One of my American friends here grew up on the east coast and is attending a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania studying business. Some weeks ago a few of us were out for drinks when he asked us what cities he should try beginning his career in after graduation. Naturally, I suggested Minneapolis – I’ve always seen it as a great place to be a young professional thanks to a good local economy and several Fortune 500 companies. Beyond that, the city literally sparkles. There’s a distinct Midwesterness about it. Lakes and lush green parks nestle into urban areas, cut and crisscrossed by 84 miles of off-street trail, while the old brick buildings of the mill district remind of boom time long ago when the city was the flour milling capital of the world, all thanks to the mighty Mississippi – as if we needed even more beautiful shoreline. One of my favorite images of the city is the view from Lake Harriet. Take away the skyscrapers and you’ve got the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Can’t. Beat. That. My friend, however, was less than interested. “Uhhh what!? Why would I EVER go to Minneapolis? Isn’t it like just a farm?”
When I close my eyes and think about home, I see the St. Paul campus in all its midsummer glory, surrounded by the wheat and the corn and the barley and blue sky and big white clouds. I see myself in the heat of the greenhouses during a blizzard, working late into the evening. I see myself waking up before the sun to bundle up and trek through subzero wind chill to the cozy Al’s Breakfast for a short stack drizzled with real maple syrup. I see myself leaving a lecture, inspired, mind completely blown. I see myself getting dressed up on a Friday night for a date in Tea Garden with my O-chem book. Call me a nerd (please!) or nostalgic, but these are the things I miss so much that I haven’t been able to recreate here. Minnesota is a great place, and I always knew that, but I think it took leaving for it to really sink in. It’s the human condition, isn’t it? I’m here missing home, and in a year, I’ll be home missing China. Shucks…
I’ve sort of been down and out this week, increasingly dissatisfied with my phony Chinese life. I used to always look down upon all the rich hipster kids from the University of Minnesota who go away on their dream study abroad vacations to Spain or Paris, where they have classes in English with other students from the U. They take a million pictures of themselves in bikinis on the beach or at clubs until three in the morning and post them in obnoxiously titled album on Facebook to show the rest of us how much better their little fairytale life is than our own in sad Minnesota. Then when they come back, they banter on and on about how “living” in Valencia have them a wider worldview and increased cultural competency. I always thought, “I’m going to China. I’m actually doing something real with my experience.” And yet here am I, with the stereotypical travel blog, living a life as fake as the fake 100 yuan notes that fake cab driver handed me at four in the morning after a night out a few weeks ago. I’ve got nothing on those hipster kids after all.
Many people (mom!) have false ideas of what studying abroad is like. “You’ll get there and you’ll interact with the culture and you’ll make all these great Chinese friends right away and on Spring Festival, one of them will invite you home to their electricity- and modern sanitation-lacking village where their mother will teach you how to make dumplings and their father will teach you how to play erhu and they will invite you to name their newborn nephew.”
In reality, my fake Chinese life is mostly devoted to trying to stay sane. I spend so much energy each and everyday staring blankly up at my professors for six hours, trying not to get killed by a bus on the way to school, and finding a seat in a cafeteria packed three times its capacity that I don’t have anything left to give. What do I do to try to stay sane? Eating Skippy peanut butter out of a can with a spoon. Gouging myself on Snickers that taste a little off. Going to WuDaoKou, the expat student area, to sit in an overpriced coffee shop eating an overpriced pathetic attempt at a panini and drinking overpriced tea bag tea with other lazy expats who, like myself, are too scared of real China to leave the cozy confines of the cafe. Going through the motions until Thursday when I start my weekend early by dressing up and going out to expat bar areas with my American friends whom I pretend to like more than I do to dance the morning away until I roll out of bed the next afternoon and do it all over again. Three times.
Fake Life Confessions:
I have no Chinese friends. My language partner is Korean. And I quickly discovered that the one Chinese friend I did have (her name was Smile) was using other foreigners and me for our English. She told us she goes to Beida, but we found out she’s not even in college, and she’d blow up my phone every other day saying, “I’ll be waiting for you (insert place) at (insert time),” without even asking me if I wanted to meet or if I was free. Most of the time, I feel conversing with a Chinese person, even if they’re conversant in English, takes tons of energy and effort, and I find that if given the choice, I will always choose returning to Zhongguanxinyuan to pass out over “hanging out.” Do Chinese people hang out? I don’t even know.
I haven’t relaxed in two months. The trials of each day leave me absolutely exhausted, and unfortunately I have yet to uncover a method to relieve my daily agitation. In America if I’m feeling stressed out, I can hop on my bike and be on a trail in ten seconds. Think there is such a thing as trails in Beijing? Think again. If I had a bike, I’d be subjected to crazy driver-laden streets, and my bike would likely be stolen within a few months. Go for a run, you say? Have fun getting lung disease. Beijing doesn’t really do parks either, unless it has an admission fee, a few hundred years of history, and about a thousand daily visitors. I can’t relax when my roommate is around, which she always is, even on Friday and Saturday nights. I’ve already read the two English books that I brought here (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and a biography of Norman Borlaug of course), so I’ve started watching bootlegged movies on the internet. I don’t even like film. Maybe after this year though, I will cease to be made fun of for all the movies I haven’t seen…
I haven’t been anywhere in the city besides the university and three expat hangout areas. My life is a constant rotation. Beida, WuDaoKou, Beida, Sanlitun, Beida, Beida, Houhai, Beida, WuDaoKou, Beida. I really haven’t even done anything else here besides school; shopping for fake goods at fake markets; searching for sad attempts at pizza, burgers, and sandwiches; and going to bars and clubs where white people are the majority. One of my favorite restaurants, Pyro Pizza, is styled exactly like an American college bar, completely with beer pong tables, banners hanging from the ceiling that read “WuDaoKou Football Champions 1977,” and large glass beer steins filled with fake Budweiser. I can close my eyes and pretend the gophers just lost and I’ve gone to Campus Pizza with some friends after the game.
I love McDonalds. My girlfriend asked me the other day what I would eat if I could eat anything in Beijing. I would eat McDonalds. Hands down, no competition. Although last weekend I went to the city’s only Burger King, and I must say, their fries are better.
China’s culture is increasingly more fake. They’ve become obsessed with the West in every way and want more than anything to become rich like America. Women will bleach their skin white and undergo blepharoplasty cosmetic surgery to create a double eyelid. They love Nike, they love The North Face, they love Starbucks. Buddhism is becoming commercialized. They built a fake section of the Great Wall to capitalize on tourism. Enough said.
My fake Chinese life has left me exhausted, and I haven’t left the confines of my cold tiled dorm room this weekend save for a frustrating erhu lesson. Mom sent me a wonderful box full of twizzlers, peeps, granola bars, smarties, etc. and I’ve made dinner out of it for the past two nights and didn’t feel an ounce of guilt about it. When I woke up this morning, my skin had broken out entirely, worse than it’s been since my middle school pizza face days. Oh hey body, looks like you forgot all about high fructose corn syrup. Ahh fake sugar, how I’ve missed you.