Wednesday, February 13, 2013

China Ruined My Life

"Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the fact that China exists isn't supposed to drive me insane like this. Maybe I should have just forgotten about it."
- perfectnumber628's journal, December 1, 2011

"I feel like finally I can rest. In 美国 [the United States] I was always fighting."
- perfectnumber628's journal, December 24, 2011
(after arriving in China for the second time)


Image source.

Astounded at the fact that my God is a global God, I decided I NEEDED to visit another country so I could see more of the world that God made. How silly it would be for me to just stay in the US, if I truly believed that the gospel is good news for the entire world, and that its manifestations in different cultures are incredibly diverse, each reflecting a slightly different part of God's character. Yeah, I wanted to know God- and not just the white American side of him.

So off I went, to China, just a few years ago.

In the training for this mission trip, I learned about the existence of different cultures with fundamentally different ways of looking at things. For example, in some cultures, people place a great importance on being on time, while in other places, it's totally normal to show up half an hour "late" (of course, they don't think of it as "late") because they place more importance on finishing one task before moving on to the next thing. I learned about cultural differences like that, and how neither perspective is "right" or "wrong", but you have to listen and communicate well in order to understand the other person and get along.

(And can I just say, nothing in my entire American life ever suggested the existence of such vast differences. I don't know if I'm just oblivious, or the majority of Americans really have no clue that it's possible to view the world in a totally different, and yet still valid, way.)

So how did China ruin my life? Well, I came at it expecting to find huge cultural differences, and that I would need to treat Chinese culture as valid, and learn to be part of it for the weeks I would be there.

I came ready to learn, excited to make new friends and discover this culture that God had made. My attitude was not like the harmful attitude of some short-term missionaries, which says "We need to go and help these poor backwards people, show them how to do things."

And I got more than I bargained for.

Because it's TRUE.

Men welding on the sidewalk. 30-story apartment buildings. Pollution, and rules about which day your car is allowed on the road. Prices that were an exact number of kuai- no change. Menus full of photos. Rice, so much rice. Hearing announcements on the subway first in Chinese, then in English. Naked babies. Piles of bricks left by an earthquake from 2 years before. Drinking hot water. Everyone staring at white people. Taxis everywhere. No dessert. No air conditioning at the Forbidden City. English words connected into nonsensical phrases on people's t-shirts. Electricity in the hotel only when you leave a card in the slot by the door. Little dogs roaming the streets. Old people exercising in synchronized groups on the sidewalk every morning. Elementary-school children eager to practice their English. Red lanterns. Hanging up clothes to dry. Mao Zedong on every denomination of paper money. Drinking yogurt. One-child policy. Fruits and vegetables I've never seen in my life. Durian.

And that's just the beginning. If I was making a list of "things I would never have imagined in a million years, but are completely normal in China"... I could go on for a long time.

And those are just the obvious superficial differences.

I discovered a whole world, completely new to me, a world full of awesome and unique people, great friends who could not fathom why I would ever want to drink cold milk. A land of 1.3 billion people, all loved by my God. A culture every bit as legitimate as mine. A culture worthy of my appreciation.

A culture worthy of my appreciation.

That's how China ruined my life.

Because I came home after that mission trip, back to my American life which contained no clues that China even existed. Yes, I know that every plastic thing says "Made in China" on the bottom- but it doesn't say "Made in China- where every store front is covered in Chinese characters, you have to bring your own toilet paper, and the way people drive is TERRIFYING." It doesn't say "Made in China- where they have Dairy Queen, but people call it DQ and your friends will have no idea what you're talking about if you refer to it as Dairy Queen."

No clues that China even existed. Was it real, everything I had seen? Do people still wake up early and go buy bao zi from street vendors, even when I'm in the US?

包子 (bao zi) They're delicious. Image source.

I felt like I had left half my mind on the other side of the world. And there seemed to be 2 choices: forget that China exists, or dedicate my life to learning the language/culture and go live there. I couldn't imagine any in-between state- no, it seemed there was no way to keep believing that I had seen all the things I had seen, unless I put all my energy into somehow getting back there.

If I stay in the US, I'm going to think I know everything. I'm going to think that everything in the world is pretty much the same as whatever feels normal to me. I won't realize that if I got dropped in any random city in the world, the odds are heavily stacked against the possibility that I would have any idea how to even talk to someone and figure out what to do.

If I stay in the US, I'm going to think I understand everything about the world. But there's so much more out there.

If I stay in the US, I'm going to think I understand everything about God.

China ruined my life because now I won't be satisfied living like an average American. I won't be satisfied speaking English. I won't be satisfied if all my friends are white. I can't even date a guy who doesn't speak Mandarin- I'd have to seriously censor myself in order to only speak English.

China ruined my life because now I can't live without it.


  1. Two years ago, I spent the summer in Beijing, and it was also my first experience abroad or immersed in another culture. I felt as though everything were perfectly ordinary, but I was the one out of place. I remember that I cried a lot because I felt so helpless and alien to everyone around me.
    And yes! Bao zi is so delicious. I sometimes get frozen bao zi here in the US, but it doesn't taste the same as the freshly handmade ones. :)

  2. Yes! In China I felt like I totally didn't know how to do anything. And strangely enough, that's why I want to move there. :)

  3. LOVe LOVE LOVE You sound like my twin!!!! We should be friends.I identify with the whole list. Asia ruined my entire life. The comment about bare bottoms made me laugh, and being late. I used to always be one on time, but now I don't try. I never walked anywhere without a local stopping to pick me up - because they notice, because they aren't in a hurry.

  4. ^_^ Awesome! Glad to know I'm not the only one.

  5. I spent 6 months in South Asia and I know exactly how you feel! I am still atrociously late to everything, I still speak with a South Asian cadence, and I still eat with my hands. I remember being overwhelmed when I got home and knowing deep in my soul that I could not spend the rest of my life in America because I'd left part of my heart in S.Asia. ruined for ordinary, I am.

  6. I just found your blog, and I wanted to say how well I think you articulate the feeling of leaving half of your heart/mind in a nation halfway around the world. I've spent the past few summers in India, and like you say about China, I can't even fathom the idea of staying in the US and going back to the way I lived and thought before. I knew after the first month I spent there that I would either have to push everything completely out of my mind to adapt back to a typical American existence, or learn Telugu & Hindi and move there (which is hopefully happening within the next year-ish). I can't live without India and the people there, the languages and bustling streets and curry. Anyways, thank you for such a beautiful and relatable post!

  7. Thanks! Yes- the only possibilities I can imagine are forgetting that China exists, or dedicating my whole life to learning the language and living there. It's crazy. :)