Written by Emma Tilley, (Brown University) Student Correspondent CET Harbin, Spring 2019
Alright, this is a long one, a retrospective even. Thanks to everyone who’s been with me for any or every phase of this. Rather than scramble for something really new and original, I leave you with something personal, the things that didn’t make it into previous posts but made this year what it was. Maybe it’s a letter in anecdotes.
When I land the sun is setting, a cherry red like I’ve never seen, a result of air pollution I haven’t yet learned to perceive. I’m dazed but pile into my boyfriend’s parents’ car and we cut through the heart of Beijing along Chang’an Avenue, which seems about twice as wide as any highway I’ve been on. I try to strike a balance between taking blurry pictures out the window and just staring in awe.
Every time I return to the center of Beijing – the Forbidden City, Tian’anmen, the glaringly futuristic National Performing Arts Center – there’s a slightly different impression, but all (as intended) imposing. If you haven’t been, I can only promise you it’s bigger than you’re imagining and the weight of history is palpable.
Later, with a thoroughly intimidating industry professional: “You know, even us Beijingers can’t help but feel excited walking down Chang’an Avenue.” “It must feel like being in the center of the world, huh?” “It does.”
We’re going to hike an non-restored section of the Great Wall dating to the Ming dynasty, in a nearby mountain village where a family runs a bed and breakfast. Someone mentions in the group chat he speaks the dialect there in case anyone needs a translator. It hadn’t occurred to me two hours from Beijing there could be such a wide linguistic difference: that’s the least of it.
It’s the Mid-Autumn Festival, so we build a bonfire and eat moon cakes and improvised s’mores and sing a song about reuniting with your family. It’s my mother’s birthday; I can’t text or call her. There’s a three-foot-tall Mao poster from the 70’s watching over our shared 炕 bed. I don’t realize yet that this is the night I met my best friend in Beijing.
Nanjing is elegant in a way I’ll try and fail to articulate for a long time, but I’m instantly charmed. Like Beijing it’s a historic and recent capital; why would it seem a world apart – is it the comparative greenness? The relative absence of aggressive internationalization? Just the north/south divide? I’m inclined to disagree that it’s purely a slower pace of life as was suggested by a few Beijing residents, in fact, it seems a bit more chaotic with the cars driving on sidewalks, armies of color-coordinated aunties who occupy every corner at night to hold dance competitions… But one of the most instantly noticeable differences is in the way people dress: more colorful, more idiosyncratic, no one has that rushing to a job interview look about them. It’s not a serious-versus-relaxed dichotomy so much as a more self-assured gravitas.
I’m realizing I’ve come to see Beijing as a second home, a default against which everything else is measured. This angle isn’t ideal for many reasons but it’s far from uncommon.
If the last few months were when all the activity happened, this is when the thinking finally catches up. I don’t even have a real anecdote because this time is a miasma of wake up, study, eat, sleep, repeat. I’m reminded constantly that learning a language is like growing up all over again: right now I’m back to 10 years old and trying to understand the financial crisis by nagging any adult who will speak to me, except instead of one very complex event it’s seventy years or so of very complex events. My roommate and my best friend and I hear each other’s life stories and argue and make up. (Fun fact: in Chinese to say two people aren’t on speaking terms you can say they’re in a cold war. It’s the first military metaphor for an everyday situation I learn but there are many still to come). People have started on occasion to say things like: I’ll miss you when you/I leave and I’m not ready to sit with the consequences of that.
My class is the only one that doesn’t go to the National Museum exhibit on the 40th anniversary of the Reform and Opening policy, so I go alone: it seems like a test of independence even though it’s only a few subway transfers and a particularly stringent security checkpoint away. The undying love of spectacle and effectively infinite power of the central government are put to full use here, understandably: they can quite correctly credit themselves with lifting more than half the population out of poverty and accelerating economic and technological development to a pace that continues to shock the rest of the world. Case in point, a 3-D time lapse video in which Shenzhen blossoms from a cluster of wooden houses to a gleaming mega-city, the one minute duration representing just 40 years. Among many other things there’s also giant oil paintings of blue-collar workers, a photo op at the 新闻联播 evening news desk, a military technology exhibit that I promptly leave when I start getting weird looks, and a lot of Xi Jinping. This and a bittersweet group dinner are the notes I leave Beijing on.
