Wide and Wider Still, part 2


My first experience with the Beijing subway went overall pretty well. I remember standing on the train, when a homeless man came by. He had no arms or legs and scooted himself and his tin pot along. The type of homeless people you see in China perturb like nothing else. A homeless man in any city presents an interesting predicament. Growing up city to city, I’ve been trained to ignore homeless people my whole life. My parents never outright told me how to treat them. I observed it from every thinking, feeling, and compassionate adult in the area. Ninety percent of them turned their nose at homeless people. What should make me so different? After all, altruism’s wasted on homeless people. This is what we are all told we know. Money serves you better than them. They’ll waste it drowning their sorrows in liquor. They are probably scammers, dressing down for cash. If you give one of them cash, the whole street will ask for it. If you give just one of them cash, why not give cash to another? What made the first more worthwhile. Homeless people present a moment to decide if you want to judge someone. They present a very real moment in time where you can look a person dead in their eyes and decide just what worth you see there. When someone brushes by a homeless person it is not that they have a cold heart. They do not want people around them to suffer. They probably do not think homeless people worthless. It is just that judging challenges a person. Judging annoys a person. Judging downright exhausts someone. It depletes you, even if you think you made the altruistic move. Even if you think you made the sensible move. So the only move to make is to pretend you have no judgment to give at all.

It is hard to get an interesting photo of a subway station, even if it looks interesting.
Watch out!

 

Homeless people are a predicament. I could never know where they came from. I could never see where they would end up with my dollar. I never will have the information to make me feel secure in my judgment. I have ignored more homeless people in my life than I care to admit. I will not make much excuse for it. It is tough to deal with, but I have done plenty of tough things before.

Chinese homeless people are particularly exceptional. They tend to be amputees, and they tend to wear tattered rural clothing. A lot of them have darker, leathery skin from all the years under the sun. They look like they come from another country. They seem like refugees from some harsh distant land with an ever blazing sun. In reality, they come from the same land brimming with young adults in designer clothes. They come from the place with seas of steel towers that stretch for miles. But the sun feels sharp here too.

It felt striking seeing this man amidst all the people commuting in their nice formal wear. The subway sped on anyways. Holographic ads ran alongside the subway car, telling us about new luxury goods. The visualized inequality does not feel uncommon. I would see plenty more homeless people in my time here. The contrast still shocks me. It reminds me that even this humongous city only offers me a small slice of an even more vast country. Somewhere in this vast country capitalism has yet to fill everyone’s coffers.

Beijing feels massive all on its own. Exiting the subway, I expected something similar to the cities I was used to. It was not so different. It had the same model that most cities follow, except a lot more packed. It seemed like buildings were pushed closer together and generally more people walk, drive, and bike in Beijing than even in New York. Despite the crowd, Beijing feels about as calm as DC and much calmer than New York. I find my campus more hectic than the city. The bikes of Peking University feel endless. Lots full of bicycles litter the campus. I cannot recall the last time I walked anywhere during peak hours without having to wade through bike traffic. The part of Beijing I saw on my walk to work felt calming compared to the cluster fuck of bikes at Peking University. Of course, not all of Beijing felt so calming. Later I will discuss the parts of the city that made me feel truly schizophrenic.

The walk to my office occurred in a more residential, notably not that notable downtown neighborhood. Any part of a city can feel notable because most cities barrage you with big buildings. Any part of city feels like it might be brimming with something, because a decent amount of people live and build there. Though, there are parts of any city that are almost purely functional. They may have tall buildings, but the buildings house office space. They might have street vendors, but they are not pushy like the ones on touristy avenues. Likely, they don’t push because there’s no great competition around them. They might well be the only street vendor there. Houses still sprawl out, full of interesting architectural features and interpersonal dramas. But none of the houses put that is on display, so it is odd to spend a lot of time looking at them. This part of Beijing felt functional. It had a large bank, residences everywhere, and lots of office space. It also had plenty of stores and some street vendors too. Still, nothing popped out.

Initially it made me feel out of place. But having done the walk a few times, I like it. I do not feel any more included in the area. Most people there will never know me. Many will continue to do triple takes upon seeing me walk through. Their eyes will pry at the how and why of where I am. It can make me uncomfortable. When I am all about myself, I ask them what right they’ve got to go looking at me like that. When I calm down and click into the context I can understand it. I am a very odd sight. It is not like in America, where we see people of different hues constantly. America’s full of different sorts of people. We do not just have Mexicans, we have El Salvadorans, Hondurans, Venezuelans, Argentinians and more. We do not just have African-Americans, but Africans form Kenyan, Egyptian, South African, and many more places still. America’s melting pot status took on a real, physical form. I took that for granted. In Beijing there are Asians and then more Asians. Even in the very touristy areas, Asians vastly outnumber anything else.

