Tuesday, June 18, 2013
I pedal faster, eyes fastened on the driver who is playing chicken with me on my ride home. I have the ‘right away’ according to the pedestrian walk light on the corner, yet the local driver dares to pull his car out in front of me. He doesn’t care who he cuts off and Beijing road lawlessness sees fit to his driving manner.
I’m inches from his front bumper and stare boldly towards his mirror as I come around the center of his polished vehicle. I’m not letting him usurp me. Pedals pumping, I continue onward and make him stop.
Winner of the chicken match. That’s me. I grin a bit, catching my breath, proud that I didn’t succumb in the battle. And I realize in that moment that something is different.
Maybe it’s that Nate and I ride our bikes everywhere now. No. That’s not it.
Maybe it’s that I fought that game of chicken today without my helmet on. (I promise I typically wear it). Nope. That’s not it either.
Oh…(pause). It hits me as sudden as I could have slammed in to that car.
I know what’s different.
It’s not the streets of Beijing. It’s not our mode of transportation. It’s not the lower level of pollution that graced us with its presence today.
Five months of living overseas have molded me. And after pondering this new reality, I realized a verity of equal weight - I’m not sure I’ll ever be the same again.
Sure, I’m still me. But there are people, sights and experiences I’ve waltzed by, tip-toed through, and been graced by in these past few months that have shifted things inside of me. If I’m living with eyes wide open and a heart open to the unfamiliar, then I don’t know how I could have avoided the word that feels so unsafe to me -- change.
With the acknowledgement that I have been marked by change, something else that day made me feel lonely. You, my family and friends, don’t know the new me. And that’s not wrong or bad. It’s no one’s fault. It’s just a jarring reality that I am no longer merely separated by 6,500 miles. I am separated by a way of life, one not superior, but just different.
Sure. I still send my sister videos of the hysterical moments of my week. Or I’ll tell a friend about my latest ‘China moment.’ (A ‘China moment’ is an event that shocks the American culture right out of you and must result in unspeakable frustration, momentary disdain or stress regarding a certain aspect of China norms). And yes, I try to capture the beauty of the city within the borders of a photo so that you too can see what I behold.
But these things fall so short.
I’ve motor biked through the streets of Vietnam where Agent Orange still mars individuals in the population. And my heart ached with pain.
I’ve shared frequent meals with Germans, South Koreans, New Zealanders and Austrians and listened to their stories. We’re all unified by an unspoken ‘outsider’ status in Beijing and our lives sway to a dance of both fear and triumph.
I’ve walked the grounds of the Forbidden City, built in 1420 and home to 24 emperors, in awe of its grandness and architectural beauty. And then I’ve walked in the opposing direction towards the grounds of Tiananmen Square where statues and structures represent a polar opposite take on the dynastic period of China. Its very existence stands as a loud juxtaposition against the emperors’ rule – that it was not one of beauty and grandness, but of dislike and captivity.
I’ve sat near Pakistanian refugees and heard their stories with such a lump in my throat that I dared not blink for the longest time because I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop crying if I started.
The people have changed me. Their eyes have beckoned me to see things in a different light.
I’ve played a game of chicken with my successes and goals as well. Things I would have considered puny or ridiculous in the past are now my worthy victories: like when I can order my own food, or when I manage to get myself from point A to point B, or when I get flowers at a great price after a lot of (expected) arguing.
I feel like a strange unrelatable girl to friends back home. My inside-jokes stopped with you around January 2013; that makes me sad. I don’t have a clue about the latest popular television dramas. I keep seeing ‘Chevron’ as one of the latest fashion trends but it holds zero weight here in the land of shiny + animal print + baggy britches. It’d be outright embarrassing at times to tell y’all the highlights of my day while you are busy closing deals, paying off your car loans, teaching your baby sign language and making new recipes.
Even my worries are redefined, completely alien to my life back home. I deal with things like foregoing consumption of chicken for extended months to avoid bird flu. I worry about my dog eating grass as a nutritious pick-me-up because there’s no regulations on the insecticide they spray in the spring; I’ve had friends of friends lose their dogs as a result. I deal with the inconvenience of not getting to open my windows for fresh air or take a revitalizing jog outside when the days of high pollution hover over the city like a cage. I find new heart-rewarding friendships and find out weeks or two months later that they are moving; Beijing is an extremely transitory city. There is a constant reminder to engage in all things life here at the venture of it going away at any point.
Thus the city has changed me. Its culture has demanded me to redefine my standards, expectations, risks and items of gratitude.
So I’m different. And most of me is so grateful for the change because I needed it. I needed to learn to risk and see the world outside of my safe, comfortable, beloved Nashville bubble. I needed to see God operate in this world, His kingdom work expanding far greater than one I had limited Him to on my prayer list back home. I needed to be asked questions I didn’t know the answers to. And in these things, change has been so good.
The part that causes the ache is the increased gap of separation I feel from you, which is partially why I write. Because you are so dear to me. Because I think about you often. Because I still love jeans and wear my hair in a messy bun on the top of my head and I want to make sure you know that.
It’s just that these days, my messy bunhead bobbles a bit from the pace I keep on my bike, playing chicken with local Beijing drivers.
It’s been my honor Beijing. Thank you for the constant chicken matches that force me to change.