I remember applying for the Keuka College Anne Guthrie Memorial Scholarship as if it were yesterday. The frantic panic to get all the application material “perfect” before the April 28 due date: “What impact will you make in China and how will you use the skills you would have gained in China to make the world a better place? What can you add to the campus?” The efforts to make my seemingly mundane life into an original rendition of the “Life of Pi.”
Then the submission of the application package twenty-five minutes before it was due in the Center for Experiential Learning, and the unusually short waiting period to hear back. The nicely worded ‘congratulations’ that assure you, “It’s not them, it’s you”. The joy that accompanies it. And for those who know it, the bawl of joy that puts your roommate on the verge of punching you on the face, because you just made an unreasonable howl that almost tore her eardrum into pieces. But, it’s what it is girl, China here I come!
The next few days are a flurry of preparation: visas, insurance, photo shots, getting the hair done, and packing. Then, suddenly, I am at the airport, and it’s at that moment when everything sank in. All that application stress was all for this. I was leaving America for a change. Fun adventures to come!
While in China, it was easy to be overwhelmed by the hundreds of years of its culture that permeate the great cities and its architecture. So much so that it was easy to forget what a huge cultural melting pot the country really is. One of the biggest influences I saw was the architecture and the profound effect of the cuisine. You hear China and you probably think noodles, rice, duck, and fish - that’s definitely a big one, but you’ll be astounded when you discover that dog is a dish for the natives. So interesting!
People on the street would ask me to take pictures with them, they ask me if I’m from Ghana, and a large number of their male population feel so curious about my skin and hair and they call me beautiful. Abroad, your passport, but more often your skin, speaks even when you are quiet. I reminisce about when a women slicing mangoes at the market near Jimei University admired the rich, brown, and silky smoothness of my skin; the pride in my behavior; and the way my kinky hair curls in the rain, with nothing more than curiosity and appreciation because the Africa to which I belong can’t be seen on any media and I was the Africa she was seeing.
Navigating through mob expressions and ecstatic faces which easily expressed a message between marvel and confusion. It was not unusual to get pointed at as if we were extraterrestrial. Getting pictures with almost everyone I met on the streets and being called beautiful became my new identity. It only irked during those few moments when I wasn’t called “Beautiful! So beautiful!” five, six, or seven times a day.
What I don’t quite get is why we walk around Xiamen and feel staring eyes all over us. I heard that some Chinese people stare because they think I looked like Rihanna. I know this may be true because a Chinese guy followed me down the street singing “Tsamina mina zangalewa!” and yelled “Shakira!” I know Shakira’s not black but that’s what the bloke comes up with because, if you’re not Chinese, many of them think you look like some kind of star and it’s not beyond them to follow you down the streets singing pop songs. It’s loopy business but I get it. I can even pose for the odd picture preceded by the words “your body so bootylicious!” because, for the most part, their stares are harmless, inquisitive and generally prompted by the fact that they just don’t see too many black folks. Thus the singing South East Asians I can understand.
There were glorious days I would meet a Chinese person with some command of English who giggled at the idea that sometimes it is cleaner in China than it is in Ghana. Simply because they can’t believe that the air much like their own could have dried out my throat and caused me to cough irritably or how the spitting by the natives often put off my appetite. Yes, the spitting is very different than I was used to! We grumbled a bit – not understanding the differences in our cultures. However, with time, I realized that even when I get home, I can do so much more to let people be more like them and less like me and I feel any homesickness fall away with the promise to be present and accept my travels as an exciting gift rather than wishing anything was more like home. It is important to give people the privilege to be who they’re and not demand them to be who they’re expected to be. After that, the nagging and the grumbling stopped for a while.
There were days we roamed around the streets which on one particular day, led us to one of China’s coolest hotels. I hesitantly stepped at the entrance door, my gut sending messages through my entire nervous system, a strong whisper that I do not belong here; however, I enter anyway. What I see is incredible! There is an underground garden inside. Although I have never been to heaven, I imagine that this garden looks just like it. You see beautiful women swimming in the pool, some having some expensive champagne, and other couples kissing. You try to fit in and not look like you’re the alien among the affluent. You pretend to be this rich cool kid and you even try to sound differently. However, this leads you into a conversation with this rich cool guy who thinks you’re a princess of a great kingdom and wants to know you better but because you don’t know how to move conversations of this particular nature along, he wonders how a cool young lady like me would be so naive. I quickly realized that the people who were here live in a different world and I left the place very furious and regretting why I ever got in there because now life seemed so unfair! My friend, Genille, was even crispier with anger because she realized how much more she is still missing; but, it’s okay. In order to feel at peace with ourselves we took a million pictures to show to the world that we had been there. Whether we paid to be there the whole night, or we were the guests of honors, please don’t ask!
I’ve realizes that one of the common mistakes I probably made when I felt I didn’t belong was to try and fit in. I felt that way because there was a very good chance I didn’t, but what I didn’t know was that it wasn’t a bad thing. I was not supposed to anyway and that was okay.
And then there were days I would try to live Keuka’s mission of creating exemplary citizens of the 21st century and whenever I cherished that, I became of service to others: volunteer, volunteer, and volunteer! The sweet innocence in the children’s voices at the orphanage pierces my heart; mixed feelings of appreciation, joy, and pain producing a solid feeling I don’t even know how to describe. “Xie xie lao xue” translates into “thank you teacher,” and this makes me contemplate if accounting really is my field or I should reconsider. They see me as a teacher but I never knew I would be a good teacher before they found a friend in me. These kids did not have any expensive toys, or good clothes like American kids. Some were even hungry but the joy on their faces was priceless and a reflection came right when I least expected it. It sounds so cliché but it is true,
“It is neither wealth nor splendor which gives happiness, but tranquility and occupation.”
In China, many people found a friend in me. I know for certain international students like myself, this ‘friendship issue’ is one of those cultural variations that are hard to understand. What is the definition of friendship and what qualifies me to be your friend? Is it the number of parties we crash together or the selfies that end up on your Facebook page; an affirmation to the outside world that you have made “friends” in China? However, for whatever reason it was that tied me to them as their friend, I loved it and started to weigh heavily as my days in China were numbering.
Sadly, the time came, and I couldn’t hide away my tears, because saying goodbye is the hardest thing to say, especially when you don’t even know if you’re ever to see those people again. Try as I might, I still remember the pained expression I wore and the tears running down my cheeks as that farewell time came. The corners of my eyes scrunched up, and my thick dark lips slightly open as I spontaneously wanted to say something that never came out, and tried to swallow the imperceptible hurt that hurled at me. I remember how I couldn’t quite look in the eyes of my friends. I felt my throat tightening, my heart ache, my lips purse, and my eyes sting with tears. I have no explanation of how terrible I am with goodbyes though my life has all been about goodbyes. These people have been part of me, how can I then survive without the other part? It must be something to do with ending this new chapter I had begun; a definitive moment I will recall in my old age.
And after you’ve maneuvered your way through uncertain and unfamiliar circumstances, after you’ve survived all the language barriers, the stress, and Beijing’s frying sun, you realize how strong a person you are and you feel like you’re a champion, the champion in you, you never knew existed!
Acknowledgements to #Gwen# and #Martha