In a way China must be diverse. With a dominion strung out over so many miles and lands, people can act like tourists in their own country. The same goes here in America, where there east and west coasts flood with tourists coming from the across their own country. But to my observations at least, America’s got more pigmentation than Beijing. Even in Indianapolis, I got used to seeing white people, African-American people, Asians, and Latinos. I might even see some Europeans or Africans as well. In DC the variety intensifies further. In the great crowds of Beijing, a non-Asian person really sticks out. I cannot blame them for staring, because they do not get the same opportunities to see out of the norm people. In America out of the norm almost is the norm for cities. Street performers dot the urban landscape. Foreigners of all sorts come here seeking education or attractions. America’s a weird and colorful place. I forgot until know just how much I loved it for that.

Do not think that means China looks dull or boring. Beijing might appear more homogenous, but I doubt that truly is. Besides any off that, Beijing has a liveliness all its own. I see some of that liveliness on my walk to work. That is what I love about it. I do not feel very included, or even that settled into routine. The walk there and back always rings of a certain strangeness. That strangeness comes from liveliness that I am not a speaking, understanding part of. I might belong to it in some physical sense, but I cannot understand or grasp it. So I love my walk to work because each time I feel introduced to a fascinating aspect of life across the world that I did want to know about. I wanted to see how Beijing looked and lived. That was one reason I came here. On the way to work, I get a glimpse at that. Even better, I do not get to know it fully. The mystery makes it all the more enticing. I cannot analyze it until it becomes dull. I cannot sink so far into it that it seems mundane. Every time there is something fresh about it, because it has something I cannot quite get my hands on. Much akin to the general act of living.

As I walk to work, a few women sell all sorts of tech gear on a blanket just outside of the subway. Another couple of stands set up even closer to the subway. They sell all sorts of bottled drinks and plastic wrapped snacks underneath large cafeteria umbrellas plastered with worn “Coke” and “KFC” logos. How did they get their hands on those umbrellas anyhow? When I get further along the street vendors fade away into little mom and pop convenience shops. The shops usually sit just outside large tenement communities with their own gates and gardens inside. To get to my work I have to walk through one of these communities. The instructions felt strange at first. My boss told me to walk through a little community of bike repair stores and fruit stands sitting inside the courtyard connecting a few apartment buildings. How would they put an office building in here? It seemed odd that the Economic Observer, a major independent publisher in China, would set up in the midst of it all. As I walked through a street lined with cars and scooters I saw all sorts of people cross in and out. Some older, more traditionally dressed people lounged. In the meanwhile, well to do businesswomen flocked out as fast as they could. Porsches parked near rusty bikes. The apartment buildings gazed down at all of it.

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The building I actually work in used to be a kindergarten. A playground still sits outside. It brims with the blasting sort of color children love. It is all bold blues and streaks of glowing red. Inside, the tiled floors have painted designs meant to teach children simple English words. My actual day at work felt much less entertaining than getting there. Since it was the first day, I learned what I would do, and then decided to head out. My co-workers never offend and I like most of the work I do.

After leaving, I decided to check out a small park that my boss recommended to me. Parks appeal to me. Parks provide a spot of calm in an urban environment. They can pack up with people, but all that beautifully arrayed nature keeps my anxieties in check. Here in Beijing the parks feel particularly beautiful. Most of them center around bodies of water, featuring multiple bridges and paddle boat services. On a clear day, a Beijing park has a lot to offer. Rows of weeping willows sway over quietly rippling waves of water. Each park features an expanse of great green trees running up and down slopes along the coast of the rivers and ponds. This park was not even exceptional, but it seemed beautiful all the same. After that I would visit the Yonghe temple and Ditan Park.

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Both inherited ceremonial significance from the days passed. Ditan Park used to have shrines dedicated to a goddess of the earth. Emperors used to sacrifice animals in the middle of a large courtyard at the center of the park. While the foliage all still stood well maintained and ordered, the buildings themselves had seen better days. Grass grew wildly up beneath the grey tiles of the sacrificial courtyard. The goddess of the earth came back after all this time to reclaim her shrine. Signs at various points told visitors to refrain from superstitious activities. It did not seem anyone came for worship. The park had a few families, a few Asian tourists with their own cameras, and a good deal of old people performing calisthenics.

