Hit The Ground Falling


            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.


            Travel makes me anxious. Ever since I understood what returning and leaving meant, I feared the action of both. Destinations only feel real in flickers. When the sun shines the right way, reality drops like the other shoe. My brain claps and realizes something’s new. The realization goes as quick as it comes. Mostly, a day is a day and living’s living. Routine’s the thing you should watch for.

When you have a routine anything feels familiar. The routine can revolve around change. Those instances of travel feel more foreign than the destination. They are unfamiliar. When I assume anything of an airport I am reminded not to. They have the same soaring ceilings. They have the same tired out TSA or custom workers. They have the same endlessly revolving conveyor belts full of luggage. But every time I go to airports these little changes shake people up like fissures and earthquakes. I’ve heard all sorts of bitching and berating about how this never happened last time. I loathe airports and airlines. I am charged one thousand dollars, and can only bring a carry on and personal bag. If I bring a carry on that’s too large, it gets put in luggage, and I may get charged. I cannot pack anything important into my checked bag, though. That’s a rookie mistake. Your laptop gets lost in transit. One thousand dollars a ticket is not enough to screen out the thieves. Of course, if I bloat my carry on, it ends up in the same place. So I saddle it all in my backpack, my personal bag. Fittingly, the things that matter feel the heaviest. I haul them across the uniformly tiled terminals. But you cannot fight airports. They suck. The airlines do too. However, the more you lose your cool, the worse it gets. You have to move and adapt, because the white washed walls and pillars create a fine facade.

In a way it was a good mentality to start with. Just work with what happens. I tried to keep myself from fighting against the flow of travel. It was not so hard. My dad and I made it to Chicago, and then to the airport with ample time and ease. My anxiety caused all sorts of sharp little movements. When you don’t go watching it, your body and mind match each other. My hands shook while my mind rattled through this nonsense about airports and destinations.

I had no problem getting on the international flight from Chicago to Shanghai. As luck would have it, I sat by a Chinese mother and daughter. We shared friendly banter and tried to working past our language barriers. Unfortunately I hardly knew any Chinese. It poked at a raw nerve. I realized how the little Chinese I learned did not matter much. The Chinese they spoke sounded so separate from Rosetta Stone’s calm cadence. It did keep me studying and focused. I poured over my notecards, and they even corrected a few. They helped with pronunciation too, but that slipped too easily from my mind.

I got into Shanghai about on time and got through customs pretty quick. The line was long, but I did not mind much. I spent the time talking with another student who had been to Beijing. The vaunted stamp in the passport made any stress worthwhile. Those stamps always felt like stories. Though I supposed the real tales came from the conversations with strangers walking the same path.

The Shanghai airport did not seem foreign or exceptional in any real way. It seemed like any other airport. I breezed through it like any other airport. Heading up to the air china booths, I tried to get my ticket. The machines would not process me so they took me to a teller. I gave them my information. Here’s where the routine got shattered. I needed to re-check my bag. In literally every other airline I have heard of or used, you just got your bag at the final destination. Instantly my hands shook and I started to sweat. I set my feet back towards the baggage claim. I had time, but anxiety reasons less than it demands. I felt I needed to move fast, so I did.

Going back to the baggage claim actually meant going through security. I agreed because I had to. My confusion was secondary at best. The short delay stressed me out more than it ought to have. The black conveyor belt spit out bag after bag. I watched it patiently for my black bag. Instantly I wished I brought a big hot pink suitcase. Black on black on black. Even a grey suitcase would have stuck out. I knew the look of my bag. I still felt each black bag for my name tag. Nothing called for me. I waited until the airport attendant told me no more bags would come.

At this point I wanted to panic. I did not know the language. Most of them did not know mine. I was a long way from home facing that fact the process of filing for a lost bag might make me miss my plane. I did not know basic grammar, let alone how to reschedule a flight. I kept control of my anxiety here. Oddly enough it did not involve swallowing it like a pill. I just rode off the nervousness and smiled. I did not fight the possibility that this would suck. It very well would. I had to move forward. The conveyor belts don’t run backward. At least I could get an English attendant and probably find another flight.

I got the form to file for missed luggage, when someone with Air China pulled me to a side area where my bag sat on a cart. In my rush, I overlooked an area bloated with lonely bags. I grabbed it quick, and started to run for the ticket counter. I hardly had time to process the depth of my error. Ironic, considering haste caused it all in the first place. I did not have a lot of time. I had enough to thank my good luck. I’d take luck over language and intellect any day.

The woman read my ticket once it printed. She started furious conversation with the woman next to hear. She told me my flight was boarding. Furthermore, my bag had some sort of liquid in it. I needed to check it at the gate. We ran down to an expedited version of security. They ran me through as quick as they could. I set to running to my gate, carrying my 45 pound bag. I would have been the pinnacle of fitness if I made myself run that hard every day. The bag rolled roughly behind me, but I kept it at balance. My feet would start to slow, forcing me to hammer my legs back into gear. At that moment I really felt I had to make it. A few passengers casually stood in line, waiting for someone to take their tickets. My heart soared. My legs took a rest. A smile stretched across my face. Finally, the breaths came easy.

