I moved to a new apartment here in China over a month ago and I’m still not finished unpacking. (I also leave for Europe in a week so that’s fun.) I think this might be a general missive about my life: I am forever halfway somewhere, not quite settled and not sure if I even want to stay. I’ve been thinking a lot about whether or not I want to stay in China as I finish my first year teaching here, because life in China is more strange and challenging than what I could’ve imagined.
I got a lot of mixed opinions of China before I moved here. I got opinions a lot of Spaniards who said I would hate it, even though they didn’t actually know any Chinese people and had never been to China, one Spaniard who said I would love it and had lived in Harbin for 4 years. I heard from family members concerned based on my cousin’s bad experience in rural China. It’s hard to parse the racist generalizations from the real advice when Westerners talk about China, so I went in really not believing anyone but hoping for the best. And I guess everyone was right, because China is a pretty mixed bag.
Sometimes living in China is adorable small children looking at you with wide eyes and softly saying hello, offering pretty much the only English they know. Sometimes they just stare are you, then start yelling, “Meiguo ren! Meiguo ren!” (American) or “Laowei!” (foreigner). But sometimes living in China is just trying to walk down the street while someone snaps a hundred photos of you on a giant-ass telephoto lens, or takes videos of you as you walk away, or sneaks up behind you without you realizing they’re taking your photo until it’s too late.
China can be incredibly convenient, with apps that basically take all the hard work out of day-to-day survival, and for such a cheap fee that it’s less expensive to order take out every night than to cook your own meals. But China can also be physically exhausting. While I knew, logically, in my mind that air pollution causes you to be sick, I didn’t really know it til I had a cough and sore throat every other week if I forgot to wear my mask for any prolonged time outside.
China is not as easy to adjust to as Europe was. I think about the difficulties I had adjusting to Poland (there were some, to be sure, but I was also younger and more excited by the challenges and culture shock of being in a new country). I think about the things I didn’t like about Spain, which were many but in the end not particularly inconvenient, especially because I could talk to anyone I wanted or needed to. While any new country has its culture shock, European countries are undoubtedly closer in culture to the US than China is.
As I deliberate on how I feel and if I really want to stay, I’ve been thinking a lot about all the places I’ve lived and the challenges I had with each one. I hated Kansas City at the end of my first year there, but by the end of the second year I had rediscovered myself and grown to love it. Do I need another year before I really find my place in Hangzhou and start to appreciate it for what it is, instead of resenting it for what it’s not? I can’t say for certain. I want to end with a message that in the end I will be glad I came, grateful for the experience and all it taught me even if I didn’t like it that much, but I’m not sure that will be the case. After all, I was already supposed to learn that lesson, and eventually I will get too old for twentysomething mistakes. (I’ll be thirty next year.) For now, I just can’t wait to spend the summer in Europe and California, and the rest is still up in the air.