I do not know what I expected from Beijing. Maybe I wanted to write truthfully that I took the city by storm. I would demonstrate my savviness and skill at living. Any difficulty I had, I would defeat with care and a grounded outlook. Looking back, I do not miss the mark entirely. The situation I entered appeared more difficult than it was. So far I have only engaged in a few dumb moments. I guess I expected to do more than just get along. I thought I would do it all gracefully. I do not know why. I have never been terribly graceful. I broke my head open seven times. I usually tripped over my own feet or ran into walls.
My abroad adviser told me I could live in Beijing with minimal Chinese language skills. He was right, but I read more into it than what was really there. You could live, but you surrendered some control to the circumstance. Abroad you have to do that regardless. But when you lack for language skill, it is harder to help yourself out of a situation. I never thought about it, but I would need to travel with someone if I wanted to do certain things. I could not wander off alone as I liked to do. I would not learn near as much about the people either. Language rose up like a mountain the minute I hit Shanghai. It was not that communication became impossible. Rather, my inept tongue robbed it of the glamor. I became a tourist. I fall into the ranks of ugly Americans waving money around hoping it serves over foreign words. I hit myself hard the moment I designated beauty to grace. My own ugliness became a self-invented loss of face.
Nothing happened when I entered Beijing. Not much happened in Shanghai either. But I lived life long in the Midwest’s cool and contemplative shadow. It made it much easier to dance to the tune of nothing. When you don’t delude it, a night bar hopping’s just as much nothing as a night browsing the web. I feel you ought to live context to context for anything to make sense. That to me is the only way nothing becomes something, and eventually how every single moment comes to mean everything.
Beijing’s airport did not present many problems. Recuperating my luggage, I went off to find the people who would take me to my university. They appeared quickly, despite being mired in a large crowd. I sat with them for a talked for a while until another student and I walked off to get water. It felt exhilarating to know I found the right path all the way there. Finishing up the travel details made me feel secure. The moment you admit there’s security at all, you’ve guaranteed yourself some coming insecurity.
In a way my insecurity arrived quickly and socially. More students gathered and coalesced into a larger group. No one talked much, but I felt out of place. In large groups I tend to. I am used to it. Individual conversation’s what I am about. In a mix of people everything just skips along the surface. The questions move simply and quickly. It feels as though I am performing mental manual labor. The talk does not hurt me. In ways it makes me stronger, but I would prefer not to do it. I would prefer intentional mental exercise, because then I have a specific direction. I am chasing an impulse down and pounding at it. In groups I mostly go silent either from the boredom and fatigue in labor, or fear that I might drop something precious in my clumsy movements. Besides, no matter how much I tell myself not to, no matter the length of my introspective flagellations, I cannot shake that I don’t care to know most people in a crowd. Everyone has a story and a character worth every moment poured into it. I do not know why I can admit that, but never act up to it in a group.
By the time I got on the bus much of the worrying subsided. Engaged in one on one conversation with another student, I enjoyed myself. Beijing sped by the windows. The reality of it flickered for a second. It felt dauntingly beautiful. We got into Peking with little time to actually do much. Most of us headed to our rooms and would fall asleep after setting up our rooms.
Our orientation contained a flurry of activities. We started with an introduction to the campus. Peking University is a goliath. The campus forms up around old imperial gardens, giving us immediate access to a stunningly green park hugging a large lake. Four gates lead into the campus, and all gates pour right out into Beijing. Strikingly, even though Peking is pretty far out from the center of the city, the environment around it looks heavily urban. Beijing has to be the biggest city I have ever seen in my life. The incredible density of the place hit me. This would not be like DC, where the high rises fade into low lying suburbs dotted with a few towering embassies, libraries and business centers. It would not work like New York where it mostly fit to an island and sprawled out from there. Here tenements and skyscrapers sprung up everywhere. Every part of the city felt populated. Later, when I would get further in, I would see just what crowded meant here.
Various Chinese people I have talked to, including those uninvolved with Peking University, call it China’s best educational institution. Peking enforces very selective standards on Chinese students and, to a lesser degree, foreign students as well. Even still it accepted some 15,000 students into its undergraduate class. The university’s campus feels like a semi-autonomous community. I am sure that if I tried I could live every day without taking a step out of one of the gates. Food vendors line the streets, peddling from stands just outside numerous restaurants. The nearby general stores sell most things, ranging from toilet paper to mattress pads and power converters. Our campus leaders gave us a brief idea of what the campus held. They pointed out a few impressive looking buildings and facts as well. Peking University certainly has a prestige to it.
Then the program coordinators gave us more information and a placement exam. Students that wanted to enter the beginner class opted out of the test. I wanted to go the beginner course, but I had learned some things from Rosetta stone earlier in the summer, so I went for the exam. They threw down a page burdened with characters I never knew. The professor in front started speaking a language I know sharply knew I could not understand. I tried to stick it out, but I realized it was pointless. I was guessing on every question. I got up and told another teacher I needed to go to the beginner class. I would only waste their time with this exam. They let me go, and I headed back to the dorms. Unfortunately because I took the beginning of the test, I never got to meet up with the other beginner Chinese kids until classes started.
A nebulous arrangement of fears circled me. The foreignness of the setting bit at me. The teeth of it finally sunk in. I chafed at the mental pain of the possibility of getting devoured out here alone. It was not just the distance of the Pacific Ocean that poured into my mind. The distance of twelve hours did not feel half as harsh as the chance of failure. How far I would feel from myself if I gave up, or got lost after getting here. That frightened me a lot, because I have never been far from my own side. Not for long, at least.
I went back to my dorm, got on my computer and used nearly all my battery to talk to my girlfriend back home. I wanted to reach my family too, but my power converter had stopped working. I could not charge. The thoughts came swarming in. What had I done? What had I committed myself too? In all my vanity and desire I abandoned the languages I knew, Spanish and English, to pursue a new setting perhaps beyond my capacity. I might have thrown away a whole semester. With the death of my computer, I realized I only had myself to talk to. I did not know anyone else well enough yet. Worse yet, I might never get to know anyone in my program that well. Most other people on the program actually spoke some degree of Chinese as well. It pounded in my feeling of foolishness. I once felt emboldened by my own courage. Now I worried that my valor ought to have been discretion.
Miles away from home, left with no way to communicate with the familiar, I started feeling stranded. I still had a lot of the day left. Beyond that I still had a lot of my time here left. Perhaps the rest of the trip would become marred with that intense feeling of being stranded and incapable. What if I really had nowhere to go but down? Failure is an option, even if it is not a choice. I panicked something fierce. My mind kicked around all sorts of emotions. I let the introspection thrash and go wild. I needed to be honest with myself. I needed to feel something dire and disconcerting. If I did not express that at least in my own head, than I would have cracked. I did what I had always done. I let the storm rage. By now I learned to let it rage deep. I let the wind sweep the dust up off of old insecurities. Various indulgent currents of curated catastrophe crashed through the cerebrum.
I stuck my head up out from the turbulent waters and took a deep breath. In that moment, it was everything. But when the water fell out of my ears and the sounds returned, it was nothing. When the myriad of cars sped off towards the distance and the array of birds and bees chirped and buzzed, it was nothing. Beneath the massive boiling sun, beneath the ever expanding space, it was a single deep breath. Nothing to worry over. Just another bit of everything.
~Austin R Ryan
P.S. – Don’t worry! Photos will resume next post.