Rickshaw

I recently passed through a Dark Night of the Soul, in which I wanted nothing more than to get the hell out of here.  Lara assures me this is a normal part of culture shock, that there are whole theories of how this happens, that it’s one stage in the process of adapting to a new culture.  She told me how when she and her good friend Audrey were in Morocco, when they each reached the three month mark, they both wanted to buy tickets home.  I’ve reached that mark.

Now don’t get me wrong, there’s lots of good, positive things about living in China, foremost among them the fact I get so much time alone with Lara Lee.  There are some very cool things here, including spicy Sichuan cuisine, the bicycling infrastructure, some great Chinese friends, older temples and monasteries, the Chinese Medicine Hospitals, the lush vegetation, and an awesome group of expats.

Despite these things, I was feeling so unhappy, we actually discussed the possibility of going home.  Lara was very good about it, saying that it was intolerable that I was so miserable, and we had to figure something out, and if that meant leaving earlier than planned, so be it. I was thinking, well, we can make it through this semester, have a month to travel, then head back in late February, early March. I can hold out that long, no problem.  Just don’t ask me to stay another eight months, no way, I can’t possibly do that.  Another month or two, sure, no problem, but close to a year, you have to be kidding me.  I’m feeling antsy about getting my practice going again, about finding a house in Portland, about having kids.  I miss my friends and family and I want to get on with things.

This came at the end of the month in which I was without my hand, setting me back in practicing characters and studying, and preventing me from riding my bike and going to the gym.  It was the culmination of weeks of thinking of going home almost every day.  It became obsessive.  When China was upset with the US for honoring the Dalai Lama I thought to myself, maybe this is it, an escalating crisis between the US and China, resulting in all the Americans being expelled.  Not only would this be our ticket out, it would also be fairly exciting to be in the middle of an international incident.  They’d probably give us 48 hours or something to get our things together.

Another time I was in the shower, and there was a knock at the door, and I heard Lara speaking with someone, and the discussion sounded animated and somewhat strident, and in my mind I’m thinking, that’s it, they found out something about us they don’t like, something about our political beliefs or opinions, and they don’t want us here anymore, especially mixing it up with young people every day:  we’ve been asked to leave.  But no, no such luck.

This feeling didn’t happen when I spent five months in India, so I find it quite confusing. While I feel somewhat reassured that my feelings are predictable and to be expected, I’ve identified several reasons for my angst.

One of the main factors is my inability to communicate with the society I’m living in.  A big part of being human is being part of a group of people with whom one shares ones’ life, and not to be able to communicate leads to an extreme form of alienation.  Being surrounded by millions upon millions of people with whom I can only speak on a most basic level if at all, plus not being able to read signs, newspapers, and very few printed words, is very isolating.  We are studying Mandarin, but it’s been rough going.  So far, I’m picking it up slowly, and this is quite frustrating. I find it a very difficult language to understand and speak.

I found the people of India to be very warm, open, and compassionate.  The Chinese are anything but. It’s hard to get to know them, to find out what they really think, who they are.  Perhaps from years of living in an authoritarian political system (or is it totalitarian Ms. Kirkpatrick?), they’ve learned not to have opinions, or strong views, or if they do, to keep them to themselves. They are very reserved and, for the most part, seem cold and distant.

Another aspect of my funk is being so far from everyone I love and care about, not being with my family and friends, not being able to see anyone.  On a more basic level, when living in another country, all one’s usual supports are removed.  I rely heavily on the news, one might say to an obsessive level.  I can’t get a daily newspaper that I can read, I can’t listen to KBOO or NPR, put on Democracy Now! or CNN. And then there’s the comforts of life in the West, which we take for granted: the ability to go see a movie, or watch the World Series, or a Bears game.  And it’s very difficult to get cardiovascular exercise.  Theses are all simple things which we miss when they are gone.

Finally I’ve been frustrated in fulfilling my reasons for coming to China in the first place.  I’ve found that Chengdu University for Traditional Chinese Medicine is very difficult to work with.  I attended one two week seminar, and several other talks, and have been to their teaching hospital for Lara’s treatments on many occasions, but my attempts to arrange more in-depth study have so far proven fruitless.  It’s next to impossible to get information on study opportunities there.  In talking to several other foreign students, it’s the same experience for all of them.  Mostly it seems the University is interested in making money.  The real money for them is from the groups which come to study for a month, not in individuals like myself and several others who come for extended periods. An Israeli friend told me that the head of the foreign affairs office actually told him that she would rather he come and study for four months and then leave, than stay the full year which he planned on.  Another friend, who had arranged private tutoring with an instructor, had the arrangement terminated by the University when they found out about it.

They don’t like to share information. We had that crazy experience with the proposal for their Herb Garden when we first arrived, when I was asked to edit something only to find out they actually wanted to record me reading an 18 page text.  Three weeks ago they tried to pressure me into giving six hours of talks to over 100 students who were training to be interpreters.  This was with one week’s notice, and with hardly any information on what they wanted me to do, who it was for, and what the objectives were.  They just wanted me to say yes without having hardly any information on what I was saying yes to.

I was in the middle of thinking through what I could possibly do for them with such short notice when the heater exploded in my hand, making preparing six hours of lectures a near impossibility.  Even the news of this didn’t stop the head of the foreign affairs office however, and she continued to flatter me and use every persuasive tactic she could think of  to convince me to agree, saying how sure she was my hand would be healed in time.  That’s not really the point, I thought.

Despite all this, in the days since it all came to a head, I have found a new peace in being here.  I’ve found that it’s only in exploring the depths, in really experiencing a bad day, or a bad period, can we transform that messy emotional stuff into something else.  I thought about the very real possibility of bugging out, going back to Portland. I had to get to the stage where I could express my feelings, and talk it through.  In looking at the possibility of leaving I was able to truly assess my options, no longer feeling trapped.  If I want, I can leave.

Being here with Lara makes all the difference in the world.  If it wasn’t for her, I’d be on a plane tomorrow.  I don’t really like China, and I have a difficult time being here.  Despite this feeling, there are plenty of awesome things about China, and I’m taking advantage of being here and making the best of it.

I’ve come to recognize that leaving now would be giving up too soon.  Everyone who’s been here a while advises patience, that things take time, that you have to ask again and again and again, in several different ways.  It seems to be part of a cultural process.  One needs to bring things up over and over, approaching topics from several angels, until they’re addressed.

Sure enough, recently things have begun to change.  I’ve been asked to teach three classes of conversational English to University Freshman next semester.  Without dwelling on my lack of teaching credentials, I’m looking forward to this opportunity.  It’ll be good to interact with a group of students on a sustained basis, plus teaching will bring in some extra funds, which in turn will allow me to hopefully spend more time working in the hospital than I had expected.  Originally we could only afford my interning at the teaching hospital for one month, but now I’m working on setting up clinical work for the last four months that we’re here.  I’m starting now to arrange this and I’m hoping to begin when we return from the semester break, when we’re planning to visit Thailand and India.  So I feel better, more at ease,  more accepting of our circumstances, making the best of being here.

Lara and I were having hot pot the other day, and I thought about all of you, and how this excellent dining experience was not available in the West.  Lately I’ve been thinking that someday I will be back in Portland, looking back on my time in China, putting myself in that future place, thinking about all the things in my life right now that I’ll miss.

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