The worker handling the tickets made an audible and sympathetic sigh when she saw the sweat stream from my brow. She took the ticket stub, and let me through. I strode through the long aisle connecting me to Beijing. It felt like a victory I nearly was not expecting. The man next to me must have been worried. A sweaty, panting white kid with a big dumb smile sat down next to him. I could not have smelled good either. More than anything I felt silly. I put so much drama in getting there and nearly forgot where I was headed in the first place. I dreamt about this. For years I yearned to learn about the soil I soared over. I spent hours of independent study trying to grasp the grain of a country now in my palm. A few small pops of laughter leaked out. I forgot this was all part of my journey to the East.

Nowadays things are strange. The journey starts at the destination. We plowed trails with worn feet once. Our horses hooved their way through deserts and decay. In our old travels we stumbled on blocks of ancient civilizations. Villages took us in for days when we could not beat the weather, for gain or goodwill. Now mostly we zip and glide regardless. We still get snagged on slip ups. There are less bumps but we stumble just the same because we’ve learned to mind our feet less. Life’s about the journey. They have said and I’ve agreed. But where’s the line between journey and destination drawn. Who demarcates that, and what’s their agenda? When I got on that plane to Beijing I told myself the travel stopped. No. The sand erased the line. I am not sure it was there to begin with. The disappearance of that line made the desert all the harsher and all the more beautiful.


~Austin R Ryan

The Grand Send Off

Bit by bit my travel plans materialized. Each step steepened their reality. At the start of the summer I told people I planned to go to Beijing. I did not feel the meaning behind those words. In life and in travel we head to destinations we have an idea of. I longed for that idea. We do not know the exact of our endings. Rarely do I long for something I’ve never glimpsed.

I remember my beginnings. I hope not to forget them. I began this trip with the summer. I did not acknowledge it then, but I started the trip to Beijing as soon as I got back and got a job. My family could have generated much needed revenue for my living in Beijing. I wanted to contribute. I wanted one less thing to worry about, but I got much more.

The pink and baby blue color scheme helped me find my way back.
My old home

The beginning gave me more to think about than I bargained for. In the first month of returning to my home town of Indianapolis from my university in DC I realized that I would not want to return to my old hometown. DC beckoned with its full list of opportunities and events. I love my hometown but it lacked. No one told me what going to DC would mean. Maybe I ought to have known. I believed it meant space and nothing more. I believed I would return to old friends and family and live in Indianapolis. New friends and interests run deep in DC. They feel like currents carrying me from home. Going to DC meant living far from home and learning to give control to the currents carrying me. Living in DC meant missing friends in Indy. Moving to DC placed me in a tidal flow much harder to enter than to leave.

The idea of home started to shift. Home felt far away during the summer, bottled up in a university and town I knew only for four semesters. Indy no longer meant the same thing to me. My old Hoosier social circles percolated out across the states. I still see many an old friend during the summer but by the day that I graduated less and less people would await me in Indy. Naptown lacked the attractions to keep us entertained in our wild 20’s. We had to scatter to sow wild oats. These Midwestern suburbs raised children. So many of us thought we needed more to become men, be it the distance of an hour or ten.  How it surprises to lose a hometown.

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Early on in the summer I did not consider what going to Beijing meant. The physical distance of my travel symbolized the length of reality that separates the old and new. I would find my family for Christmas again and again. But my time with them dwindles from summers, springs, and autumns to the winters. My family and I would never diverge. My friends and I will. In the limited winter breaks, I never know who I will see and for how long. Lost friends loom like a monsoon flooding out currents old and new.

Just days before departure I dropped by two friends. We headed to my house to relax. Over the years we developed a habit of taking night time walks through my neighborhood. The neighborhood featured three blocks, three esplanades, three large fountains, six rows of houses, one town hall, and a veil of ancient trees. We stepped underneath the moonlight pouring through the cracks in the veil of leaves above us. The fountains poured away as we talked. I wanted to fall fully into conversation and empty every inch of me. I could not. Fear gripped me. It created a harsh irony. I wanted to say goodbye to so many people, but every time I tried the muscles in my mouth froze. I was moving on. I was moving on and I chose every step. Grief and greatness arrive in the same strokes. These steps lead to the edge of a cliff. So we plunge.

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My friends and I trekked to a gas station down the street. We bought unhealthy snacks and soft drinks and ran amuck on sugar for as long as we could. It threw me back to the way I used to be in high school. Looking back could not distract me from the path ahead. Beijing dominated my mind. Studying in such a foreign land felt like distraction enough. I chose to layer it with the thought of slowly shifting into a new life.

The Open sign at the gas station buzzed to life letter by letter. The word tried to flourish all in one glow, but did not coordinate properly. I knew things were still open. I knew I could change paths after Beijing, DC, or elsewhere. The old signs just did not glow with same life.

Perhaps I should look for symbolism in more important places
The old Open Sign

My journey starts with goodbyes. I start with a broken down open sign outside of a gas station and drive to O’Hare international airport. It feels dramatic to me, but I am not putting on a production. This is just what happens. This is how we grow and fall away into new currents and flows. People do this every second, every day. All the while they think as madly as me. Not everyone goes to Beijing, but we all travel and we all reshape ourselves around newer and newer settings. I have got no claim to a great story. Likely, you won’t uncover anything crazy, different, or worth reading here. You’ve only got my eyes here. I will give you what they have to offer as I go. If you truly want a good look, you’ll have to brave the waters yourself.

~Austin R Ryan