Return to beneath the shadow
It smelt like the very old man sitting behind me and of the pilot’s sweat. It smelt like adventure, sort of, or the end of something to make way for something new, at least. Before we took off, inexplicably wide-eyed, the old man had asked what day it was. Although the woman beside him told him – Wednesday – I wondered how could it be.
It was more than just another day. It was My Day.
When the Life Coach came to stay at my parents’ apartment a month ago, she asked if I had felt a yearning in my chest before I decided to go on exchange to China. I wasn’t sure if it was that. The only thing I had felt inside me was whatever I had last eaten, and that was in my stomach. But, still, I had booked my flights; dwelled on the experience, becoming deeply lost in the abstract for a year; and, several hours ago, repacked my overweight suitcase at the Wellington airport. However, the second part of the trip (Wellington was the first) was not so much about “finding myself” and more about “finding myself on an isolated island in very close proximity to my parents.” Yes, it was them and I again. While they had behaved in the airplane (mostly because I couldn’t hear them over the sound of the roaring propellers), on arrival at Great Barrier Island they troubled me. In order to earn “Man Points” Dad insulted my heavy suitcase in front of the local male who had come to pick us up at the tiny airport. Mum then mentioned that her ankles were cold and tried to climb inside the pickup car but returned, terrified by her discovery of the small child sleeping inside the car. I looked off into the distance, wondering what it all really meant.
When we arrived at our house, the sky had turned a deep grey and the wind had picked up – an ominous mood soon exemplified. Inside the house, broken glass covered the floor. It was an omen, I thought. However, Mum squealed in a sadistic delight after closer inspection of the crime scene. A bird had entered the house and disappeared again – but not without leaving its mark – everywhere (Dad later informed a visiting architect that birds do not have anal sphincters, hence the chaos – at this the architect had politely sipped his tea and looked carefully at his watch). A ferocious cackle sounded. I turned to find Mum standing over the damaged books. “The bird had taste! It didn’t get the high-end literature,” she exclaimed then looked at me. “Burn A Dance With Dragons first!” I backed away slowly.
Throughout the following days I felt increasingly nervous about my exchange. Impossible to comprehend the next six months, I escaped for long walks despite the high winds - to knock sense into, or out of, me. I tried not to think but, still, it felt so definitely like a certain time in my life was over. I couldn’t shake it. After one particular walk, I wanted to tell somebody, anybody – even them. I returned home.
My parents were standing at the window looking out. They cared, I thought; they were there for me. I waved but neither returned the cheerful gesture. Quickly I realised they were looking past me. I turned around, all that behind me was the garden. Oh, I realised. “The Garden,” their new child and my new, far more exciting and far more rewarding, adopted sibling. I had been replaced. You see, parents can control their garden (sort of) and they can trust their garden’s future to have some predictability – unlike their real children. I entered the house. My parents made a huddle formation, devising a complex plan to prevent the local gardener from mowing their herb patches again. At this point I was reminded of Dylan Moran’s excellent summary of adulthood, which roughly begins with “go and find a job. Go and get a flat. Find somebody else, put them in the flat, make them stay,” and ends with (punch line spoiler alert) “sit, radio, dinner, hmm – gardening, gardening, gardening. Death.” Reluctant to confront the truth of it all, I skulked off.
But on the last night, before I was released into the world, harmony was restored. Mum cornered me with a strange lingering hug – she looked as surprised as I did by the embrace and yet she continued. I was touched. Later, Dad and I attempted to sing together while cooking dinner. However, we quickly retreated to Thunderclap Newman’s “Something in the Air” when we realised we shared the hereditary disease of Song Lyric Dementia, made worse by the fact that it triggered in both of us in exactly the same parts of every song we attempted. And, soon, something was in the air. Me. Thanks, Thunderclap Newman.
Around 6am the pilot announced our descent into Hong Kong. I hadn’t got up from my seat the entire trip, the sound on my movie had cut out 30 minutes into the flight, and I had started to feel detached from reality. Again. But I slid the window shutter open to watch the plane dive through the thick clouds. A sprawl of ocean, barges, land and construction sites slowly rose up towards us. In the various shades of brown and grey in the early morning light, everything below looked industrious and far removed from anything I knew. And yet, as I looked around at the other passengers on the plane, alone and serious, I realised many would have family, friends, or business in Hong Kong. For them this was nothing unusual; it was all entirely ordinary. But for me, in a state of contained bewilderment, I questioned how this could ever be normal.
Sudden heat surrounded me beyond the doors of the Hong Kong Central train stop – heat and anonymous walls of glass that towered either side of the road. Rescued only momentarily from the heat by a friend in a taxi, I soon returned to the streets in search of a tram stop.
After being pushed aside then squished into a corner, I moved through the crowd on the tram and clambered the stairs to search for a seat at the front. 20 minutes into the journey, as my Hong Kong SIM connected me to online, I, too, began to feel connected to the surroundings. My descent into the reality of Hong Kong was still continuing. The tram pierced through a dusty rainbow of apartment blocks, pedestrians clutching sun umbrellas and food stores with sacks of miscellaneous contents that spilled out onto small display mats, which lined the streets below.
After two days roaming the narrow roads between the condensed high rises of Hong Kong I realised how passively I carried myself. Among my myriad crises, this one was the most apparent. Any person in a crowd could push by me and I would instinctively apologise each time, as if my existence itself was an obstacle. Although I am inclined to over think (everything), when I talked to ex-pats at a bar about this later they all agreed – to be in a big city you need to assert, assert, assert. I realised I needed to be confident in the space I occupied even if I had no idea where I was or where I was going, otherwise I would be physically and psychologically trampled by the overwhelming and constant rush of people. Crisis analysed, somewhat.
