China: The Biggest Regret We’ve Never Had
Laying in bed on what was a beautiful spring morning in Granada, we turn off our aeroplane modes and let the notifications come rolling in. A particular e-mail we’ve both been waiting for pops up in my inbox telling me to log in and check my Canadian Visa Application. We’ve jumped through every glittery, swirly, useless fucking hoop to get these visas, so I’m not exaggerating in any way when I say I was beyond excited to receive my letter of approval. As I open my laptop, I toggle between my client login page and skyscanner ready to book a one way ticket to Toronto.
Aaaannd Bam. APPLICATION DENIED.
I refreshed my page over and over again, and the words kept appearing – application denied.
I broke the news to Thibault, (who consequently later got denied that week) and we laid there thinking, so..what are we supposed do we do now? We were so into the idea of Canada, in our heads we were already there. Time for plan B.
Up google maps came. Hawaai? South America? ENGLAND!? (Sorry, bad joke)
Where are we supposed to go!?
And then I blurted out China.
I opened my big, stupid, boorish mouth and said let’s go to fucking China – something Thibault will never let me forget.
And that was that. Flights booked, visas sorted and next thing we know we’re at the airport taking selfies with one-way tickets to Beijing.
Our first 3 weeks in China were captivating. We slurped every noodle going, got hilariously lost on their HUGE metro system almost every day, and haggled over the price of a duck in a downtown pit of a restaurant. We wondered the streets of Beijing, Xi’an and Chengdu taking in the smells of fresh XiaolongBao (steamed buns) cooking on the street and watching street hawkers sell everything from fake twigs to clip in your hair (don’t ask) to pretty impressive fake Nikes and not so impressive Louise Vittone bags.
If there’s one thing I can tell you, the streets of China are deeply hypnotising.
Every conversation you could ever imagine is happening on every street corner, from husband and wife domestic spats to large groups of suited and booted business men deciding where to treat their foreign client for lunch. Thibault and I could – and would – sit for hours just watching the world go by, and go almost completely unnoticed.
Everything is loud and discussed in an aggressive, intense manner – with a glorious hawk-and-spit in between angry sentences. At its worst, China boasts an ubiquitous mix of non-stop construction, ear-peircing commercials echoing around the metro, and the haunting noise of cars violently beeping past you for absolutely – no – reason. Head down the tiny yet overflowing back lanes of the city and you’ll be charmed by the old Ibu’s (an endearing term for elderly ladies) sitting on the sidewalk washing their soiled vegetables, the wobbly tables full of gentlemen playing a muted game of Mahjong and hoards of young children darting in and out of the storytelling walls.
After a couple of weeks getting accustomed to the culture – and noise, we decided to head to Shanghai to set up camp for the foreseable future, and ohhhhh man were we excited.
We arrived in Shanghai by train (which deserves a whole post to itself, and don’t you worry it will) pretty late, so we went to bed ready to explore our new surroundings in the morning.
We awoke the next morning and opened our blinds – we were smitten.
After our first day walking the surprisingly clean streets of Shanghai we knew (well, we thought we knew) we had found home. It was bustling, deafening, exciting and smelly. With every inhale we would devour an assortment of fermented tofu, fiery dried chillies, fresh steaming crab and the famous ‘cong you bing’ pancakes. It was a real attack on our senses, but at the time we loved every single waft we got.
We pondered through the old city stroking our fingers across old dynasty walls, before ultimately reaching the illustrious ‘Bund’ where we literally stood back in awe. A skyline that speaks a thousand words and merely intensifies as the day’s sun withdraws was standing in front of us. Shanghai’s skyline is compelling and magnetic, drawing hundreds of thousands of people daily.
The months went by and we had ourselves quite the respectable little set up (albeit suffering from one of the most traumatic flat-shares we’ve ever heard of, but again, that’s a whole different post) and were settling in nicely into Shanghai expat life. I was an Event Manager at an Events & PR Company, and Thibault was teaching English at an upper-class school in the suburbs (going by the name ‘teacher Will from Miami’ – yup you got it, we’ll touch on this in another post.) The hours were long and the days were hard, but we still cherished our days there no matter what. We lived with a beautiful French couple we’d met through my work, whom in fact ended up playing a huge part in our life in Shanghai.
So where did it all go wrong?
We woke up one October morning, checked the Air Pollution app and dressed appropriately for the day ahead. Some days, the pollution would reach staggering numbers that are equivalent for an emergency/lockdown state in most western countries (not awesome for asthma sufferers like myself.) Christmas was fast approaching and we decided that we just didn’t want to spend the holidays in China. We booked a trip to Bali, and it was all we could think of for weeks. The day we left, we sat in Pudong’s Departure hall on cloud nine, giddy with excitement.
On our last day in Bali (that went quick didn’t it!) we sat on the beach watching the fiery sunset talking with an old friend, who simply asked us ‘Why do you like Shanghai?’ Thibault and I looked at one another, quite speechless, and couldn’t find the words to answer. Over our time in China, the novelty of everything had dampened. No, we didn’t really like the food. No, we didn’t really like our jobs. No, we didn’t particularly take to the culture. And no – we didn’t really like Shanghai.
We returned from Bali feeling, well, shit. We were no longer enchanted by the shimmering lights of Shanghai. That sweet, tender honeymoon period was well and truly over. We returned feeling confused, disappointed and we just wanted out. As we dragged our belongings onto the metro at Shanghai Airport, we were instantaneously pushed aside and knocked into the greasy handrail.
I don’t think we talked the whole journey home.
China has an unforgiving way of gobbling you up and spitting your insignificant self back out. One day you’re enthralled by the Chinese way of life and the next you are left feeling empty, drained and forlorn in a sea of 14.5 million people. To be honest, we’re both pretty delighted about how far into our China experience we got to before it turned on us (or rather we turned on it) and we came away with some of the most horrifying, hysterical and unbelievable stories to pass on.
Days in China can very quickly go from utterly wonderful to down-right-shitty-where’s-the-emergency-exit. And now was our time to exit. We packed up our life, said a disheartening, emotional goodbye to our wonderful friends, and left.
The taxi ride to the airport was a very, very strange sensation. We knew we’d given up, given in, sold out. We knew we’d taken the easy option out by just disappearing. But we were proud of ourselves. Proud for trying, proud for enduring some extremely difficult, testing situations, and proud of the people we’d become. It taught us to care for each other on ‘those china days’ when everything felt bleak in such unfamiliar territory. It taught us compassion, empathy and kindness towards others when we could see them too, struggling. It taught us to question the status quo, and that everything is culturally relative. Nothing is written in stone. It taught us to practise patience and tolerance, and to bite our tongue at ignorance (like the times Thibault would be jolted at the nightclub entrance because of the colour of his skin.)
So we say, thank you.
Thank you China, for opening our eyes to a battlefield less marched.
Thank you China, for showing us your philosophy of humanism and prosperity.
Thank you China, for inspiring us to challenge ourselves as well as each other even at the end of a bad day.
Thank you China, for not begrudging us when we struggle to communicate with you for the lack of our own effort.
Thank you China, for making us realise how damn lucky we are to have fresh, unpolluted air at home.
Thank you China, for forcing us to make a change when we are unhappy about something.
And finally, thank you China, for creating bonds between friends that would never of existed without your course, arduous conditioning. It’s exactly these bonds, life lessons, and memories that have made us forever grateful to you.