The Yonghe Buddhist temple could not have been more different. Beggars and incense salesman formed a line all along the outer wall of the temple. I gave money to one, determined not to ignore them. The beggar next to him immediately got pushy. For whatever reason, it made me feel indignant. I did not know what I expected. Giving does not make you a saint, and no saint ever became kind out of a desire for reverence. Kindness can be forced, and if there’s no other recourse it should be. But I missed the point. The point being the universe would not give me immediate reward. It may give me no reward at all. The reward’s not the point.

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Inside the temple everything looked well preserved. Great ornate buildings housed just as decorated statues of various holy figures. People entered with hands full of incense. No signs told them to avoid superstition. They walked in, stood outside or inside of one of the temples, and went about their religious ceremony. To give a quick breakdown, the physical act of a religious ceremony means a lot more to Asian traditions. In Buddhism there are mantras, which involve chants of verbal worship, but there are also mudras. Mudras serve as something like a chant done with the body. It can involve the whole body, but mostly refers to hand and arm gestures during meditation. One woman performed a very complicated mudra every time she took a step. It involved carefully moving her arms through the air in various circular motions until she stopped and bowed so low her forehead touched the ground. The grey from the stones and the black from the ash of burnt out incense covered her forehead. Most other people had other forms of physical ceremony. Many people went to each shrine, offered up a stick of incense, and bowed low three times. I saw a few people hold the base of the stick of incense to their heads as they bowed. I read about this, but seeing so many people engage in forms of worship made all my religious texts come to life. The place felt hallowed in no small part due to the respect paid to it. Yonghe provided a strong contrast to Ditan. Their holiness did not completely come from the buildings enshrining long held beliefs. It did not float in the air either. That true sense of holy stemmed from the people themselves. Examining it, I wondered how religiously Buddhist I ever was. I rarely chanted, and I could not imagine doing what they did. But religion’s a tricky word, and I have already talked about too many tricky words today.

I left Yonghe feeling very intrigued with the whole affair of religion. Though, I often felt like that. Religion, philosophy, whatever you call it, deeply affects the thinking of thousands of people. Historians study it regularly because of the role it often plays in the lives of the people of any given period. As a history major, I ran into it plenty. As someone curious about the whole affair of life, and how other people interpret this madly wide space we live in, I run into it more than what’s healthy. In that regard the introspection and intrigue did not feel fully new. The questions it made me ask, I had asked before. The punctuation marks became a bit more packed.

After that I headed back. I lived through the first week. Once things got rolling I would feel much better. Routine started to scrape itself together. My mind weaved back into old familiarities. The internet helped with that, too. Consciously I just wanted to know I could contact the people I loved regularly. Something subconscious brooded behind the internet as well. Having the internet again let me go back to my routine of leisure. I could return to my well scheduled web-comics and youtube channels. The internet let even my passions fall into neatly folded schedules. The internet helped me turn everything back into a form I could understand. My mind would digest its food again in three perfectly timed meals a day. No stomach pains needed, my timetable turned on again. Still, I had let my eyes feast on something huge. I let my mind know I was not home. I hopped off the boat, to realize the ocean feels more massive from a foreign shore. No amount of timetables, schedules, and webpages could tear that full sensation off the contours of my sensory system.

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A lot of travelling in China would turn into handling that sensation of overwhelming fullness. When something like that strikes me, first I feel like hiding. It has taken me years and years and years to realize the importance of accepting. Life’s always seemed bloated. There’s so much color and so many constants floating around. The first memory I have, I recall myself looking out at the wide blue sky shining over my tiny, fenced in backyard. When I was that young, it really was endless. My next nearest memories sits me by our ancient desktop. Even then you could use it to explore endlessly. Gigabytes of data splayed out all across the undeveloped internet infrastructure. I grew up watching it all come together into this huge and sometimes hideous network of intertwining facts and stories.

