China in Photos / Thoughts

6 Months in China: A Reflection

We’re over the 6 month mark here in Chengdu.  On one hand, the time has gone by somewhat fast.  On the other hand, we’re only 1/4 of the way through our tour here.

When we arrived we wondered why everyone didn’t eat the delicious Sichuan food everyday.  So cheap and easy and delicious!

6 months later and 5 or 10 pounds later, we too find ourselves cooking at home most nights of the week and splurging on Western fare regularly along with the best of them.

6 months ago we wondered why anyone would use an R&R ticket to go back to the US when there are so many other places you could travel with that ticket!?!

This past week we started booking our tickets back Stateside for early February and we’re thrilled.

It’s more than just the cheap accommodations in the US (read: my parents’ house) it’s also the chance to breathe some fresh air, stock up on some consumables, speak English, and see the people we love and miss.

In short, every reason why they give us an R&R ticket in the first place.  I guess those State Department people really know what they are doing sometimes.

In April we arrived, convinced we could find me a non-profit job.

6 months later I have a government job, but also a greater sense of clarity about what I really would love to do all day (write) and what we really should do to ensure that I can get back to my beloved non-profit world at our next post (bid on places that actually allow spouses to work on the local economy and get me a master’s degree for good measure).

We arrived in Chengdu 6 months ago as  almost newly-weds, thinking we’d already gotten through a lot together just to get here and ready for a whole new adventure.

6 months later we’ve come to understand fully what “interdependence” means.  We’ve grown closer in navigating a new country, a new city, a new social circle together. We’ve each shared great unhappiness with the other and great transformation and have survived to learn just how much we can lean on each other and be better for it.  We still hug each other on street corners and go googly-eyed for eachother like crazy teenagers but there’s a deeper, richer undercurrent to our relationship now, a greater respect for our marriage and what we are capable of, both good and bad, together.

6 months ago we spoke a little Chinese and didn’t know just how much we’d need to get around.  Now we speak a little more and get around just fine.

6 months ago we didn’t know that people obeying 50% of the traffic rules could be more terrifying than when no one does.

6 months ago we didn’t know what pollution was really like, that men here like to roll their shirts up over their Buddha bellies in the heat of the summer, that elderly women could be so pushy and dangerous.

Now I avoid grocery shopping during the senior citizen’s hour as a life-preserving measure.

6 months ago I wondered whether Chinese people felt constrained by the the great Firewall, the propaganda, the limits to what you can say and do and write.

Last week my colleague told me we’d have to take our simple classified ad for a car to the local government authorities for approval before it could be printed in the local paper.  And I didn’t blink.

2 weeks ago a Chinese dissident won the Noble Prize.  That no one on the streets knew who he was or cared, that few people here  would find the notion of “universal rights” viable or relevant to China makes me a little sad but not surprised.

The truth is, there is a reason why the old ladies are so pushy and feisty here, they lived through a time when they simply had to be to survive.  There’s a reason why the middle-aged care for increasing their wealth and nothing else-they grew up poor and hungry and are overjoyed to not be that way anymore.  The youth, they may be the ones to finally live beyond the shadow of the past, but it’s still hard to say.

6 months ago I wondered whether I’d like China.  Today I know that I’ll never be in love with China but that there are things here that I do like, that I’ll miss when we leave.

6 months ago I wondered if I had what it took to do this Foreign Service life-style.  Today there are still sore spots on my ego from where I’ve wrestled with self-doubt, self-pity, and the great fear of never accomplishing anything professionally ever again.

But there is also hope and a growing confidence that I’ll make it work, that I’m always learning what to do to make our next move more productive, that I have the most amazing partner and best friend always supporting me in whatever I want to do.

6 months ago I thought the Foreign Service life-style was about travel and culture and languages and food and being able to afford a housekeeper.

Now I know it’s about all of those things but also about challenging oneself; its about a constant renewal of adventure and the constant demands of a good sense of humor, a strong sense of perspective, and a healthy dash of empathy.

It’s about never getting so comfortable that you can’t imagine another way of doing things.  It’s a constant test of the bonds between spouses, families and friends that, while difficult and sometimes painful, brings you closer and make you stronger.

Of course, only 6 months in, this all sounds a little bit know-it-all even to my naive ears. 🙂  So check back in another 6 months or another 18 to see what I have to say then…

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