Last week marked the Lunar New Year, a holiday celebrated so ubiquitously in China that is sometimes simply called Chinese New Year. This week also marks the 25th anniversary of my arrival in Shanghai, China, to begin a semester abroad.
I didn’t know about the Lunar New Year then, or much of anything about China, honestly, but I was young and naive, and consequently undaunted. You can’t know what you don’t know until you know it, or anyway, that was true of me at 19.
The veil of naivete dropped away the moment I saw the bathroom facilities in the dorms where foreign students stayed.
The lavatory was a tiled trough with a few waist-high aluminum dividers that were open to the rest of the room, the showers just a grouping of pipes sticking out of the walls. To “flush” the toilet, you pulled a string and a gush of water sluiced down the trough to an open hole at the end.
Staring at the trough in the gloomy half-light of evening, exhausted from 72 hours in transit, I began to sob. “I can’t do this,” I said aloud. But I also couldn’t go home — the price of a plane ticket alone meant I was going to have to tough it out.
At our orientation, the next day, the director of our program introduced us to the concept of culture shock.
“Expect to sleep more, maybe more than you ever have. Expect to be exhausted,” he said. “Expect to feel like things aren’t going well. That’s normal. Expect for things to feel awful and then worse. But by the time you go home, you won’t want to leave.”
“Great,” I thought to myself, the months stretching before me impossibly vast. I was fairly certain coming to China was the worst mistake I’d ever made.
Everything the director predicted came true. In addition to navigating vast cultural differences in privacy as evidenced by the bathroom situation, there was a new language, new food, and a complete dismantling of all the customs I assumed were universal, but in fact were simply the social constructs of my home country.
It was overwhelming, degrading and the most intense personal growth I’ve ever experienced. And when it came time to go home, I was ready to stay.
This past weekend, as I have almost every Lunar New Year for the past 24 years, I made jiaozi, a special kind of pork dumplings, as a treat for the holiday.
Near the end of my stay, I’d told my host mother how much I loved them, so she taught me to fold them, her deft fingers slowly filling and sealing the wrappers over and over while I clumsily tried to imitate her movements.
When I make them now I think of how lost and afraid I felt those first months, but I also think of her taking me to a street market just before I left to help me buy souvenirs for my family. By then I spoke Chinese well enough that I could negotiate with the vendors by myself. “But you’ll get a better price if you’re with me,” she said with a wink.
As we passed by blankets and folding tables spread with jade bracelets, silk table clothes, calligraphy, and brightly painted wall hangings, I remember one of the vendors nodding toward me and asking her in Chinese, “Who is that?”
“My daughter!” she replied.
I never made it back to China, but I’ve carried it with me everywhere I’ve been since. I know I’ve taken it to the barn and to the pasture.
It’s the reason I started listening to the stories the wind tells the trees in a language that was once incomprehensible, but I am now slowly learning. Same for the sheep and the horses and goats, and the pheasants wintering in the underbrush. Same for the planets that rush through the vast, black expanses of the prairie sky at night singing songs in a voice as old as time.
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