for those wheels to roll again.
One more thing people don’t usually tell you: that foreign country that you love? It won’t always love you back. That person who told you it’d always be fun and rainbows and adventure? They lied. If I have represented myself as a China-lover, let me be the first to admit that I do not wear rose-colored glasses and I do not love every bit of living in China, and that’s okay. I just prefer to blog about the good stuff and downplay the bad stuff. I still have days where I genuinely question what I am doing here. Like anything you grow to love, however, you realize that you can love the thing itself without loving every aspect of it, and that is how I feel about China. I can love it while simultaneously disliking parts of my life here. Most of the negative aspects of being in China all fall back on one thing: comfort. I can live comfortably in America where the air is clean, where people are not worried about food sanitation or the risk of disease like Bird Flu, where I’m fluent in the native language and in the native culture, where I have friends and family nearby.
But I look back at even the worst days and I see how everything I truly needed was provided for. I don’t know what my future holds, where I will live, where I will go- and for the past ten months I’ve played a game with myself where I ask, in every city or country I go to, “Could I live here?” People ask me all the time why I would want to live here. Besides the fact that China fascinates me, I believe that I am not necessarily called to live a safe, comfortable life, and by allowing myself to abandon the idea that I deserve or need those comforts is giving myself the opportunity to grow and learn- and sometimes that requires growing pains in a place that’s not easy to live in all of the time. So, no, I do not love every bit of living in China- but neither do I love every bit of living in America. Home is where you are. This year was a difficult year in many ways, but still I will say that China has latched onto my heart and has changed me for the better. China will always be my thing, will always be the place I pine for. The fascination and sense of fulfillment I have with being in China far outweighs any deterrence or setbacks I have encountered. I will be back.
What has this year been to me? I keep getting this question. Some people would shy away and say they don’t know where to begin- I say, where do I end? Do you want the long version or the longer version?
As much as I like to write, I am an analyzer at heart, a list person. I make lists, I check things off of lists, I write in my journal and make boxes and charts and want to measure things. I can try to measure this past year with numbers and figures, but the numbers only say so much.
This year I traveled to twenty-one different cities in China, four countries and six cities in Southeast Asia (and I’ll be stopping by in one more country before I leave…), I learned thousands of new characters and too many grammar structures and have a callus on my middle finger from writing over and over and over again. Every Thursday I gave presentations in Chinese class. Oh, forget the numbers and the list- I got to live in an incredibly fast-paced country and see it change. I lived in China during a change in national leadership, during a time of record-breaking pollution, I got caught next to a Diaoyu islands protest- how awesome is it to read about international conflicts in the news and walk outside and see the impact? And there was so much more…
But that doesn’t quite do it justice, does it? How could I tell it all? It was the stuff in between. I stood on the edge of the Gobi Desert and got sand in my eyes, I watched people share the joy of dance in Yunnan, I played in the snow at one of the most important monasteries in Qinghai Province, I climbed to the tops of mountains and ate stale sandwiches. I learned Latin Dance in Chinese and joined a yuppie gym and discovered how wonderful hot yoga is. I saw pandas in Chengdu, I ate snake meat in Vietnam, I got stranded at the Cambodia-Laos border overnight, and I let wild monkeys crawl on my head because I can.. I spent my Chinese New Year at my dear friend’s family’s house and I got adopted into a Chinese Bible study. I rode a bike around ancient ruins and next to elephants in Thailand and through a herd of cows in Laos. I discovered what my heart is really passionate about researching because if I start sweating when I talk about it, then I should probably not let that go, right? I threw a snowball at my little brother on the Great Wall of China and we walked across the frozen-over lake at the Summer Palace. I learned some things about myself along the way. I laughed more than I ever have, and cried more than I care to admit. I met my best friend. How could I ever measure all of that?
My experience was not what I expected. It was so much more.
“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
After I finished my final exams, I took the elevator back up to the tenth floor where I live, and I think that means I’m a college grad now. My graduation ceremony occurred on the other side of the world, in the opposite time zone, about a month ago- and I watched it on the internet. But I’m done.
