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All the Small Things

The first morning I was by myself in Beijing, I was starving, and I had no idea what I was going to do for breakfast. The past week, I had relied on my dad to use his magical Mandarin speaking skills to get us the best dumplings, congee, tofu, or soy milk. But, now, here I was, and I felt like it was my first test for the rest of the semester. Armed with my WeChat pay, I walked around. It had to be easy. Maybe menus with pictures? Not a full-on sit-down place, but more of like a counter situation. I walked and walked, feeling the hunger increase more and more within my stomach. And then, I smelled it. Right across from the entrance of the subway, an unassuming metal cart, that looked more like it was selling magazines and news rather than actual food. But that smell was unmistakable. And the queue could not be beat, and if I have one rule for food in Asia, it’s that if there’s a line, it must be good. I popped in line and waited and when it came to me, he shouted “ni yao shen me?” which means, “what do you want?” and I whispered, “yi ge,” one, and pointed. When I was equipped with my breakfast, I snapped a picture to my parents, and I knew I had passed my first test. It was then that I also knew that my time abroad was going to be scattered with those small moments that meant nothing to most people, but almost the world to me.

And, I was right. I had many moments like that with my time in Beijing. Small, tiny, minuscule moments that felt like I had conquered the world. Like the time I chose to use a squatty potty over a western-style toilet without even thinking twice about it. Or how about when the canteen worker actually remembered my order because I always went to the same canteen and same window every Thursday for lunch. Or that time I gave the meanest glare to the person who cut in line, so much so, that they actually went back to the back of the line. Or that time I knew that you couldn’t take certain ofo bikes off-campus, and I told another exchange student who couldn’t speak Chinese and the campus guard smiled at me gratefully.

I’m not saying I was trying to find myself in China. I chose China because I knew I wanted to learn more about the country my family is from. What that exactly entails, I hadn’t thought it all the way through, but something in my gut told me it was the right place. The first week I was in China, I cursed my past self. Why didn’t I choose a European country like everyone else? I could be eating croissants and sipping on lattes right now. I did this all wrong!!!!

Wrong. That’s what I felt for the majority of my study abroad time. Right. That’s how I would describe how I felt about choosing to study abroad in China. I felt like I was doing the experience wrong, yet, I also knew deep down, that it was the right decision for me. This contradiction logically makes no sense, but it was the truth and sometimes, the truth doesn’t make sense. Sometimes, it doesn’t have to. You just need to accept it.

My time in China was all about that elusive, seemingly simple act of acceptance. To accept what is. To accept what I cannot control. To accept what I am currently feeling. The most liberating moment of my study abroad was finally accepting that I was not happy. I was happy to be there, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t happy. And once I accepted that, I felt so much better.

I’ve recently come to realize that life is made up of small wonders. Or maybe, I’ve always known that, but I never felt it or accepted it more than in China.

Last night, as I was packing boxes to go back up to Seattle, I found an old book that I bought in 8th grade. Titled, 14,000 Things to Be Happy About, it’s a pocket-sized book that I bought as an exercise. Every night, I would read a few pages and highlight the ones I particularly enjoyed. As I flipped through the highlighted pages, there were ones that still brought a smile to my face. Little 8th grade me and present day me still loves “recording trivia and fact bites that interest you” and “snow bringing a redeeming silence.” Then there are things that I made no note of back then, things that I hadn’t experienced yet to understand how full of wonder those moments are. “Biking around campus.” “Narrow columns of type, meant to be read quickly.”

If you think too long about how messed up the systems that are in place to prioritize profit over community, people, and love, or about how hopeless you feel in the grand scheme of things, about how…does it really matter in the end?, you will probably drive yourself crazy. These should be things to think about, of course, but damn, it’s exhausting. Gratitude, awe, reverence, joy, basically the feelings and emotions that make life worth living, are all about finding the wonders in life. The small or big things that make you sit back and think about the abundance of beauty that surrounds us.

It’s the feeling of cold wind whipping through your hair as you bike around a new city, soaking in the colorful buildings, the hectic streets, and the different smells. The creamy, bizarre, never-could-find-it-anywhere-else taste of mung bean popsicles that cost $0.15 USD or the decadent smell of “New Zealand style cheese toast.” It’s having the opportunity to watch elders exercise in parks, whether it’s tai chi, Chinese square dancing (yes, it’s a thing), or jianzi. It’s getting to inhale the scents of steamed date and chestnut cake sold on the side of streets and gorging on samples from fancy bakeries and then not buying anything. It’s learning more and more Mandarin every single day and texting elementary phrases to my parents, knowing it would make their day.

