the ways China changed me

Everyone who voted on my latest Instagram post {which was days ago and sorry I haven't kept up with it...} voted overwhelmingly for a personal diddy about China. And, it's probably about time I took a step back into personal essay territory {though only a step, guys, let's not get crazy}. 

So, here we are. 

After particularly rushed and discombobulated goodbyes, I feel like this essay is coming from a place of heart pings after a night of emotionally overdue conversation with a person who means something {though entirely unrelated to China in any way, shape, or form}, made more sentimental by a rainy Nanjing night where I received a book filled with beautiful words from my China friend-fam.

Just a warning. 

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The truth is, I don't know if China changed me. I really don't. I went through a lot personally while living there. Changes in a very significant relationship, in my family members' health, in my own health {it's been the sickest 9 months of my life}, in my appetite, and my general work direction all stirred something in me. I don't think China changed me, but I think all the stuff that happened while I lived there did in an exponential way. China catalyzed my changing. Perhaps that's a more honest title to use. "How China catalyzed changes within me." 

Over the last 10 months, I've become gentler with myself; more forgiving. The learning curve in China is immeasurably steep, and it requires giving yourself grace. No, I didn't figure {insert x here} out today, but I tried my best. No, my Chinese isn't great, but I was brave enough to try using it today. This evolution in my inner dialogue has been instrumental in the way I handle just about every other area of my life. I give so much room to the people I love, but I never really gave myself any. Room for mistakes or room to fail. That's all so different now, it almost makes me laugh to think about how drastic the difference is and how good it feels. 

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On top of the switch in self-talk, there's been a confidence I've found to ask for more. I used to apologize for the sake of keeping the peace. I used to not ask for the things I needed explicitly and then felt hurt or upset without realizing I wasn't being clear enough. Perhaps part of the problem was the people who surround me know me so well that I have never had been left wanting or needing for anything. Coming to China, I met new people during an "influx" time in my life. Things were rapidly evolving in my personal world and I said yes to dinners and coffee dates when it probably would have been better to rest or give myself some of that alone time introverts desperately need to recharge, especially given the fact that my job{s} required me to be with people constantly. Living in China, I quickly found the confidence to express to people what I'd sometimes felt was impolite. Maybe I didn't want to grab dinner because I really needed to not speak for a night. Maybe I wanted to watch a documentary and not have to put on a bra. The reception to that honesty was always warm because it turns out other people want to ask for what they need too.

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That confidence trickled into other relationships and I began to have the conversation with people in my life who I'm navigating new space with when I need them to do better. To tell them that what makes it easier for them might be the exact thing that disrespects how I feel or what we share between us. That the respectful, right, kind thing sometimes is to honour how hard it is. Had I not lived in a place that required me to explicitly ask for what I needed, to be more clear and concise about what I was after, whether it be a coffee order or a banking transfer, I might not have ever come to the realization that it's alright to really ask for what you need-- from the Universe, from your partner, from your job. 

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I also started calling myself a writer while in China. This is huge on a personal level. I began working for a small expat publication in Nanjing that had me terrified at first. I actually cried the whole walk to The Nanjinger office and Luke, quite literally wiping my tears, had to remind me that I wasn't an imposter. I'd often brush it off that I worked for a magazine, sweeping that accomplishment under the rug. Because, yes, in the big scheme of things it really isn't a thing, is it? I haven't cured any diseases or ended nuclear war threats. But, then again, seeing people in a cafe read your restaurant review or your piece about travel trends in China or a short story you wrote about buying a red dress to see someone that you didn't even end up wearing...that feels oddly like you've begun to make it. When your words are in print, there is no logging online to rip them off the inter-web. They exist out in the open. You feel raw and exposed and I am not exaggerating when I say it felt exhilarating and also petrifying. If I hadn't come to China, I think it's safe to say I wouldn't have ventured into writing for work, which would have kept me from dipping into the word of freelance-- a pool that has now opened the door to me living with more location freedom...including an option to move home, to New Zealand {you read that right}. I'm a writer now. And it'll continue to be work and it'll continue to be something I balance with my urge to want to fix the broken bits of the world by working with charities or grassroot organizations, but I am a writer. And it has taken a shit ton of courage to say that without feeling like an undeserving git. 

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Finally, living in China's bubble made me realize how short and fragile life is all together. That sounds dark and gloomy, but it's been a massive blessing. I dealt with a lot of devastating things in a place with a devastating history. There were so many moments when I almost got hit by a bus, swallowed up by pollution, weakened by a faulty heart and no appetite, and felt the weight of being away from loved ones when they were sick or watched as loved ones dealt with their family passing. It was just such a transitional nine months. Like when you drink a bit too much gin and lay down but you feel the world spinning beneath you-- that was kind of what time here, in large chunks, felt like. Being in China, or maybe the events that occurred while living there completely changed the way I approach my everyday life. I've always been a "say yes" person, up for anything and willing to try everything {except chicken feet...}, but now I try to think more carefully before I speak and I try to listen more intently. I want my loved ones to know how much I miss them and love them at the end of even the briefest interactions. There is no time to waste on people who aren't authentic, for jobs you don't enjoy, or for being in a place that you feel lackluster about. We should all be with people who set our hearts on fire in places that set our hearts on fire doing things that set our hearts on fire. When my life felt like it was moving faster than I could keep track of the floating pieces, it became vital to remember how fleeting moments are and where my priorities lie. 

 a cheeky good-bye gin and tonic

a cheeky good-bye gin and tonic

Saying goodbye to China was, like, the easiest thing ever. Still, I can't wait to go back someday and finish off the rural travels and major landmarks I missed this time around. They are at the forefront of my travel plans, truly. Leaving urban China...all I felt was relief. A sign that you definitely do not love a place and a feeling I hadn't ever had before. However, I really hate that leaving meant leaving the people who brought magic to a place in a time when I felt life was fully in upheaval. A time when I was navigating so much new territory {figuratively, mostly}. I'm moving, I'm traveling, and I have to say yes or no to questions that have been asked and I feel overwhelmed by that. However, I feel like no matter what choices I make, I continue to live a life of adventure and exploration-- a life I love. 

Every day in China was an adventure and a challenge. And for living it, I unknowingly {somehow} became better despite my shortened patience towards people who stop to check their phones at the top of the escalator {I'm still a terrible person in that regard}.