what life in China has taught me about myself

I'm rounding the corner of my fifth month in China. There have been more "wtf" moments here than any other place I've visited, lived, or tromped through. That being said, I've gotten insight into a country I had only "Expat Island" {a.k.a. Hong Kong} as a reference for and very little interest in. China is a country of history, complex economic and human rights issues, and an impenetrable cultural identity. And since I came here with a blank canvas in regards to Chinese culture {other than my time in Hong Kong...which really is it's own world...}, I've learned so much about this deeply complex place. 

As {completely} cliche as it is, what I've gained the most knowledge about so far in my time here, however, has nothing to do with China and everything to do with me. 


I've been living alone in a studio apartment up until now, which teaches you a lot about your habits, your likes, and yourself as a wholelocated in a non-expat neighbourhood that has brought with it cultural immersion and the challenges of leasing a flat from a sweet landlady who speaks about as much English as I do Mandarin. I've learned how to pay for things on the appropriate Chinese phone apps. I've learned how where to buy groceries and how to get to both Katie and Amy's apartments in the dark by foot.

I've learned that I'd rather eat raw veggies or fruit than attempt to cook a meal for one. I've learned that I haven't outgrown my tidy habits. I still like living in a streamlined place. When I'm stressed, stir-crazy, or trying to stay in and save pennies for the adventures coming soon, I organize and re-organize and re-organize. I still like the smell of fresh florals in my apartment when I come back from work or wake up in the morning. I've learned that I like to listen to my music loud, and on repeat. 


While the work I'm doing in China is {seriously, incredibly} loosely similar to {some of} the work I was doing as the Women's Empowerment Project Coordinator in Laos, I've learned that working in China is absolutely nothing like working in Laos. Sure, there's still the "Asian adaptive" expectation. You've heard of this, right? The expectation that you'll be flexible with scheduling and start times, meeting itineraries, and basically everything else in the fine print. In China though, while they expect you to be elastic for the ever-changing policies, a rule here is a rule here no matter how long its lifespan. Things constantly change in regards to foreigners living on the mainland-- what's taxable, what documents are required for employee benefits like flight reimbursements, etc. What I've learned from working in China is that my adaptive nature is a total strength. 

If I wasn't ridiculously flexible and I hadn't had previous experience in Asia, I know that I'd sink here. I've been asked to do marketing events and PR workshopping a day in advance with no real idea for what to expect. I've been sent places with only a Chinese address on my phone and the name of someone from another office meant to meet me there. Surprises are an everyday occurrence here, similar to the rest of Eastern Asia. Luckily for me, I've learned that I handle surprises with sarcasm, a bit of grace, and that classic Tara humour. 


I've learned that I'm brave. Mainland China isn't super foreigner friendly. It's not a place that makes being an expat easy, and I would know...I've been living and travelling abroad more than a time or two. But I've handled every scary situation, every strange mishap, and every major malfunction with this sort of stubborn strength. I'm not one to back down from the hard stuff, I tend to be drawn to it. Whether it's being dropped off in unfamiliar territory in pitch black at 2 a.m. or getting followed back to my apartment complex by an intoxicated group of men...I've learned that I instinctively conjure up the courage. I'm not a scared little girl, despite my inability to watch horror films alone. {I should note that China as a whole and Nanjing, in particular, is incredibly safe, even the statistics back that up}. 

I've learned that while sinking deeper into my skin, I've also acquired a stronger backbone. When I'm pushed, I know when and how to politely push back. If I get shoved in the line for coffee or cut in front of when paying for my groceries {always}, I've learned to say something. I've learned to not get run over. I've learned to cut right back. 

I've learned {or, rather, had it re-affirmed to me} that I want kids. And, it might not be something that I get. I know that. Living on the road makes it tricky. Health stuff makes it improbable. Seeing all the only children in China {and the Little Emperor Syndrome in full effect}, learning more about sex-selective abortions,  witnessing how little ones have to handle such intense pressure to be big achievers in every aspect of their young lives...the spark that was lit while I was an au pair and never fully extinguished has had gasoline poured on it while being here. 

I've learned that friendship is never not a priority for me. No matter how far away I am. In spite of any internet firewall issues. No matter how chaotic life is here or how stretched thin I may be, I always make my people my priority. In China, I've really found that to be true. My start here was a bit shakey. I felt in over my head for the first time but the thing that calmed the chaos was focusing on friendships, including making new ones here.

I've learned that I need nature. I knew I loved it, you wouldn't live in Montana if you didn't. I knew it has always been healing for me. But, after living here, I realize how desperately I seek it out. And, yes, there is plenty of landscape to soak up in this gargantuan country, but in mainland Chinese cities it comes in the form of manicured gardens and I crave it in a more wild way. 

I've learned that a quiet confidence created by travel exists within me and is a well I draw from daily without realizing it. If anything, while New Zealand seems to bring it out in the best way, China requires it the most. I once asked Luke what one of his first impressions of me was, and he recalled a time in Vang Vieng while we were both volunteers when he noticed how confidently I went about exploring on my own {though, technically I was with Will} and how I said no to things I wasn't into without giving excuses or justifications. I learned that skill in New Zealand, but I utilize it EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. in China.

I've learned that there are people with fewer personal boundaries than me-- and they are the Chinese. In a country of 1.3 billion people, you can hardly blame them for personal boundaries not being a thing. I'm someone who constantly cuddles her loved ones, fully enjoys sleepovers with friends even as an adult, and encourages people in her inner circle snuggling, hugging, touching her. So, you'd think people being in my physical bubble wouldn't affect me at all-- but then again, these people aren't in my inner circle. They aren't even people I know. It almost unnerves me a bit, the close proximity which people approach me in every social situation here, which makes no sense. 

I've learned that my instincts really are always spot on. I came to China predicting it'd be a bigger challenge than accepting the job offer in South Korea. I came to China knowing I couldn't speak the language. I came here despite visa struggles. I came here knowing I had very little {read: zero} reference for this place or interest in coming here {other than for the Great Wall, the world's most dangerous hike, and landscapes like Zhangjiajie}. And I was right about everything I felt. Like I always am. Whether it be in relationships or work or life in its most general sense, my gut knows what's up. It knew this would be wild and weird and a massive undertaking, but that I'd come out of my time here feeling kind of like a badass if I survived it all.