As someone who likes to write, it shouldn’t be too difficult for me to express my opinions, thoughts and experiences as words. In fact, it should be near embarrassing if I find such a task so challenging as to render me useless.
But, this is exactly how I find myself upon returning to Glasgow after two years living in China. Condensing this thing that I did into a few hundred words now seems pointless and impossible. If you can’t answer the question “So, how was China?” with anything other than some fumbling and a meaningless sentence like “oh, really great…”, that kind of non-response you give to a question so utterly gigantic and encompassing that you might as well have been asked the meaning of life, then how are you supposed to boil that time in your life down to a pithy blog post? The fact is there is no way to comprehend a solution to this problem – you just have to do it, to at least try and convey even that speechlessness, to put into words the reason why you can’t talk about it in a detailed and articulate way, if not describe the actual experience itself. What a lengthy tome it would be to even type out the events, activities, thoughts, feelings, disappointments and achievements in list form of two years living in any place, never mind somewhere as truly bewildering as China.
By pure coincidence, and the fact that niche music memoirs are extremely hard to come by in the sprawling city of Wuhan, I have been reading a couple of books that have helped me figure out what I want to say about this period in my life. One of these is Girl in a Band, written by Sonic Youth member, the endlessly inspirational and cool, Kim Gordon. Around forty-five pages in, I discovered that, due to her father’s work, she too lived for a period in east Asia, specifically Hong Kong, a mere five hours and a metro ride away from the place I called home in China. Her first impressions of the city are vivid and familiar to me:
“The air was so hot and humid it was like stepping inside a kiln, and you had to gasp to catch your breath. The smells and sounds were overpowering. My first night there, I remember knocking into people on the street, and crying, which fogged and blurred the city’s yellow lights even more. I felt so overwhelmed by Hong Kong’s heat, chaos, clamour, and odours that I was convinced I would never—never—survive there a year.”
That last sentence has resonated with me. When I arrived in Wuhan, I also had a strong feeling of helplessness, questioning my decision to go there, wondering if I would make it through my time there. Just as Gordon felt, it was almost unthinkable to consider that I would survive there. But I survived, and I lived, and adapted, and thrived, and even excelled.
The similarity of our first impressions are where the comparisons between mine and Gordon’s experiences end. She was ten years younger, not there through choice, and even the place is strikingly different. (Despite Hong Kong’s geographical proximity to mainland China, because of its culture and politics it remains wildly contrasting to its communist neighbour. Even though Gordon moved there in the mid-60s when it was less developed and prosperous than it is now, I have no doubt that it was a different transition than moving to the mainland).
China is a country where everything is different. Picking yourself up and deciding that there’s nothing that motivates you in your home to then move thousands of miles across the earth to a place where not a single thing feels familiar is quite a drastic choice to make. Food, people, weather, buildings, customs, manners, working life, relationships; ways in which you interact with the world are utterly changed as soon as you step off the plane. It’s no surprise to me, especially as a Scot, that Gordon is immediately hit by the temperature there. In the summer months, it’s unlike any kind of heat or humidity you come by in the UK and, while I often complained about how that heat and humidity was so heavy it seemed to regularly hold you down and punch you repeatedly in the face, now that I am back in Scotland and seem to have swapped the relentlessly hot for the relentlessly miserable, I have weirdly fond memories of requiring multiple showers and shirt changes each day.
Curiously, there’s a part of arriving and living in China that I didn’t really appreciate until I returned home. Coming back here, to the UK, is strange; to a country irrevocably changed by circumstances that I have felt apart from, outside of, in the years I have been away. In this time of Brexit, nationalist tensions and political and economic turmoil, it feels weird to be welcomed back with such open arms when many other people arrive here to blunt feelings of disdain and intolerance. The UK has become a claustrophobic place filled with ill feeling and superiority complexes that all stem from the complete intolerance of people different from the norm and an unwillingness to see those people live alongside you as an equal.
This was a feeling I never, ever felt in China. Two caveats: I am a white, heterosexual male and so I am completely shielded from intolerance no matter where I go; and I realise that Chinese people perhaps don’t show the same warmth to all other peoples, even to ethnic minorities that reside permanently in China. Despite this, a few things that people direct hatred towards in the UK applied to me, and my foreign friends and colleagues, as I entered China. I was leaving a country in which, at the time, I felt I couldn’t prosper. OK, it wasn’t war torn, I wasn’t forced to leave, but I felt, at that moment, that I could do better elsewhere. Again, there are caveats to this description which you might be able to garner from my writings and recordings on actually being a foreign English teacher in China (I recorded a podcast called Wuhan Weekly). But the point remains: there was no jealousy, no unfriendliness. There was only respect and total hospitality. I’m not, by any means, trying to compare this situation to a Syrian refugee who has been forced from their destroyed home; or an expert in their field who leaves a country that is ravaged economically to do a job they are completely overqualified to do; or a woman who leaves a conservative society in order to be able to live her life freely; or an elderly man who is rejected disability benefit and forced to work because he isn’t of retirement age yet and his two heart attacks don’t disqualify him from being able to job seek in the eyes of the state. I am so much more fortunate than these people, and stepping into another culture and society as an outsider has made me thankful for being that fortunate and made clear how entitled people in the UK can be and have been in the time I’ve been away.
This feeling of being an outsider is something that Kim Gordon, and Carrie Brownstein in her memoir Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, talks about a lot. I’m not sure I even deserve to call myself an outsider. But it is as an outsider I return to my home. Most of my friends no longer live in Glasgow; they have moved to London or further afield. A lot of my friends are about to become fully qualified solicitors. I’m twenty-four and essentially unemployed, though I am back at university. And I’ve just come back from China having chosen to do something quite a lot different to my peers but that was, in my opinion, no less worthwhile. It has changed me, and only for the better, and even if it has meant that I feel a little apart at the moment, I know that I’m not the only one. So now I’m sitting in my kitchen listening to Joanna Newsom looking out the window and even though it’s clear blue skies I’m daydreaming at rather than clouds of pollution, I miss China so much. The other day I listened to Courtney Barnett’s ‘An illustration of Loneliness’ – a song where the narrator, displaced from her partner, wonders where and what that partner is doing – and I am ashamed to admit I felt myself welling up. It’s not even a particularly sad song. But I too find myself wondering what is happening in a far, distant land, what the people I know are doing, envious of those I know are returning. I may not be able to sum up all the incidents, good and bad, of my time in China, but I know that I feel utterly enriched by having lived there.
Visit Tony’s blog to read more of his writing from China and beyond.