We had so much to learn and so much to do. All the old pursuits of sportsman and readership remained, but now we had video games and technology. Back then, if I can still digress, I loved to play games that gave me a sense of something wider. Most of my strategy games stored information about civilizations in encyclopedias buried at the back of menus. I would stare through the glaring gloss of the screen to get at the info. It would burn my eyes to the core. I constantly played games that let me lead thousands of soldiers into battle. I liked the clash of civilizations and the personal dramas that expanded beneath each click. I never knew why. It took me longer to get into shooters. By the time I did, the internet abounded with newly laid roads leading to blog after blog. With each year the internet got better and better. Each passing year somehow facilitated the intake of media more than the last. Somehow it gets easier still, to the point where no one uses RSS feeds. I stopped needing those old strategy games. Maybe I found a wideness to substitute the one I lost. Maybe the world suddenly flushed full of shit to wrap my head round and I got tired of thinking against something in my spare time. Perhaps the strategy games got worse as I got old. It could have nothing to do with me. Maybe I think it has something to do with me because I can find every story, email, and status update I wrote and suddenly I am as wide and fractured as the world I am in.

Who knows anything about me anyhow? Certainly not myself! My part wasn’t even thinking when I started making moves on me! I myself am fine with being lost on that “me” front. After all, I’ve been watching me for some time now, and I am pretty sure I’ve found me a shady fellow. So much jibber-jabber could never be wholesome. No sir, I wouldn’t go letting me in my house if I were myself, methinks.

~Austin R Ryan

Wide and Wider Still, Part 1


What comes after that breath? I still do not really know. I suppose the simple response would be another breath. If I got more complex, I’d say a step.

I stepped out of my room and towards my internship meeting. It came time to return to the flow. Sea of troubles, waves of worry, or rivers of raving, it did not matter. When I got there we all sat down and heard the head of the program talk. He explained that the American internship market worked like “free love”. Interns and business mingled like eager singles. Sometimes something worked out, maybe for a year, maybe for a ten, and other times it never got off the ground. The applicant and the business kept moving. In China internships work like arranged marriages. Usually Chinese firms can find people to hire. They do not need interns, and if they take them it is to cultivate a connection. Companies allow Peking University to give them interns to develop a positive relationship with the university. Naturally our performance at our internships would reflect on Peking. The pressure started to mount and I felt a little worried. He assured us that most people enjoyed their internships. At worst, interning would bore us. I felt a bit better about it.

I wondered just how I would get to my job and when I would start. After everyone had their questions answered, we filed down the hallway and waited outside of an office. We went in one by one and received a slip of paper with contact information. It affirmed me just to have a number in my hand that I could use to contact my employers. Now I would get the ball rolling. I could start my semester knowing what I would head into. I do not know the veracity of such a self-statement. You never know what you get yourself into. Not fully, anyways. Someone could tell you every little bit you’d see under the sun. You would forget half of what you heard by the time you got to where you needed to be. That’s what gives it a sense of beauty though. That clash of known and unknown. It is all that great black empty space that makes each star seem so bright. Who is to say all that black’s empty if it can illuminate like it does? When I look up the sky seems fuller than I could ever grasp, constantly brimming with something so light or so dark.

There’s a lot to be said about largeness, but in that moment I was not about talking. I got lunch with the kid I met from the airport and we had a merry enough time. Of course, I would end up talking with him little after that. We did not share classes or interests. But sometimes matters of friendship become as much chance as cherry picking. Maybe other men and women dig for gold. I’ll root for the potato’s my nature’s given me. After all they’re hardy! What’s more, potatoes won’t prove me the fool. Besides, gold’s just the standard. I don’t want my friends being sold over the TV. No, I’ve gone cherry picking before, and it’s never set me so right as the dirt beneath my feet.

The rest of the night I spent eating pizzas and drinking beer. Inebriation reduces the way your mind bristles at your skin, that’s for certain. But let me say, I’d take the biting cruelties of sobriety any day. I like to slip from the sensitive surface layers of my brain like any man. My mind manages its reprieves where it can, relapsing to more simple synapsing beneath waves of floating melodies or drifting smokescreens. The only problem’s that my stomach’s weak, and it can’t go flying off the handle like the head. It needs the earth above the sky, and I don’t begrudge it why. It helped my mind all the same to spend a day forgetting how wide the world would get.

The next morning we rode the subways and saw the mall area near the school. What a fascinating thing it is to devour food you cannot name in your native tongue. That’s when I started to marvel silently at the place I came to be. It is a funny thing, because everywhere’s bright, big, and wonderfully conjoined to the same massive pallet of dirt beneath our feet. I stood beneath the buildings spreading wide and far. In that moment the wide blue sky spread out over the endless city. At eye level posh Chinese teens wore T-shirts bloated with broken English, while homeless men and women lay collapsed around their tin cups. It all came out of a different world and it all felt shocking. We came in delivered on the same sort of planes. We poured off the same sort of underground railways. But once I got off the boat and onto the shore, I saw the ocean spread its long arms out. I saw how foreign the far off coast really was. It feels strange and has yet to leave me. I wonder, even going back and returning to the familiar, if I could ever shake it. At the time it seemed a bit overwhelming when heaped all over my worries and cares. I did not think too hard on it.

