Out of My Element; and Thrown in China’s

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Every one who comes to China has some sort of reason for being here.

Some are saving money, some are Sinophiles. That was my first mistake; coming to China with no clear objective. Looking back at that naive girl who arrived 8 months ago, the only reason I can come up with for why I came to China was to figure out why I felt such apathy about the place. I wanted to try on the one place in which I never actually had any interest. I have never been fascinated by the history. I never aimed to study the language. I never felt any pull to come here. Why didn’t I feel something for China?

Having lived, volunteered and generally travelled around a number of other countries (42 if we’re counting), I thought figuring out my feelings, or lack thereof, regarding China was a challenge for which I was more than equipped. However, upon arrival on the mainland, I realised that none of the experience I had had anywhere prepared me in any way. I thought I had seen enough of the world to transition seamlessly in China. I thought that, somehow, all my international experiences made me ready for anything China could throw my way.  Instead, China hit me over the head with a hammer and humbled me. My first few months in Nanjing had me trying to simply survive the elements, no small task given how out of my own element I am living here.

Water

The first morning I woke up in Nanjing, I was greeted by a welcome basket left in my hotel room by my company. In it were a bundle of apples. I took one and mindlessly rinsed it under the tap while on the phone with my friend, knowing good and well that water in China is not drinkable unless purified and in a plastic bottle. After a few bites, I felt my throat swell and close up. A burning sensation took over my mouth and, suddenly, I could not speak. I hung up the phone without a word and found myself spitting apple up in the hotel rubbish bin. I did not understand; I had drunk unclean water all over Southeast Asia and Mexico and never had a single problem. How could a country as industrialised as China, a world leader in solar energy, have such lethal water that my infamous steel stomach could not handle gently rinsed fruit?! I realised, kneeling over a trash can that smelt like an ash tray, that I had been too cocky. Way, way too cocky.

Metal

About 3 days into my new Chinese life, I nearly got ran over by a bus. When I say “nearly”, I don’t mean that I stepped off a curb carelessly. I mean a bus screeched to a halt with all of about two feet between me and its front bumper at a pedestrian crossing, green walking light indicating my right to safe passage. Little did I know the happy green man only indicates that cars cannot drive straight on. It makes no guarantee of safety from cars in turning lanes. My own naivety about the rules of the road here almost had me flattened by a big metal bus days into my move.

Fire

Not every “China first” was negative. A local co-worker kindly asked me if I’d like to get a traditional beauty treatment for free from her beauty therapist friend. I, being someone who rarely says no to trying new things, eagerly signed up without asking any questions. That weekend, I was taken to a woman’s apartment, fed an amazing home cooked vegetarian meal, and was then told I would be receiving a fire facial. Sure, I said. What started as a regular, run of the mill facial got fiery (literally) fast. A towel was placed over my face and covered with rubbing alcohol. Then, I heard the clicking of a lighter and smelled burning. Yes, the smell of fire on my face. After 15 minutes, I was told to sit up and the towel was removed. Did I have eyebrows? Was my face burnt? Luckily, no. But it was definitely an anecdote I’d like put in my eulogy someday.

Earth

I felt the weight of my decision to tackle life in a place with a reputation for being hard for foreigners to grasp during their first 3 months. I remember counting down the days until I left to go back home to New Zealand. In China, I felt like I was treading water and most of the time, I, being a vegetarian and entirely undomesticated, resorted to dragonfruit as my dinner. However pathetic the picture I’m painting seems, it was worse than that you are imagining. In an attempt to get out of an “adjustment period rut”, I neither anticipated nor experienced anywhere before, I took control of what I could; recycling. You read that right, recycling. I decided to lead the charge in a recycling initiative at my workplace. My supervisor let me place boxes for recycled paper around the office and post signs to remind my co-workers how happy the trees would be for their efforts. Weeks passed and the recycled paper boxes filled. I even saw the Ayi take paper out of the rubbish bin and place it in the recycling box. Just as I started designing the statue Nanjing would eventually erect of me “Tara Tadlock; Champion of The Earth”, I saw the cleaners collect the trash and dump the recycling paper into the giant black plastic bag with all the other Starbucks straws and lunchtime takeaway containers. My soul was crushed. I had been defeated. When I asked my Chinese manager what had happened to the recycled paper from the boxes, she simply replied, “We don’t really do that here, but your boxes look pretty. You should leave them”.

Air

We foreigners love to point fingers and pretend that the Chinese air quality is solely a Chinese problem, despite capitalism and consumerism being majorly at fault. I washed my favourite white shirt my second week in China and hung it out on my balcony to dry in the crisp winter air. Later that afternoon, I noticed my shirt looked beige. Maybe it was just my eyes. I took the shirt into my flat, held it up to the bathroom light, then the kitchen light, and then popped my glasses on, only to find that it was not the lighting or my poor eyesight playing tricks on me. My crisp white shirt, which I had actually stolen from an ex-boyfriend (sorry Simon), had turned fully off-white in the polluted air. I know the air quality here is not for the Chinese to fix; I know it is the result of the Western world wanting to have everything as inexpensively as possible, delivered as quickly as possible. But that afternoon, I lay on my floor in starfish position, looking up at my apartment’s ceiling in silence for a solid hour, contemplating life in China.

Would I die in Nanjing? Could I survive China? How is it possible that a place could so fully reject a person?! The water, the air, the public transport; it all wanted me gone. In this place, even a facial was riddled with an element of danger.

I was lying on the floor asking these questions, feeling low and hopeless and frustrated and defeated that I had found my feelings for China; I would never love it. I would appreciate it, as I have come to. I have met wonderful people and had some fantastic opportunities, but those things cannot fill the disconnect between all the things I love and everything I am and China. The total, irreconcilable disconnect that exists. But, in spite of that uncrossable trench, I had survived. And, yeah, I felt proud.

Yes, I was ill-prepared. I was over confident. I was too stubborn and even a bit ignorant, despite prior research and previous life experience. China hurled me out of my element and made sure I landed firmly in the deep end. I wanted to throw myself into chaos and I had done just that. Thanks to China and my time living here, I know I can handle anything. I am tougher than I thought and I would have never recognised my own blind spots had I not come here.

China is a place where people sink or learn quickly to swim. Somehow though, I’m swimming. Metaphorically, I mean obviously, given the state of the Yangtze, I avoid bodies of water here altogether.