Over my stay, I asked my friend, a long time Hong Kong resident, many questions about travel and the impact it has had on her life. In one restaurant, as a bowl of dumplings was placed on our table, she began to recount to me stories about her own experiences. One time, when she was twelve years old, she caught a plane to meet family friends in India. But when she arrived in New Delhi she learned that her friends were delayed. As a child, she could have wept and attempted to return home to New York. Instead, she went to her hotel and worked out arrangements to explore the city. In the concoction of people, colour and noise that is India, this would not have been simple. The next day she made the long trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. She went to markets. She was lost then found again by her driver. And as I listened to her speak I became wide-eyed with awe. When we left the restaurant and when I eventually left Hong Kong, my friend had filled me with a sense of calmness as well as thankfulness for her (unrelenting) generosity.
My friend’s stories also reminded me of two other adventurers who were on my mind while I embarked on my China adventure. The first was James Bertram, a New Zealander, who later became a Rhodes Scholar and a journalist in China. Bertram’s is a highly unusual story – one of adventure and “firsts” (including an interview he conducted with Mao Tsetung in Yan’an). Then there was Theresa Butler (my great, great aunt) who was the first New Zealand nurse to serve in WWI and awarded the 1914 Star for her service (she was one of only four New Zealanders to receive this award). Butler, it seemed, did not want to miss out on the action when the men of New Zealand went off to war. It is these adventurers’ stories, as well as that of a small girl making-do alone in India, that gave me “permission” to go ahead and make-do with my journey to Beijing.
My experience of the dense metropolis of Hong Kong fell away to a large highway and (rare) blue sky as I made my way by taxi from the Beijing airport to a family friend’s home. I felt a muddled sense of relief and confusion. The driver had seemed angry when I asked him if he knew the address I had shown him but, when I placed my sunglasses on, he turned around and said “niiiiiice.” From there on, using my limited Chinese, I asked him about himself and described to him why I was in Beijing. However, despite the good humour, it soon transpired that he had no idea where we were going. With a large smile he parked beside a building complex and sped away. When I turned to the skinny boy guarding the entrance to the complex to ask if he could let me in, he simply replied, “No. I do not know you.” He made a good point, nobody here knew me, which raised the question: how do I “get in” at all – into places, friendships, a Beijing frame of mind?
After being rescued by my family friends and spending a wonderful two days with them, I had to leave the safety of their connected and established lifestyle in search of my own. But when the taxi driver dropped me off at Tsinghua and I attempted to get him to drive me to Building 19, he quickly gave up on my fragmented Chinese and me. With a cheerful yell, he rode off leaving me with my suitcase and a splash of phlegm that he had hocked up before he went.
It was hot, there were Chinese students on bicycles everywhere and I was confronted with a huge campus without a map. I stared at my overweight suitcase. It offered no help. And so I walked forward into the depths of the famous Chinese institution. But, soon, I really did have to stop and consider my actions. In the glaring sun I squinted down at my phone and waited for Google to do something. Instead it froze and I with it. It was an accented “hello” that drew me from my looming despair. I looked up at the man who stood in front of me with his bicycle. “I’m not a thief, check my ID,” he introduced himself, and then proceeded to tie my suitcase to his bike. He gestured for me to sit on the back. Slightly terrified, I got on. Using fragmented English he explained that he was from Pakistan but doing his doctorate in Chemistry at Tsinghua. The only thing he knew about New Zealand was that it didn’t have snakes, which was the answer to a test question for him when he was in primary school. 15 minutes later we arrived at the building. He rushed off to buy me two Cokes and returned to aid me through the process of acquiring a room.
Although thankful for his generosity, I started to become increasingly confounded by his constant offers to buy me everything I needed. But it was only after a week of daily phone calls that I decided to interpret his behaviour as overbearing and inappropriate. This problem was unexpected. When you do not share a first language with someone – as is the case with most people I met during my first week at Tsinghua – you are often protected from the less idealistic aspects of their personalities but you are also limited in that way too – something I should have been more aware of, especially as a travelling woman. As Vanessa Veselka wrote in an essay for the American Reader: “True quest is about agency, and the capacity to be driven past one’s limits in pursuit of something greater. It’s about desire that extends beyond what we may know about who we are ... Women [...] are restricted to a single tragic or fatal choice. We trace all of their failures, as well as the dangers that befall them, back to this foundational moment of sin or tragedy, instead of linking these encounters and moments in a narrative of exploration that allows for an outcome which can unite these individual choices in any heroic way.”
After Vanessa talked about the issues of narratives, she added, “But [narratives] also keep us safe. They mark our place in society and make sure we’re seen. Therefore, the only thing more dangerous than having simplistic narratives is having no narrative at all, which is deadly.” It is early days yet but in the fantasy world of travelling, there are some darker realities – of both people and China – that I must understand too by establishing my own story, my own “narrative.”
Now, as I write, I can hear patriotic classical music from the fields across the road from my hostel. The music woke me up this morning and will only finish later this evening. Every now and then a ferocious chorus of “yi, er” sounds out either to signal a positioning change or to accompany ceaseless marching. Variations of this process continue for more than eight hours a day, everyday, for three weeks. The voices I can hear are those of the “freshers” at the leading university in China – freshers who would have obtained full marks in all their school exams, been the top school students in their towns and somehow had the funding to cover the university’s high fees. While learning to physically endure, these kids are (well, ideally) filled with a sense of belonging and patriotism. Like most things I have experienced so far, it is bewildering. But, perhaps as is the nature of humans, I will become used to it and it will become another part of the story of my own quest.