When I first came to Beijing I was already in love with Chinese culture. I pursued a degree in East Asian Studies with a concentration on China, learning all I could about this country before ever setting foot in it. The problem with these kinds of majors, however, is how much fantasy they concoct. China was a faraway land, a mirage of my future I kept seeing in the distance but never seemed to reach. It was a promise. Of what, I wasn’t sure.
I did finally reach China, nine years after graduation, and when it held up the weight of me under the soles of my shoes, I was awestruck: not just because I was really here, in an actual place, but because it felt like a memory rather than a novelty. How could a place I’d never known feel familiar? The whole country seemed to vibrate. There’s a reason the word destination is connected to the word destiny.
Now, halfway into my eighth year of living in Beijing, I have taken that trippy, psychic memory of China and entwined it with tangible memories of residing here in real time. I am married into a Chinese family, the mother of two children, speaking the language, eating the food, forgetting sometimes, while on brief sojourns back in Canada, that tuoxie (slippers) are not available in everyone’s foyer for visitors.
While I found the land I was destined to meet, the geographic love of my life (and yeah, a life partner here too), my relationship with Chinese culture has gone through a lot of balancing acts. I wouldn’t say I’ve fallen out of love with Chinese culture, exactly. It’s more that I’ve come to the point where I know this culture almost too well. Like any long relationship, you start with what you do like and then eventually discover what you don’t. And, while you’re still in it, you adopt ways of living with it.
China’s eating noises: Mouth smacking. Lip slurping. I’ve trained myself to locate their pitches, examining them like avant-garde music or else I still have violent thoughts about it, even eight years later.
China’s roundabout, inherently manipulative, face-saving negotiation techniques: I have to view them as creative schematics or strategic masterpieces otherwise I have visions of stripping everyone naked while screaming: “See? Lay it bare! Tell it like it is!"
But nothing lasts forever. There will be a time – probably in 2018 – when we will return to Canada. And while I won’t miss those irksome cultural elements, there are so many things I will certainly pine for: the holistic view of the body through Chinese medicine – present in everyday life here; the Daoist-Taichi balance, an ideology rejecting extremes; the amazing song of this tonal language in which I hear so much rhythm and pitch all around me; the tradition of extended family engagement with childrearing, which is sometimes crazy-making but so very invaluable; Taobao! The list is endless. The pros outweigh the cons or else I wouldn’t still be here.
So, for the next couple of years I will savor this culture. I’ll appreciate every flavor burst in every bite of jiaozi. I’ll step up my language study. I’ll perfect outward modesty. I’ll gather some of China’s vibrations to take back home with me.
When you fall in love with something as nebulous as a culture into which you were not born, there’s always the chance that it won’t you love you back. Yet, I have always felt welcomed here. China’s pretty reticent about declarations, but when the time comes for me to say goodbye, I prefer to believe China will always miss me.
It’s all in the balance.
This article originally appeared on page 44 of the beijingkids February 2016 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email email@example.com
Photo: informatique (Flickr)