Harbin had been marketed to me by travel blogs as a winter wonderland with Russian architecture and an international flair to rival Shanghai. This was all true in the early twentieth century, and the impression certainly remains, but the expats and economic conditions did not and now it’s on the whole a little more Soviet than Baroque. Not to say it’s dismal (whatever my classmates will tell you?) – it turns out American and Chinese North-easterners are pretty similar and, newly able to sort of hold conversation, I hit it off with almost everyone.
Daowai district on a cold day is the Harbin I had been imagining, though the section earmarked for historical preservation is in fact mainly restored and commercialized (much like certain once-residential, now shopping and snacks 胡同 in Beijing). A local woman says it’s for the best, pointing out the “real” as a virtue is a muddled concept anyway: would the adjacent streets of Old Daowai, now in disrepair, attract anyone?
In a presentation for newspaper class, I mess up one character and instead of saying “China and the EU have earnest hopes for world peace and development” I say “China and the EU have shattered hopes for world peace and development”. This is pretty emblematic of my language learning process. However! Since there’s a roommate particularly dedicated to making movie nights a regular event I make good on my promise and get to some absolutely stunning historical dramas (霸王别姬/Farewell My Concubine，芳华/Youth，末代皇帝/The Last Emperor). Every time when the movie is over he asks “what did you all think” and every time I comment on it artistically and hope someone brings up what I’m thinking about: history versus narrative, or the impact of the Cultural Revolution, or LGBT issues in China. Someone usually does. How I remember it now is always four or five people on the couch, one on the windowsill, one or two on chairs pulled in from other rooms, but in reality it’s often fewer than that.
Slightly desperate to meet HIT students who aren’t our roommates, my suite-mate and I sign up for a morning planting trees just outside the city. Another roommate laughs and says “you’ll find there are hundreds of people on that activity, not because they’re invested in the environment, but because it looks great on a resume.” He’s correct, and when we get to the site we even spot a unit of policemen who seem to be engaged in a similar volunteer opportunity, but at least our team leader is sincere. He painstakingly shows us how to center the tree (the holes were already dug by machine for us, saving us 90% of the work I had anticipated), fill in the dirt around it, tamp it down and water it. All of the ground here is the texture of beach sand as a result of desertification. After a few hours a farmer comes over and corrects us: we’re supposed to fill it halfway, water it halfway, wait for the tree to soak up the water, then repeat. The irony isn’t lost on us, but hopefully everyone’s previously planted trees will be okay. Though the work isn’t physically demanding when split between so many people, it’s a reminder of exactly how sheltered we are as foreign students.
My roommate and I are both from northern coastal areas so at the beach town of Beidaihe we’re both reminded of home. We run out into the almost endless packed sand and watch a man catch tiny fish and shellfish from the tide pools, accumulating an ecosystem in his granddaughter’s plastic bucket. Apparently Beidaihe used to be the go-to vacation spot for officials; now it’s much like any small resort town. To be honest I haven’t taken a few days of vacation that’s really just that in years: someone else having set the schedule means no waking up at dawn to fit in everything and in fact the only real activities are moving from one scenic spot to another. I’m focused on the profound sense of being in my element just from proximity to the ocean but gradually it occurs to me how bizarrely natural our entire cohort interacting is. The consuming regret about my inability to communicate and fear of losing potential friendships seems half a lifetime ago – this is the movie-perfect moment where we stay up listening to the waves and talk about everything that matters and a lot of things that don’t. In a language and a place I knew effectively nothing about a year ago.
Before I think I’m done here or you think I’m just getting arrogant – I come back to Harbin to be faced with the task of dissecting 1980s literature, so.
If the converse of culture shock is understanding, then it also goes in waves. I’ve joked about experiencing the full range of human emotion on a two-hour cycle here – how I feel my level of understanding seeming to peak and crash (can that even be quantified meaningfully?) is much the same. And then there’s how after almost a year, while of course I’m not back where I started, for every point of knowledge acquired there’s a million spokes radiating off of it. And (you’ll notice this has been a theme; it’s out of first-time necessity) I’m starting to see this incompleteness not as imperfection that I should have already fixed or else I’ve failed, but as a state of not yet satisfied.