On my last morning in China, I woke up an hour earlier than I needed to in order to get one last jianbing. Oh jianbings — is there anything that perfectly encapsulates Beijing street food more than the almighty jianbing? Jianbings can be best described as a Chinese crepe, usually made with wheat flour or sometimes mung bean flour. Using a giant heated circular metal stone, the jianbing god/goddess ladles some of the batter and spreads it evenly around in a circle. Cracking an egg or two over it, they spread that over the dough as the heat begins to warm the mixture up, setting off the intoxicating smell of cooking eggs. As they sprinkle a mixture of spring onions and cilantro over the dough, they prepare the sauces and fillings. Traditionally, jianbings are stuffed with fried tofu skin to provide much needed crunch, lettuce, a sausage, all wrapped up in the uniting sauce of hoisin. The overall process takes about three minutes, and it’s one of the most hypnotizing actions I’ve ever witnessed. They wrap it up, not quite burrito-like, not quite like a crepe, but in its own uniqueness and they plop it in a plastic bag. And it all costs less than $2 USD. This was my first breakfast in Beijing when I was alone. I wanted it to be my last.  It had rained the night before and as most December mornings, it was still dark at 7. I walked the five-minute walk to the jianbing cart, almost skipping at the thought of how good it would taste. I stopped abruptly when I saw that they were still unpacking and setting up for the day. It didn’t look like they would be ready anytime soon, and I still had to pack some last-minute things and check-out. Almost like a TV character, I checked my watch, stamped my foot a couple of times, and finally decided to turn around.

I had no breakfast and there was no time to run to the convenience store. Mourning at the loss of my jianbing, I sadly got into my taxi, and watched the streets blur around me in the smoggy haze of Beijing air. Where are you from? the taxi driver asked me, as it was obvious that I was not Chinese given my lack of language skills. America. I am American, I replied, smiling. I smiled because it was one of the only phrases I knew before coming to China and was still one of the only phrases I know. I also know we Americans smile too much. Yet, he smiled back.

I wanted my last meal in China to be some grand statement of everything. That I would be much more confident when ordering my jianbing. It would represent how much I had grown. A full circle of things. As I exited the taxi, the driver waved and said, “bye bye.” I replied, “zai jian,” which literally translates to “see again.” He smiled at that, or maybe at my horrible tones, I will never know. I’m sure I’ll never see him again, but it felt like the right thing to say. After passing through security and checking in my bags, I walked through the terminal, starving. I stumbled upon a Starbucks, the line sprawling. So, I hopped in line. I got a bagel sandwich to-go. And in the paper bag, I ate my bagel sandwich from Starbucks as my last meal in China.

“Not every story is a circle. Sometimes it’s just one foot in front of the other,” as writer Ana Maria Spagna put it. For me, going to China wasn’t the cliché going-back-to-my-roots story. And it wasn’t the cliché finding-myself-through-travel story. I didn’t become fluent in another language or watch sunsets while sipping wine. Instead, I had a conversation with the barista in the Starbucks in the Beijing Airport. I told him I was also a Starbucks barista back in the States. That I worked in Seattle. His eyes widened and he said, “Seattle? Really?” and I found myself saying dui, even though the rest of our conversation had been in English. He didn’t notice, but I laughed and resumed in English with “yes. In fact, I’m going there now.” I picked up my suitcase and bagel sandwich and he waved and said “bye bye” and I said “zai jian.”

It’s foolish to say you’ve found yourself, as if your self is something that was just hiding from you. I learned an incredible amount about China: the history, the people, the culture, the customs, the language. I learned about myself and what I needed to feel secure, happy, and content. I was faced with difficult questions from other exchange students surprised that I couldn’t speak Mandarin and from Chinese students asking if I knew how to use chopsticks. And somewhere in the midst of it all, lay myself and my sense of purpose. China helped remind me of the things I already knew to be true. That good food can unite people, that it is within human nature to want to help, that accepting what is, is the first step in almost everything.

It was a tough semester, but I am a far better person not in spite of, but because of it.

Zai jian, China. 再见

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