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I’m into my second month of China and my second phase of culture shock. I didn’t realize it at first, but I was reading up on it today in the Buckland manual and the internet and it was like whoever wrote those descriptions has been spying on me.

“The second stage is the actual shock. It can be characterized with a loss of courage and general discomfort. Changes in character occur, depression, lack of self-confidence and irritation, people become more vulnerable and prone to crying, more worried about their health, suffer from headache, bad stomach and complain about pain and allergy…”

But it doesn’t really make me feel better to list out all my complaints here, although that’s what I intended when I began this post. I want to get back to my old self, have some energy and confidence and joy about the little things! I have to remember my own philosophy, that there’s always a joyful little kernal to be found even in your largest most stinkiest of shit piles.

It’s Fall! My favorite! It’s not too chilly, and the leaves on campus are beginning to turn. It’s only going to get more gorgeous here as the rest of the leaves burn red and orange and yellow. It even smells the same as back home. It’s fantastic.

the boat, the leaves, the feet

I got a scooter! It’s robin egg blue and about as cute as a button. It’s so much fun to scoot around on, and as soon I’m confident enough, I’ll be able to take it to town and my world will get a lil bit bigger!


The scooter is currently out of commission due to a minor accident I put it through, but it should be no problem to fix, and in the mean time I am still enjoying the bike! I went on a most excellent shopping excursion on it last weekend, and hanging out by myself really wasn’t bad at all. I’m not bad company. I even treated me to an ice cream cone.

back to the bike

My health and energy level have been pretty lousy, but thank goodness I have had an easy week (although I bombed a lot of my lessons) and I have Friday off! This weekend, it’s a friend’s birthday and we’re going out to celebrate.

I’m determined to see this through. It’s only been two months. I can do this!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

It’s National Holiday and I have a week of vacation! My passport arrived in proper China time, the DAY OF my trip to Chengdu. I have one confusing and frightening voyage to the airport in Shanghai, and then I will be amongst good friends and faux family! I have a vague understanding that we will visit some mountains and some ancient city, but I’m used to tagging along for things with Chinese people adorned with the appropriate blank expression on my face. Knowing what’s going on is overrated.

See you all in a week! I’ll tell ya all about it.

peace out

They love to eat birthday cake.

They’re messy about eating it.

And sometimes when you’re collecting a face-drawing project, you’ll find the rogue penis.

With a title like “Wild Swans” and a thickness rivaling some Harry Potter novels, Jung Chang’s memoir might seem like a daunting chick-flick at 800 + pages. But I do not exaggerate when I say this is a MUST READ for anyone going to China.

If you have been there or even know a little bit about the psychology of China, you know that there are topics you might be curious about as an outsider/Westerner that are simply taboo to talk about. Politics isn’t polite for conversation with acquaintances no matter where in the world you are, but in China, even recent history is a bit sensitive and is likely to make your Chinese friends and guides uncomfortable if you ask careless questions.

Bound feet

japanese army in manchuria Japanese army in Manchuria 1933

Young Red Guards reading Mao quotations, Cultural Revolution 1967

In Wild Swans, Chang unfolds the experiences of three generations of women in her family, beginning with her bound-foot concubine grandmother and covering every year in detail down to her own expatriation to England in the late 70s. With unflinching honesty and detail, she shares the evolution of China through the vessel of these women. Much of what they (and the nation as a whole) went through was painful and brutal, and often shocking or heart breaking to read. There’s her grandmother’s precarious position as a concubine to a War Lord, the Japanese occupation of Manchuria, the Communist overthrow of the Kuomingtang government, her parents’ heroic commitment and sacrifice to the party, the rise of Mao and his personality cult… Probably most touchy of all is her coverage of the Cultural Revolution, and the description of her own psychological change as she begins to question the deified Mao and the absolute authority and morality he represents. Also touchy/taboo is much of the historical information she shares, especially in terms of powerful officials’ behavior and the catastrophic results of some of their decisions (i.e. the early attempts at communism that took over production from farming peasants and the widespread famine and starvation that ensued… later blamed on climate).

I think this book is such an important read because by understanding the trauma and social shifts undergone by people in the last few generations, one can better understand the psychology of people today. Like any society, each generation has a different attitude or vibe that can be attributed to them, and it is often related to what they lived through. It’s why your grandparents are racist and your parents are conservatives. Wild Swans answers a lot of these questions about why people are the way they are and explains some of the unique qualities of Chinese culture.

