A Story by Austin Smith

Home in China

posted on September 30th, 2013   530 views


In the spring of 2011, I needed to take a psychology course to fulfill a General Ed. requirement. As I composed my schedule for the upcoming semester, I browsed my courses’ syllabi. Everything seemed great — that is, until I looked upon PSYC – 341: Cross-Cultural Development. The class time conflicted with my Yoga time! This was unacceptable. In a fiery and impulsive mood, I withdrew from the course. “What next?” I thought. Instead of searching for a course to fulfill that specific G.E. requirement, I thought, “Why not,” and searched for Chinese. It fit perfectly in the schedule; and, I reasoned, it had been pretty awkward standing in the same room while my then-girlfriend, a Chinese-born American, conversed with her mom in Mandarin, as I affected a look of bemused confusion. They had to be talking about me sometimes, right? So, I figured, I could learn some Mandarin and finally figure out what they’re talking about. Though motivated by pretty silly reasons, at which I arrived by a bizarre causal chain this would likely be the best decision of my adult life. 

I immediately liked the class. It offered the mountain of a challenge for which I had been searching throughout my academic career. The entire linguistic framework was so disparate from a Western one! Each syllable was a Herculean struggle, the result of which left me feeling simultaneously dejected at my failures and enthralled at my successes. It was the ultimate engagement. Nearly three years later, and having been in China twice now, I feel a similar sense of wonder; however, now, instead of struggling with rote sentence structures, I look in wonder at the multitudinous translations of Du Mu’s or Wang Wei’s poetry.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. During my first semester, I had an amazing professor. She acted as my Chinese mom, and after finals week, she invited me to her home to eat 饺子 with her husband. This is where I had my first authentic Chinese meal — and it floored me. To think that such cuisine existed unbeknownst to me! I had contented myself with oily, MSG-saturated, noodles from restaurants with names like, “Egg Roll King” and “Tiger Palace.” This was in a whole ‘nother category. My Chinese professor and her wife played 麻将 with me, during which we drank 青岛. This scene of post-meal relaxation — beer-drinking, a casual game, while shooting-the-shit — would abound during both my stays in China. Actually, probably one of my favorite things about China is eating street barbecue, ordering a ridiculous amount of food, slowly chewing, slowly talking, and slowly drinking, reveling in the night. (Added fun: holding your breath while an acidic cloud of smoke from the barbecue wafts over toward your table.)

Last time I was in China, I had the incredible experience of visiting Suzhou with an Italian woman. She constantly remarked how it, “Felt like home,” with its winding canals, beautiful sky, and abundance of local food. (The moon cakes were especially delectable!…ah, too 好吃.) She felt like she was back in Venice. I’m from a minuscule  town in Northern California, in an area that I can only characterize as majorly desert-like. The surrounding hills are brown and hot; the temperature regularly breaches 105+ in the summer; only one river runs through the middle of the town.Very little about it is like the Venice of the East.

But Suzhou, also, felt like my home.

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