It’s Just China: Enchantment in the Unexpected With No Comfort Zone in Sight

The cold Nanjing air, bitter and uninviting, gave us one last slap in the face as we all rushed into the yellow taxi cab. The taxi had been a godsend as we ran out the Nanjing Railway Station, our eyes immediately searching for the yellow chariot as though it was our very own fairy godmother. Now that we were in the warmth and presumed safety of our chariot, we could finally take a breath and commend ourselves on beating the onslaught of 500 other souls who, like us, shared the misfortune of having to take the slow, hard-seat 14-hour train from Shanghai to Nanjing.

Marina collapsed into her seat, on the verge of tears. It was the first time I had seen the blonde Spaniard, second-in-command of the Di Wang Cheerleading Squad, so emotionally drained and exhausted.

“Oh my God, guys,” she said. “That was the worst.”

Sarah and I concurred.

“I have work tomorrow,” I whined.

“That’s it,” mumbled Sarah. “I’m quitting the team.”

We were representing the Di Wang cheerleaders of The Hopkins–Nanjing Center, an international campus of the joint educational venture between Johns Hopkins University and Nanjing University. Earlier that month, a friend had told me about a young expat who was thinking of starting a cheerleading squad for the football team, and the idea intrigued me. I had no cheerleading experience, and I'm not the cheerleading archetype, but I was devoted to trying as many new things as possible. When a PR representative from NFL China invited us to an NFL party in Shanghai, I jumped at the idea.

Back in 2012, I lived in Beijing for about nine months and never shook off my desire to come back to China. During that summer, my feelings persisted like my perspiration in the humid Nanjing summer air, and I simply could not discard or ignore them this time around. So in September, I made the decision to take a year-long leave of absence from Claremont McKenna College to live and work in Nanjing, China. I had spent my summer interning in Nanjing, and the city, with all its holes-in-the-wall and quiet charm, had quickly grown on me.

Taking a leave of absence from school to live in China seemed like the textbook definition of jumping ship. Why didn't I just wait for my junior year to study abroad, or come back to China after graduation?

I contemplated these questions when we missed our initial train back to Nanjing because a taxi driver in Shanghai took us to the wrong station. I pondered them when I realized we had to take the midnight hard-seat train that wouldn't arrive in Nanjing until 3:30 a.m. And I racked my brain through the chain of events that brought me here as our taxi driver snaked through the streets at a dangerous 80 miles per hour.

Marina, Sarah and I exchanged worried stares. 

Screech. He hit on the brakes right as another taxi driver cut him off, almost colliding with another car.

“Oh. My. God.”

The driver angrily left the car, while the other taxi driver did the same. They proceeded to pounce on each other and yell obscenities in Mandarin as the girls and I stared in incredulous horror. As our taxi driver was coming back to his car, he turned around one last time and spit in the other driver’s face.

“What. The. Hell,” exclaimed Marina, her voice quivering.

“Guys, don’t say anything. Just be quiet and it’ll all be fine. We’re almost there. This stuff happens,” I said, surprised by my own confidence and assurance. About 15 minutes later, I arrived at my apartment. As I was about to go to bed, I received a message from my team leader.

“I’m sorry things were so crazy and stressful today, but that’s China. These things happen.”

If there were a statement that could sum up my experience in China, that would be it. When I decided I would live here for the year, I did not have a job, apartment or any solid plan. Out of naiveté or delusion, I thought I would be able to find a well-paying, full-time teaching position within a week. It took me two weeks to cobble together a series of part-time teaching jobs that would cover rent, food and the occasional night out, but little else. I thought I would be able to find an apartment within the first week of being here—it took me around three weeks of crashing at friends’ places to find the perfect apartment in my budget. The idea of a “solid plan” unraveled along with my expectations for the year and the preconceptions about myself that I had once held so tightly. Like a lifeline. Or a noose.

I had always been the type to plan my life out, down to last-minute detail. What would I be doing on X month, X day, X time? I only had to check my schedule to find out. The next few years of my life were definitely a little hazy, but the next few months? That I could do.

When you’re living on your own in a foreign country, you are a stranger in a strange land. Away from the restraints and comforts of a study-abroad program or reputable institution, I am free to carve out the life I want for myself, at least for this year. But that also means that I am susceptible to all the strangeness of living in a country that culturally and politically differs so much from my home. In China, you are not so much afflicted by culture shock as you are by the grating feeling that as much as you can try to plan out your day, something is going to swerve out of control. All the expats, young and old, have accepted this fact about living here. And there is something about this fact that enticed and terrified me. There is no safety net, just my wits and sheer determination to make it here.

Would I have joined a cheerleading team back in America? Probably not. Would I have gone so far out of my comfort zone to take a leave of absence to work and live on my own in America? Probably not. I have learned to not only leave my comfort zone, but to raze the entire fortress to the ground. To not only expect the unexpected, but relish in all its absurdity. I have met other people like me, who wanted a change from their daily routine, a free fall into the abyss of the unknown. And as much as things may swerve out of control, I know that there's an inherent magic in it: it lies somewhere on the point where your doubt and fear meets the unraveling of your best laid plans, and the only way out of the hellfire is to walk right in.

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