A slice of home comes to China, Zeena in Hangzhou
My last few weeks in the U.K. were difficult – finalizing my documents and visa for China, packing for the next year, and trying to wrap my head around my forthcoming move kept me busy. However, on top of the logistical and personal thanks, what made my imminent move more difficult was saying goodbye to my friends at home. Although we had all gone through University and lived in different cities for several years, there is something more saddening about moving to a new part of the world entirely; communicating with home from China is just that extra bit harder because of time difference, busy schedules, and the omnipresent great firewall. Yet as I bid my friends farewell, they said something that make parting less bittersweet – “see you in China!”
“See You in China…”
Moving to China has not only been a great opportunity and experience for me, but for those who found themselves with an excuse to visit this side of the world. My mother and step-father visited me over Christmas, and just recently, several of my closest friends made the trip to Hangzhou to see what my life is like here. It would be silly to suggest that they only visited to see me – China is a country on many people’s buckets lists that may seem less accessible until someone you know is on the ground there willing to host you and show you around. Not everyone will show up at your doorstep, but it is wonderful that by living abroad you not only expand your own global experiences, but have the opportunity to assist your family and friends in doing so.
Living in Hangzhou is an absolute joy, every day there is a new hill I can climb, body of water I can visit, or museum I can go to. Yet when you live it, it is easy to forget truly how wondrous these things are. You become stuck in your routine, get accustomed to your surroundings, and do your best to make a life for yourself in your new home. This has not diminished the excitement of living in a new country for me, but it has made me less aware of how interesting my surrounds are since I live in them every single day.
From the moment I picked my friends up from the airport, I was excited to be able to see Hangzhou and China through their eyes. None of them had been to China before, and while they visited me in Seoul before and travelled the world in their own respective ways, coming here was bound to be a new adventure for all them. We had spent months working on their visas, planning trips in and around Hangzhou and to other parts of Asia, and trying to prepare them for life in China. Within minutes, I was noticing things about China I had not really registered before based on their observations – from constant announcements in public transport to the abundance of trash cans, their new eyes made me see my home in a new way.
Hangzhou is a relatively easy city to be a foreign tourist in – most of the signs are in Chinese and english, there are plenty of cheap hostels and AirBnBs in great areas, and although lots of places do not have English menus, you can go far by pointing at food and asking for it. Since I was working for a lot of the time my friends visited, I let them see the city on their own and met up with them before and after my classes. I taught them some basic Chinese phrases like ting bu dong, yao/bu yao, and weishenme, and sent them on their way. They would tell me stories about little things like the excitement of shopping at a local supermarket, seeing gatherings of people dancing on the street, encountering children fascinated with them, their appreciation for Hangzhou’s natural beauty, and their encounters with local people. It was so heartwarming to see them in my new home, experiencing things I have come to take for granted, and hearing their thoughts on it all.
Showing Off Beautiful Hangzhou
Showing them around was another joy in and of itself. I took them to my favorite cafes, restaurants, historic sights and viewing points of the West Lake. All these places that I have grown so accustomed to suddenly were new and exciting. I helped revive a part of me that I had not even realized was lagging – after eight months in China I had become worn down by certain elements of living here and desperately needed to feel passionate about my life and my city again. Hearing them sing praise about the West Lake and its greenery, the variance of food, and the ability to travel around with ease made me appreciate my life here so much more.
I took some of my friends on my favorite hike, one I have done several times and always loved, but never truly appreciated until I saw it through their eyes. From the base of Tiger Springs, up through the tea plantations, finishing at the riverside pagoda, its truly one of the most spectacular walks you can do in Hangzhou. You detach from the chaos of the city and are suddenly surrounded by nature with barely anyone around. You can hear birds instead of horns and trains, you can look out at a horizon without spotting skyscrapers or seeing housing areas. Watching my friends take all of it in and appreciate the beauty of it all reminded me that this city is truly wondrous, and living here is an absolute privilege.
Of course there were some difficulties that came along with their trip; walking around a less international city like Hangzhou in an interracial group inevitably draws attention, and communication difficulties can be incredibly frustrating when you are trying to show people around and help them have a more positive view of the city. However, talking with my friends about the more aggravating elements of tourism in China made me realize how much more adapted I am to my own surroundings, and how much more capable I am at getting by then I give myself credit for. All the Chinese I know has been self taught, and every day I feel as though I am insufficient in the language and somehow have failed at living here because of it. I get frustrated when I cannot manage things and express my feelings, and of course the constant staring and passing comments can wear you down. Yet my friends would compliment me for what I have accomplished and helped me recognize that I have become more comfortable with life here. There are things that phase me so much less after living here for as long as I have, and there were situations I got us out of that I would not have even been able to understand when I first arrived. Having the support of people you know and adore always makes you stronger, but largely because they are able to provide insight into who you are in your new life.
It is always nice to have a piece of your home join you in your new life, and I am so grateful that my family and friends have always followed me around the world to see what my life is like in every new place I move to. It can be lonely and disheartening going by for days on end without ever being able to communicate to the full extent you desire, feeling misunderstood or taken for granted. Certainly, China does have its challenges and can be frustrating at times as a newcomer, but it is all part of the experience. Having my friends come and see how I have been getting on in life, hearing their thoughts and opinions and recognition for how much I have done while I am here, gave me the extra boost I needed to stop taking this experience as a simple one and recognize for the exciting chapter it is in my life.
Sharing My Journey
When you move abroad, even if you are going on your own, you are taking those close to you on a journey with you. They will see how you have changed, for better and for worse, and love to listen to your stories. Whether it is from them visiting or just having regular Skype calls, what makes living and teaching abroad so special is that you can share it with people you love. It was heartbreaking to see my friends leave after two weeks, but I am so excited knowing that when I see them again we will be able to recount on their time here and they will understand my stories about life here with more insight that before. I moved to China first and foremost for myself, but sharing my life here with people I care about has made everything seem more bright, vibrant, and real.
Zeena is a Middle School teacher in Hangzhou, a graduate of Exeter University, and part of the 2017 Teach China Graduate Program.