A week ago I was in the Orient. I was in Beijing, at Capital Normal University, checking out of my room, about to make my return journey home to Tulsa. Unlike before, I understood the words of the receptionist, asking for my room deposit slip and key card. Unlike the stiff encounter at the time of my arrival, this time was comfortable. I exchanged a few words with her and thanked the staff for their hospitality. My roommate accompanied me on my trip to the airport; before we were strangers, now we had become close friends. As we left in the taxi, I noticed that the sky was bluer than it had ever been while I was in Beijing. “It must be good luck,” my roommate told me.
We arrived at the airport and argued over how best to carry my luggage, eventually settling on a complimentary cart. My troublesome Erhu – an instrument often referred to as a “Chinese violin” – had to be checked as specialty luggage. I treated my roommate to a quick breakfast before I left. He wanted KFC, but I told him it was too early for chicken. We carried on as we had the last two months, teasing each other back and forth, laughing and chatting. I told him that there is still so much of China I wanted to see. He replied in the form of an old Chinese proverb: If you want to see more, you have to go upstairs.
As the languages of my flights transitioned from Chinese to Japanese to English, and as the both the complaints and the BMIs of the passengers increased with each transfer, I knew I was on the way to America. Dallas greets the incoming international visitors with a broken elevator and confusing directions to customs. As I arrived in the land of unchecked freedoms, I was finally able to listen to the six voice-mails left on my cellphone by an automatic answering machine. Soon enough, I landed on the tarmac in Tulsa.
I arrived on American soil and it seemed like my trip to Beijing never happened, or never could have happened. I felt as if I was in a world tucked away between worlds, encompassed by the two ends of airport security. Strangely enough, I happened to wear the same clothes on both flights – a red, plaid shirt and blue jeans. If not for the Erhu, it wouldn’t have been clear if I were arriving or just about to take off for my journey.
I asked my friends how Tulsa has changed. “Not much,” they said.
I couldn’t express how much I had changed.
I think back to Beijing and I think of another world. Of course, I think of different sorts of food, culture, and lifestyle, but I also think of a world made up of profound friendships and experiences that now permeate my memories. While I was only in Beijing for two months, my exposure to the language and culture of the city was so in-depth that this mystical capital now feels like a second home to me.
With my basic language skills and with my relatively small number of experiences, it could be said that I only scratched the surface of China. Yet, I can’t help but feel that the unique nature of my trip – an intensive Chinese immersion program in Beijing – has not just allowed for a scratching of the surface, but a planting of many seeds of curiosity, not only in regards to China and Chinese culture, but also to the functioning of society, the human condition, and to the role of government more broadly.
As an intermediate language learner in China, I felt like a toddler again. In language ability, yes, but also in spirit--curious about everything, willing to take risk without the thought of consequence, and eager to engage with the world. A certain innocence was restored that was both freeing and infuriating. Day-to-day living was certainly difficult, but those difficulties also led to a necessary openness to life itself. We often complain of the drudgery of life, but we are not often forced to confront it. We are not often forced to move outside of our limited existence and learn to adapt.
Upon returning to Tulsa, I felt that the timeline of my life simply picked up where I had left it in June. I returned to my appointments and schedules, I returned to my place among my family and friends, I began my preparations for school in order to continue my academic pursuits. Meanwhile, my summer in Beijing feels like a timeless foray outside of my linear existence.
I remember being guided by my roommate in the first week around the Forbidden City and other sites and never quite feeling like I was in the real world. I would blindly follow others through the subway transfer tunnels, popping up in different parts of Beijing as if by magic. Friendships and relationships were minimal, formed through small talk or by practical necessity. My pledge to speak only Chinese created a cloud over my thoughts, erasing my wants and minimizing my needs. I communicated infrequently with home – after all, being in a different hemisphere reversed day and night. The day of the week on my analog watch remained halfway into a day that had already past.
After several weeks, language became my primary medium for understanding. With increased confidence, I was able to have conversations with people that went far past “how much is that ice-cream?” to “What do you think about recent changes in Beijing? What do you think about the relationship of America and China? How is culture changing in the modern era?”
Listening to a resident of Beijing express themselves in their natural tongue, not in struggled, broken English, allowed me to reach a level of understanding miles away – literally and metaphorically – from reading the news in America about our economic rival, the People’s Republic of China.
On a personal level, both with certain students in my language program and with Chinese roommates, my relationships deepened. Instead of exploring on my own, I would explore with a friend. With contrasting views or thoughts, we would enhance our individual understandings of China through different perspectives, and different methods of engaging with the people and culture of Beijing. Ultimately, we would come to mutual understandings that were much more varied and nuanced than my own thoughts. I became friends with my roommate, of course, but I also formed true friendships with many other Chinese peers. My language capabilities finally allowed me to change my pragmatic interactions into deeper understandings of personality, humor, and character. I now have several close Chinese friends who I care about for the same reasons I care about my friends in America.
As the language barrier slipped away, a new life formed in its place. One that was born and developed solely in China. And so, while my time in Beijing feels wholly separate from my time in America, it feels just as personal.
I spent hours in the vast parks of Beijing, where I was confronted with an overwhelming life force that I had never felt before. The communal dancing, singing, exercising, playing, conversing, arguing, sleeping, swimming, and so on of thousands of people of all ages, shapes, and sizes from the crack of dawn to several hours past sunset was so utterly, fantastically, stupendously alive – more alive than any place I’ve ever been to in America, more alive than any book, fact or fantasy, that I’ve ever read. From that first day in Purple Bamboo Park, I knew that China would turn out to be an entirely different country than what I had assumed.
I feared I would lack freedom in China--I came to the country with negative, pre-conceived notions of what I thought China was. Instead, I felt more free than ever before. I was able to live without fear of the night and with a sense of security and stability that has always lacked in my life in America. Above all, I was able to live without the persistent apathy towards life in society that I’ve always felt exists in the United States. I return to the parks in my city, and they are empty, of course.
Life in America prioritizes the success of the individual. How can we attach meaning to humanity, to our existence as a society, when we only seek meaning through the self and not our connections to others? Do we want a society that allows everyone the chance to be happy alone or assures that everyone is happy together? Is the former even happiness?
All I know is that the persistent, pulsing energy found in the parks of Beijing is everything that China truly is, and the greatest example of what life should be.
I return to America, and with every drifting thought of the Middle Kingdom, I get a rush of excitement. What’s behind the word China? What is China? What is China mean to me?
China is much more than our rival. China is a taxi driver heavily criticizing the government, China is a stroll through the majestically drifting Willow trees of Beijing, China is an adventure here, a moment there, an auspicious character representing happiness in the vaguest of terms, China is life. For me, China is a place of friendships, learning, excitement, a certain romance that was much too short. China is another life, one filled with wonder and possibility. China is indefinable, really. I can only say that it is a life I will strive to live again. ■