WITHSTANDING TIME: A courtyard in Beijing that was first built four centuries ago (XINHUA)
I am leaving China soon, but this is not your typical "China breakup letter."
In the past several years, there has been a flood of goodbye notes published by expats leaving China for seemingly greener pastures elsewhere. Invariably, the letters cite air pollution, maddening bureaucracy and the five-alarm chaos that defines China's first-tier cityscape as major reasons for leaving.
I'm leaving Beijing after an on-again-off-again relationship of more than seven years to pursue a career opportunity in the United States. And while I agree on many of the points my fellow departing expats make—including the giant, black-lunged elephant in the room, air pollution—I can't help but feel torn to the core about my experience living and working in China.
It's a place that defies explanation as much as it clings to tradition, and changes as fast as I can write about it. I had amazing experiences here, and there are still days—like those early evenings during the tail-end of spring when the temperature is just right and the sky is clear and I sit in a courtyard, watching the sun set over ancient hutong roofs—that remind me why I love this culture and this city. At the same time, there are days when the smog, the endless crowds, and the needless hassles stack up like Jenga blocks, threatening to topple my sanity.
When I first came to China as a language student seven years ago, I was barely out of my teens and hungry to explore the world. Hailing from a tiny town in the middle of America, China was as exotic of a place as I could imagine. I spent that first semester abroad obsessed with experiencing the "real" China, a notion that resonated with me at the time, as it still does to so many cross-cultural visitors.
I shunned KFC and McDonalds, spoke only in my broken Chinese, and would scoff at my American classmates if I saw them eating pizza or going to night clubs. I made Chinese friends, ate Chinese food, and tore off on nightly walks that would last for hours as I soaked up the alien environment and tried to make sense of my surroundings. I was hooked by the indecipherable strangeness of it all. I wanted to figure China out, to crack the culture and the people.
After a few years of living here, this novelty wears off hard. What was once bizarre becomes commonplace, and what you'd previously write off as a cultural quirk becomes a daily annoyance. You realize that no matter how far you travel from home, real life has a way of crashing down on you.
And so it goes with the "real China" tag. Living and working in China teaches you that there is no "real China," or perhaps more to the point that it is all the "real China." From the Lamborghini dealerships to the rural villages, the sports bars to the ancient temples, it's all one inseparable and inevitable whole, and it is all hurtling forward on an unmapped, uncertain path. No one can predict where China is headed, where the next turn in the road will take us. As some pundits might put it, we are merely riding on the shoulders of a rising giant.
The streak of idealism and passion that drove me to seek out the "real" China when I was young was a good thing. It taught me about China's culture and history and language. It pushed me to make Chinese friends and learn about Chinese customs. Growing beyond this point was a natural process that occurred as I began to understand the culture and the people, and for the first time to grapple with the enormous complexities that Chinese society faces.
Now, as I prepare to leave China seven years after first arriving, I realize that my mission to understand China is not possible; not in any tangible sense. The longer you stay, and the more you study, the more questions you have, and the more you realize you don't know. Just as experiencing the "real" China is a romantic illusion of times past, understanding the country is an endeavor with no end in sight. Like so many other things in life, it is the journey that matters most.
The author is an American living in Beijing