Jung Chang

Chang’s tone remains rather neutral throughout her work until the end when she begins to detail her own experiences of oppression and hardship, where some animosity towards her motherland becomes evident (her book has been said to describe “the brain death of a nation”). While I understand her feelings considering what she lived through, I myself try to hold no judgment about China’s history or politics. It’s hypocrisy to be critical when under the same circumstances, these things could have happened anywhere… and even did considering Nazi Germany and Stalin’s rule. I think it’s important to recognize the events and circumstances that lead a nation to its present state, but only as a method to understand where the society is coming from and to foster intelligent and sensitive interaction with it. In every country’s history we find points we are not so proud of (hello slavery, Jim Crow, McCarthy, Vietnam, Georgie W…), but rather than dwell on anger or shame, it’s more important to let these things inform how we deal with the present and improve the future. As corny as this sounds, when reading Jung Chang’s book you will definitely feel sadness, outrage, and pity, but you will also be left feeling hopeful and elated at the end, confident in the strength of humanity and our potential to reform our mistakes and grow.

This is just a little stream of consciousness to help me organize my thoughts and emotions about my upcoming move to China.

I just bought my one-way ticket to China and am applying for my visa later this week. I’m often surprised to see the stuff of my fantasies taking shape before me in the physical world. I’ve never been one to lose sleep in the excitement over Christmas/birthday/vacation weeks in advance, and almost always see these events as ghostly creatures, vague and untouchable, lacking in substance, until they are right on top of me. China has been like this in my mind for the past several months. It’s like driving towards the mountains for a morning hike: I can see them looming through the mist and know they are there, but all I can be certain about is their shape from a distance. I can guess what they are like to a reasonable degree; there will be trees, paths, animal noises, maybe other hikers. But there’s no predicting the actual experience of the mountains. Are the trees old giants with a leaf canopy or young and bendable? Will the path be mulch and soft earth or steep with stones for footholds? Will I smell sassafras, rotting leaves, dog crap? and for how many miles will the sounds of the highway rumble up to my ears? There’s no anticipating the small things and (here’s where I get philosophical) the small things contain the essence of experiences.

China is like those mountains to me right now. I’ve been there once before so I have some vague expectations; the flight will be long, the cities sprawling and dusty with construction, the people curious. But how can I even begin to assume what my first meal will taste like, how sore my arms will feel from lugging all my stuff, what kinds of excited or lonely thoughts will be my companions my first night alone in my apartment?What sounds from the street will I wake up to each morning? Will I meet kindred spirits right away or be solitary for awhile?

I have a personal policy not to overindulge unanswerable questions like these, though sometimes it’s hard to control. Like a gremlin fed after midnight, these thoughts can transform into monsters, into ugly worries. They distract from here-and-now and obscure the glints of joy that can be gleamed in every present moment. Pausing to consider the past is good because it enables you to accumulate experience and make informed decisions to improve your here-and-now. Speculating about the future is good because it keeps you accountable for your actions and lets you steer your life towards your ultimate bliss. But when these two are given too much air time, life can become a series of reruns and previews. Above all, I think it’s important to experience life as a live broadcast, letting each moment take center stage as it occurs, no less important than the ones that came before it or the ones waiting in the wings.

I guess I’m typing this all out as a reminder to myself not to find flaws with the present or idealize what’s to come. The only sure thing right now is… well, right now! The future is certainly solidifying and easing its way into now; barring unforeseeable calamity, I am getting on an airplane on August 19th and flying to a new life. Those mountains are looming closer out of the mist. They are made of solid materials and their reality cannot be contested. If I continue down this highway, I will reach them. But in the meantime, I intend to concentrate on finding a good radio station, looking out for roadside boiled peanut stands, feeling the ache of love in my heart for the passengers in the car with me.

And really, even the pleasant tingly feelings of looking forward are themselves an experience of here-and-now. By nature, anticipation can only occur in the present, and it can be enjoyed in itself as a sensation unique to right now. It vanishes the instant the anticipated arrives. I guess my goal is to engage in and uncover joy in these emotions while they’re here and turn my attention to the mountain once I’m actually walking up it. Which it’s incredible to think won’t be long now.