In the Garage

Reflections on a Year Abroad...again.

February 22, 2016 | 8 Minute Read

It's been almost two months since I left China, but I haven't had time to sit down and really write anything meaningful. To sum up the last two months really quickly, Christian and I left China the day after Christmas because his visa expired on December 31. We flew to Hong Kong where we left all of our suitcases in his company's HK office, then went on vacation for three weeks in Australia. We went to Perth to visit my pen pal, then flew to Sydney (where it rained the whole time we were there), Port Douglas (where we saw the Great Barrier Reef and Daintree National Forest), and Melbourne (where we chilled). We then flew back to Hong Kong, picked up our luggage, and then flew back to Germany on January 20. Then I saw an incredibly cheap airfare home to New Jersey, so after two short weeks in Germany, I flew back home for Chinese New Year for ten days, and then came back to Düsseldorf. This means in the last eight weeks, I've flown over 20,000 miles, which is basically half of the circumference around the world. Whew.

Luggage from China

It's finally all sinking in that I've really left Shanghai and I've now had the last eight weeks to really think about life there. Being back in Germany isn't nearly as weird or as big of a struggle as when I left Berlin and moved back to Middlebury, Vermont. For one thing, I admire the fact that Düsseldorf is so empty compared to Shanghai and it's just so quiet. I don't have to worry about getting run over when crossing the street (not like in China, anyway). People don't shout as much. The subway is so quaint -- the new U-bahn line finally opened this weekend after several years under construction and there's a whopping five new stations that opened this past weekend. Admittedly, I laughed about this because Shanghai opened 22 new stations and a few new lines in one weekend, and that wasn't even the only new station and line openings I experienced in the 15 months I was there. I do realize labor is way cheaper in China, plus the government can basically do whatever it wants there.

It's funny reading my reflections on a year abroad after my year in Berlin. Back then, I said I learned a lot about myself, like that I was more independent than I thought, my academic limits had been pushed, and I was more open to new experiences. After a year in China, it's actually not that much different. Again, I've discovered my independence; instead of academic limits, I was pushed professionally; and being open to more experiences? Duh. To add one more thing to the list that didn't exist in Berlin -- I've learned about myself in terms of identity, but more about that in a bit.

Being in China and living in Pudong, I didn't really feel like having to go back to the Puxi side of town to socialize. With Christian frequently working late or on business trips, I was left to my own devices. I went to the movies alone, I ate in restaurants by myself, and I went on a few solo trips as well. In order to get to know the city better, I gave myself various day trips to do within Shanghai, whether it was looking for vinyl shops or going to find Little Germany in An Ting. Independence in China was of a different sort than in Berlin; this time, I was really doing more stuff alone in a country where I could barely read anything, whereas Berlin was more actually growing up and taking responsibility for things myself.

Professionally, I worked with a team of developers where only one of them spoke a little bit of English; with the rest of the team, I had to learn Chinese fast to communicate with them. In combination with other people giving me weird looks and attitude that I look Chinese but speak Mandarin at a non-fluent level, having to learn a new language to speak with my team was a great and necessary challenge. My coworkers were all so lovely and helpful with learning the language, whether it was teaching me naughty slang or useful tech vocabulary. And it wasn't that I was just learning Mandarin -- I also was able to improve my CSS skills, get a better understanding of SQL and databases, learn about development in China (hello, WeChat!), and realize what "secure development" means to different companies.

Panda babies!

Certainly, the year was full of new experiences which I don't need to delve into since I think they're self-evident (one word: China). But one thing that I had been expecting and can really appreciate was learning about identity and how I see my own. During my master's course, one of the biggest questions that we were always discussing was identity, its creation, and perception, both internally and externally. My relationship with China is a complicated one -- my experience of the country was automatically different from Christian's simply because of what I look like versus what he looks like. Moreover, mainland China at once felt familiar and completely alien, whereas Hong Kong felt familiar and not alien, just displaced. The most familiar things were food, from congee for breakfast to the baked Chinese goods to the simplicity of having a plate of green veggies sautéed in a wok with rice on the side. Other things were hearing classical Chinese pieces I knew from childhood being played on the street or visiting Hangzhou and realizing that all these legends I knew from growing up took place there. But the alien were things like people spitting everywhere, how rude people could be (granted, people can be rude in Chinatown, but actually being in China takes "rude" to a whole new level), and the written language (I had grown up learning traditional instead of simplified).

During the year, I also came to understand what things I've learned from my family that are actually more Cantonese than just generally Chinese. One example: during Chinese New Year, all unmarried people are considered "children" and therefore get red envelopes, even from people who are younger than them. This meant that for the one year where I was married and my older sister wasn't yet, I had to give her a red envelope. My coworkers all told me that wasn't a thing, but then I checked with one of Christian's Hong Kong colleagues who confirmed it's definitely more of a Cantonese/Hong Kong thing. Even if I wasn't in the same region from which my family came, I'm more familiar with my family's own customs and traditions and better understand them after living a year in Shanghai.

Smog in Lujiazui. This particular night was hazardous.

To get back to identity, I realized how Chinese I am. Eating Chinese breakfast every morning for a week straight? No problem! Grandmother who constantly nags you about something every time you see her ("Ai ya, you've gotten fat/skinny/dark/light/etc!"/"Why don't you have a baby yet?")? Check. Feeling guilty for living far away from your parents? Yup, even if my parents don't even make me feel guilty, it's sort of innate, I guess. But on the other hand, I also realized how American I am. Chinese breakfast, sure, but can I have some eggs and bacon? Great! My reply to my grandmother's nagging? Complain right back at her that she told me the last time I was too fat/skinny/dark/light/etc and there's no way I could ever please her. And dealing with the parental guilt? Well, I'm still abroad and just doing my thing.

Then to make more things complicated, I've also realized how I've gotten accustomed to living in Germany. I'm a pretty straightforward person and express my opinion pretty openly, unlike Chinese people who frequently beat around the bush to say what they're thinking or Americans who sugarcoat their opinions if there's something negative to be said, "That's a great idea, but actually..." And anything not starting on time drives me mad.

Pudong Airport

Identity is something fluid and ever-changing and this is one thing that became very apparent to me while in China. People can't put me into one box -- am I Chinese? Am I American? Have I been Germanized ("eingedeutscht")? The answer is all of the above. On some days, I felt I could relate well to Chinese people and admired the country's rate of progress; on other days, I raged as an American how the US does things better and on yet other days I would claim that the German way Germans was best. If someone asked me, "But could you go back and live in China?" I think my answer would be yes. I don't think I could live in a smaller Chinese city (like Changsha, where I visited my high school friend Chris), but going back to Shanghai or being in another tier 1 city would be fine. Long-term, I'm not sure I would want to deal with the pollution, traffic, censorship, or hordes of people, but I wouldn't say no to a few extra years there. But for now, it's back to the quiet life in Germany.