Ashley / China / Expat life / Holidays and Celebrations

China in a Year

I’ve thought a lot about this day, marking my first anniversary of living in China (I can almost picture Phil rolling his eyes as I type this – he’s on two years in Chengdu and probably close to four in China altogether). While I’m leaving China tomorrow, I know its not for good. Me and China got a good thing going – I’ll be back.

I’ve talked to a lot of people about how living in China and, more specifically, Chengdu has changed them as a person. Almost unanimously, the answer is the same…patience.

Friends, colleagues and complete strangers I’ve questioned have noted that China has made them more open, whether they like it or not, to differences. Differences in the way people do things, differences in expectations, differences in breaking points and differences in pace of life. There’s unfamiliar food, transportation methods, expectations in hygiene, ways of asking questions and answering them. There’s new processes for getting official documents, paying utility bills, expressing emotions of anger or thanks and buying a couple oranges. There’s plenty to learn, understand and get used to; and it seems that in doing so, most people develop the art of patience, recognizing it and putting it to use.

Peter Hessler, author and my go-to source on most things in China, was asked by an audience member at the Bookworm in Chengdu this winter about how he has lasted so long in China, how he has been able to stay positive and write in this open way as well. Hessler’s answer was something I wish I had thought about much earlier in my year here. He said that he didn’t take things personally, if he got cut in line, elbowed at the market, ignored at the bank, or paid too much attention to on a bus, he brushed it off because he knew it wasn’t about him. As a result, he admitted, he didn’t get personally close to too many people here in China, but the people he did get close to were like family.

When I think about it, my “good China days” were outward looking, approaching people, experiences and meals with an open heart and mind, not taking things personally. My “China blues” days were when I was acting inwardly, it was all about me, me, me and me was not happy. Of course you have to have a degree of inward/outward balance in your life, fighting for yourself and what you think is right while still being respectful of others, their culture and trying new things.

China is definitely not easy. It challenges you at every turn, a challenge that I have come to find addictive. Its a different feeling of success when you go through your small daily task list and manage to check everything off – in China. I recently stumbled upon a quote by Franz Schurmann of World Business via another blog and it said:

“Those who deal with China should realize that today it is a frontier country, looking into the future while remaining rooted in the past. In any frontier society, nothing is certain and everything is possible.”

This was exactly what I set out to Chengdu to experience. Not many of my friends in Hong Kong knew Chengdu, it was the “wild west of China.” I was escaping the establishment of Hong Kong, the “been there, done that and have five efficient protocols to solve all potential missteps” lifestyle in both work and play. I wanted to set things up, to create something new, to strike out on my own, to be a novelty and to share who I am. I wanted to go to a place a little bit harder, more rough around the edges, where you needed a little language and cultural know how to get anywhere. I wanted to see how I would stack up when faced with these challenges.

I neither regret my decision to come to Chengdu nor my decision to leave it and move to Bangkok. It was a fine adventure living in Chengdu, an adventure, admittedly I wish I had a little more time to carry out. I’m proud of what I’ve done professionally, I’m thankful for the people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen and the opportunities I’ve been given. I’ve been challenged in how I think about friends, relationships, food and living in a place where I’m the minority. I’ve learned how to bake a mean loaf of bread, play a mean game of mah jong, throw a fantastic trivia party and patiently explain weird nuances of the English language. I’ll miss it here. But if there’s one thing I learned living abroad, it’s that the world is too big to waste time regretting not experiencing something new.

Too be honest, I’m anxious about living and working in Bangkok, or more precisely, the burbs of Bangkok, which is in a whole other province, Nonthaburi. That’s right, we’re moving to suburbia.

Walking around this month I’ve reveled in being so established in Chengdu; knowing enough of the language to get in and out of trouble, having a schtick about the local dialect that makes Chengdu-ren chuckle, having a amazing yoga teacher who asks me if the size of my rear-end is a health problem or function of genetics, having a relationship with a honest vegetable lady who silently shakes her head “no” if I reach for a tomato that is “bu tai hao,” having an ayi that will fight to every last jiao with the water guy (and now knows how to make bread!) and possessing the knowledge of many on-the-street eateries and hole-in-the-wall kitchens that will serve up a delicious spicy feast for a mere four or five bucks.

Most of all, I feel blessed to have someone to share it all with, without whom I would not have had such an enjoyable year here in Chengdu (he would never admit it, but he secretly loves speaking for me in Chinese). It makes such a difference to be able to recount the woes, the joys and the discoveries with a knowledgeable, mostly impartial person with my best interests in mind and then go out and be able to explore those things and more together.

I want that all to be there for me in Bangkok too.

Phil and I keep playing out comparisons. Will Bangkok’s drivers be crazier than Chengdu?  Will we be able to wrap the nasal, multi-syllabic language of Thai around our tongues or are we getting too old to acquire a new vocabulary? How bad is traffic really, compared to a Friday night on Chengdu’s second ring road? Will we be able to find a walking distance cheap bowl of noodles in suburbia? Is there a decent market close to home? Will we be able to stand the heat? Will the city look polluted after surviving five months of Chengdu grey winter? Will we have a decent hot pot joint? Will we have a source of mala? Will it feel like home?

Patience is involved in leaving a place too. Knowing that, while a new adventure awaits, it will unfold in its own time. The hardest thing is to give it the space to do so and leaving a place with that same grace.

So, Chengdu, 再见! See you again!


2 thoughts on “China in a Year

  1. catching up on the blog finally as my jet-lagged baby sleeps in my arms (omg its going to be a long night!). We will miss you soo much but it sounds and looks like Thailand is treating you well. Hang in there! Happy beginning of the school year!

  2. Pingback: A Year in Review and an Update | mala with a fork

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