When I was a young boy, my mom and I were driving home from the library, something I hated because who wants to spend their summer break stuck inside four walls surrounded by books when there is sunshine and backyard baseball to be had.
“When you get older, you have to leave this town,” she said as we patiently sat and waited for the red light to turn green.
“What do you mean?” I asked, not fully certain what she was trying to impart on my young mind.
“You just have to go and do something. You can’t stay here forever.” She said this, and then I looked across the street toward the local supermarket. A young woman with a black employee’s shirt was walking in. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, and I could tell she was in no rush to begin her shift. It then hit me that if I ended up stocking shelves at the local supermarket, I’d be following the trajectory my mom so adamantly demanded I avoid.
I grew up in a small suburb twenty minutes outside Minneapolis, a place where the summers were glorious and the winters were about as much fun as back hair.
I never quite grasped the gravity of my mom’s words until I went off to college, met some people that weren’t like me, and began to see the world in a broader scope. Everyone goes through this, the stage where you begin to realize the world doesn’t revolve around the values you grew up with.
A few years into college I met a guy that would turn into one of my best friends. As those that read my book and follow my blog know, we started riding our bikes, and the rest is history.
The last couple years of my life have been pretty wild. I’ve inflicted a lot of pain on myself as well as others, mostly because I try to fill this void of masculinity that seems unconquerable. I traveled a lot because I thought seeing new things and meeting new people would be my cure. But no matter how many vodka cranberries I drink on the flight, I still land with the same baggage I brought on the plane.
I spent this past fall in Wisconsin, writing other people’s life stories and bartending to pay off my credit card bill that encroached four digits. And being out there was a blast. Every single day I went to work was fun. All I did was dish out Long Islands and serve beer out of taps that were always broken. I could have spent the next couple years of my life going to bed at 4 A.M., chasing women, and never caring what day of the week it was. But that’s not all I’m capable of doing, and I wasn’t using the knowledge I was fortunate enough to learn to benefit anyone other than myself. Something had to give.
Growing up as a kid in America, whenever I thought of China, I always thought of Jackie Chan and egg rolls. My understanding of a culture not my own was horrible. But there were also parts of China I long admired, like the Great Wall and Tiananmen Square. I used to watch movies and fall in love with the music that played throughout. The noises felt poetic and soothing, able to take me to a place I felt nowhere in America ever could. So when the opportunity to come all the way here came, I went for it.
When I first arrived after my twelve-hour flight, I was surprised to look out the window and see trees. Usually on the descent, skyscrapers and mass transit are what notifies me I’m in a new place. It wasn’t until a few taxi rides later did I begin to see China. Cars raced past each other without signaling, blaring their horns as if it were no big deal. It felt like a more chaotic New York City. Chinese characters that I will never comprehend were plastered on storefronts. As the car made its way to my hotel, the universe previously only seen onscreen started to feel tangible. When I went for breakfast the next morning, I had to start using my hands to communicate, my words rendered useless.
My buddy keeps saying our lives would be so much easier if we knew the language. At first I agreed with him, but then I started to realize that communication is so much more than simply speaking the language. Even if I knew Chinese, it wouldn’t make bartering over an ice cream sandwich any easier. It wouldn’t mean coming up with conversation topics is now a snap of the finger away. Even back home, communication seems like a headache, constantly trying to process and articulate emotions and desires to people that may or may not have the temperament to navigate them.
If you’ve never been to China before, you’re probably wondering what it’s like. Let me preface by saying I’m not an expert on China. I’ve only been here three weeks. But what I can tell you is that you can’t flush your toilet paper down the toilet or walk twenty feet without running into a restaurant. If you’re over six feet tall, you will hit your head on a silver handrail while entering and exiting the subway. It’s also crazy how homogenized China is. I might see five white people throughout my entire day, and when I do, it’s almost awkward. I wonder if I should say hello or just ignore them and continue on with my day.
The cost of living in China is astonishing. 60 RMB (approximately $10) is enough to get you three meals and a couple bottles of water. I don’t shop much, but $5 bottles of chardonnay are hard to pass up. On top of that, be ready to barter for prices that aren’t listed (learned that the hard way when searching for an apartment and buying bedspread). Spitting in the street is commonplace and staring at people is not considered rude. And when it’s a young Chinese woman, I’m certainly not complaining.
Be ready to get extremely annoyed at your inability to communicate, understand you are no longer in a place that caters to your needs, and be ready to sulk about your frustrations in the shower for a good twenty minutes. I could give you a bunch of other sagacious tips, but the truth is I have no idea what the hell I’m doing here. I’ve been lost since the seatbelt sign went off, but strangely enough, I’m fine with that.