Young Love: Wrestling with the uneasy, but enduring relationship with China

Like the gravity-altering force of a tornado, China shook my world. It tossed me up, flipped me around, and when I landed three months later back in my hometown in small-town Iowa, I felt altered like a city after such a storm sweeps through. Except, when it stopped, the world kept swirling, especially at its origin, the place I left. Beijing. The same name I gave to such a calamity that twisted my perceptions, intestines, and consequently, life path. The casualty of such a force was simple and calculable: one.

The stats, as stated above, fail to articulate; one was mainly for my brain. It had been rendered to mush, like the irrevocable act of a tenderizer on ground beef bound to be a hamburger patty. I had come to China as a volunteer, and like a celebrity love mate, the country gave me confidence, arrogance, and prestige. I was not just any volunteer, mind you. I worked at the Olympics. Before the show began, China was quiet, but graceful. It flowered its guests with a bouquet of flowers (but not the predictable dozen of roses), while its irritable and world-shaming habits were pushed behind red satin curtains. I was entranced. 

When in China, as they say, try seahorse on a stick. I wouldn't do that again

China's tricks were many. Smog was mitigated by traffic control policies (a grand reduction in cars dictated by license number) and unprecedented freedom was granted on the internet. Facebook didn't require a Virtual Private Network (VPN), nor did the sky ever serve a toxic cocktail to passerby, due to vigilance in shutting down nearby factories. But there were downsides, Tibet became shackled like a prisoner, where it continues to fight today, and one guarded by ill-understood policies by foreign onlookers. Largely though, its greater-than-Asia (or the Earth) ambition inspired and created mind-rattling opportunities.

It was in this sentiment that I fashioned Beijing and penned my summer of glory in the hundreds of stories I spun to friends and family back home. Fortune, fame, and a glorified future seemed to align with anyone who struck a fast stride in the country that held more monikers than I could remember, and more contrasts than I could wrap my mind around. It was the Middle Kingdom, the crouching tiger, and more officially, the People's Republic of China. 

When I graduated from university two years later, I was still taken by Beijing's grip, the tender iron fist. The U.S. job outlook was bleak, but I wasn't worried. Given my continued infatuation, the country which had flung its gates open for me (and the world) would outstretch itself again, no doubt. The following fall, under the official name of "Foreign Expert" I came back to China. Behind the title came my real job, English teacher to hundreds of Chinese college students. I was given little training, and there were no flowers awaiting me. After the orientation in Shanghai that stood to ease the culture shock, the reality of life in the middle of China shook me hard. This round came with some bruising.  The mushy state of my mind, as life had been as a media volunteer at the Olympics in Beijing, corrected itself and entered into another realm: fantasy. 

In other ways that China seemed fictional, too. Internet censorship was now the norm, smog seemed like a coat China donned more days than not, and factories were chugging at unbelievable speeds. This was China. Or, what I deemed as its new definition. Especially as I moved to Zhengzhou, or the 'backwaters of China', as other nationals described it. 

Except despite the steep cultural grade, I adjusted accordingly. My college students stroked my ego; they adored me. They cooed when I walked into class, and sat attentively when I spoke. Teaching in China gave me this untapped personal power. I enjoyed it. But the difficulties of life in ZZ, as I affectionally called it, crept onto me. 

When the contract ended, I didn't scribble my name anew. I had been struck with that illness that only has one remedy: travel. I signed a different contract in another isolated town in another country: Baeza, Spain.  When one year as an English teacher wasn't enough, I signed again. I moved to Madrid, but I always dreamed of Beijing, of China. I lusted over the way it defined me. As I saw it, I wasn't just any American abroad in España; I had been to China, however narcissistic that statement was. I was special. When one friend deplored, I don't want to hear any more stories about life in China, I mulled over it. Why did I imagine that it still defined me? That it made me me

In the midst of summer, when I moved to Turkey, I realized: I was still flipped upside down from that tornado. In the swirl of barbecue smoke while mid-munch in a juicy kebab, I realized with the visual effectiveness of a magic trick, the illusion was over; it was time to let go. China had made me feel special, but I was my own agent now. I didn't need her ego-stroking to make me feel special or unique any more. 

After I finished teaching in China, I tried to reach Mount Everest on the Tibetan side. Like greater China, I was allured by it, and I wanted a final, poetic goodbye. For a second time, my tourist visa was denied. Instead, I flew out, climbed to Everest Base Camp from the Nepalese side, and haven't been back since. 

Guest Author Anna Frisk writes as part of our Leaving America series. She also has a personal blog, where she writes of her travels.

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