At the time, I had to start up all sorts of new classes, learn all sorts of new things, and encounter new brands of struggles. I did not really want to face the wideness of the world grinning at me. I would have had it put off another day. Though, it may never have come another day or in another place. It took really going far off from home in a place very different to comprehend how wide the world is. Seeing the vast blue sky turn into endless black space seems all the more illuminating now. There’s a great deal out there beyond me. Beyond even what I know, or may ever know in my short life. But wherever I go, I do feel certain about that now. I did earlier too. Perhaps now the certainty feels stronger. There’s something reassuring in that strength, though I cannot say what. Maybe it gives me something to hold on to while the river roars up to my ears.

During classes I did not have the same feeling. It all felt like a bit too much to grapple with. Luckily classes went pretty well at the start. My teachers all seemed interesting and earnest. The Chinese professors looked poised to try very hard to teach us the language. That was good. They would need the moxie. Learning a language is hard. Teaching it is even harder. It further reassured me to see other students who knew no Chinese. Maybe I was stupid for going to China unprepared. At least now I knew a company of fools just as unprepared as I. As a group you can devise excuses for why you ever made the mistake of it. Can a man in a crowd ever feel like irrational? Though I do not think any of us made a mistake going here. I do not think it was irrational either. We just hamstrung ourselves a bit.

The economics teacher has an extensive English vocabulary. She walks with tremendous posture. Despite being small, she almost seems tall. Something in her bearing seems royal. She lectures calmly and carefully, wondering a bit between each thought. It is not a perfectly clean or energetic lecture class. Still, something seems very interesting about it. I could not put my finger on it. Even from the first day it felt intense almost without energy. I had teachers like that before and still find it hard to explain the vibe precisely. Perhaps my own desire to get my China specific studies made it that way. I remember another kid felt much more bored by the whole affair than I. None of us knew how it would turn out by the end of the first day, anyways.

I would have my economics and multi-ethnic classes once a week. They were three hour long block classes. I disliked the format. I would prefer two classes a week in shorter segments. It would allow us to review more readings and break up the material. Besides that, any subject gets old after a good two and a half hours of sitting. I start to zone out. We would have five Chinese classes every week. We have two on Mondays and Wednesdays. A two hour long class would teach us general Chinese, and a fifty minute class would drill us on speaking. Every other Friday we would have a quiz over the material. If there was no quiz we would have class as normal. The main class had homework for us pretty much every day. I have learned a lot of Chinese. The class worked me harder than most others I can think of. I gradually came to understand how busy I would be.

The understanding became all the more real when I went to my internship. I emailed my boss and asked for directions. He gave me an amusingly convoluted path to follow. It featured a lot of visual association. When I woke up and made my way to my workplace for the first time, I really understood why. The subway was easy, but the streets were not. In a city so old, it becomes hard to lay out streets just how you would like. They get twisted and gnarled into weird paths. People set up in strange places along the way. Sometimes they end up blocking the path. In a city like Beijing, every bit of space mattered too. Endless amounts of tiny human innovations placed houses in all sorts of unsuspected alleys and corners. Parts of the city look brand new. Others look very old. They all mesh and fall into one great clump that is “Beijing”. Navigating that clump can really frustrate someone illiterate to the Chinese language. Literacy is quite the task too. Even the lowest level of letter-learned knows a minimum of 3,000 characters. I did not understand at first why my boss gave mostly visual instructions. Trying to navigate Beijing in my free time taught me why. Even if you could read, they lacked clean, easily accessible addresses. They lacked wide streets falling on a centrally designed grid. Beijing has its beauty. It has its ugly too. In both cases it is a clump. One sprawling, living, breathing behemoth of humongous human energy packed tight. I get a new story every time I try and navigate the vascular networks spindling across this Goliath. Soon I’ll tell you the first of many stories I’ll forget before long. Let’s shatter them and diffuse the bits through memory. Lets watch time tenderize them into something chewable. Let’s watch memory metamorphisize what happened. When we’ve turned into butterflies, let’s fly together and see what became of the cocoons.

 

~Austin R Ryan

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.