I came here to focus on Mandarin. After this year of studying and tests and countless hours of tutoring and classes, it’s time to ask myself: did I get to the level I wanted? Am I where I need to be? I suppose there are two answers to this question. Yes, I improved quite a bit. I am proud of how far I have come- the comparison of my level now to what it was when I arrived demonstrates a tremendous jump.
But is it enough? Nah. I’m not where I want to be. Learning a language is different for everybody and Mandarin is an extremely difficult language to learn. I can speak much better, my vocabulary has increased tenfold, and I am much more comfortable functioning in a Mandarin-speaking environment than I ever was before. I took the language proficiency test for my fourth and final time since I’ve been here, and though it was still challenging, it was so much better this time than the first time. Fluency is the ultimate goal, and it’s a goal I’m going to be working toward for the rest of my life.
Lesson number one: this is not checklist, not something you work toward and then suddenly achieve and that’s it. This is a lifelong commitment, something I will have to continue working toward and continue maintaining.
Lesson number two: the best way to improve in a foreign language is to stop being afraid of making mistakes. I spent the first semester dwelling on the mistakes I made and being too quiet because i was worried about looking stupid. Pride is a tricky thing. Throw it away if you’re going to learn a language. I wish I could go back and remind myself to stop caring so much and start talking more.
So, in the end, am I going to get on the airplane and feel satisfied with where I’m at in terms of Mandarin? Absolutely not. Don’t kill me. But I am proud of how far I have come. And I didn’t just come to learn Mandarin- I came to learn more about China, to better understand Chinese culture, and I think that’s a big take-away. After talking to many people about a range of topics (especially politics and culture) I’ve not only been asking the questions, but have been asked a lot of questions myself, some about my opinion as an individual but most about American views as a whole. (Think questions about anything- the current administration, relationships, religion, guns, national defense, pop culture- you name it, it’s a question.)There are some things I just plain don’t know the answer to- or at least I am not sure how to answer in a way that represents the diversity of American opinions.
But that’s what makes it interesting- if I ever thought it was easy to put all Americans into one box and label them as one way or another, I quickly realized that it’s not only impossible but also a disservice to American national identity itself- and the same goes for China. These are two countries made up of people- individual people. As someone who is interested in public diplomacy, this intrigues me because there has to be a way to effectively communicate a message on behalf of a group, while still remembering that America is not black and white and neither is China- or any other country I’ve been to. Communication and mutual understanding between individual people is just as important as government-to-government, and I am excited that I have had the opportunity to participate in that exchange during my time here.
Now my undergraduate career is over. I remember the night before my first day of classes at the University of South Carolina. We were sitting cross-legged on the carpet of my new dorm room- just the two of us, baby freshman dance majors, hair in ponytails and we had probably just eaten at the Russell House. I remember we were talking about “the future” and what we wanted to do with our lives, shuffling around, all nervous about the beginning of college. Though I knew I wanted to double major in Political Science, I had no idea what that entailed, and China was not on my radar. In short, neither of us had any clue what we were doing. Four years later, we’re still good friends and she went to law school and I’m in China. I could never have imagined that I’d get to study abroad in China not once during my college career, but twice. I am incredibly blessed.
Since S and I met in dance class last semester, we’ve become great friends and I got to spend the New Year at her family’s house. This girl has more patience than anybody I have ever met- she has stuck by me for the past ten months even though my Chinese is probably painstakingly slow for her. This semester I’ve been going to a Chinese Bible study with her. This past Sunday we gathered together and had a farewell party because many of us are graduating and moving away. All of the grads had to give a short speech so I stood up and talked about my experience in China and what I had learned over the year. I was so nervous to give a speech in front of about thirty people, on the spot, in Mandarin- but it went fine. I did mention how, when I was a freshman, I never expected that my senior year would be spent in China- but I am so glad that is how it happened.
One of the guys in my group was the last grad to speak. I’ve always thought he was one of those people who doesn’t speak that often, but when he does, it’s good stuff. He said that today is Sunday, the last day of the week. (In China, the calendar week begins with Monday.) But in the West, he continued to say- and everybody looked at me- in the West, Sunday is the first day of the week. It’s a new beginning. He explained that although for many of us our graduation feels like an ending, it is also a new beginning. It just depends on how you look at it.
My time in Nanjing is ending, but something new is beginning. Ironically, my flight leaving China falls on a Sunday.