A Foreign Land, A Familiar Place

My Dearest,

Do you like it when I call you my dearest? 😆

I’m on a bullet train in China heading to Chengdu, Sichuan Province. It’s been a really… intense month. Not in a bad way though. I think there’s just been a lot coming at me, in terms of what I’m seeing, what I’m experiencing, how I’m growing. I’m trying my best to soak it all in, to make sure I remember everything I’m feeling, while at the same time trying to live and enjoy the moment. Definitely not easy!

First picture in Beijing

The first couple days in Beijing were actually quite difficult. There was some real culture shock. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting it. I thought my Chinese was up to par but it clearly was not. I realized this as soon as I got to the airport and tried to get a SIM card for my phone. Pretty sure I only understood about half of that conversation and inferred the rest (luckily I guessed right lol!). Then I got lost trying to find my Airbnb in the evening, in a building that felt very sketchy (very old building, very dark, etc). The room itself was ok, but still wasn’t 100 percent my comfort level. Then I went to eat and realized everything was in Chinese so I couldn’t read it. Everything felt like a struggle. When I returned home I definitely had a “what the fuck am I doing here” moment. I’m not sure I remember the last time I felt this way in a place. Maybe it was Brazil. But that was over a year ago.

Forbidden City

I’m not sure why or how, but this feeling went away pretty quickly. Within a couple of a days I already felt myself getting used to everything. I have so many thoughts about China I don’t even know where to start. I guess it was really interesting to be here coming from Japan. The two countries, their cities, the cultures feel so different. In Japan, there seems to be many unspoken norms you must follow – for example on the subway: no talking, don’t answer the phone, put your backpack in front of you, get out if you’re by the door to let others out, wait for others to get out before you walk in, if there are arrows on the ground everyone will walk in that direction, and this is just on the subway! On the streets, no one will cross the crosswalk until the light tells you to, even if there are no cars, even if it’s a small street! These are just a few examples. In China, none of these norms exist. You literally need a barrier to keep all the Chinese people walking in the same direction in the subway tunnel (and it still doesn’t work). They’ll cross big multilane streets even when cars are driving through. It’s interesting, considering the two governments. You’d think that Japan, with it’s more free and open rules and governing, the people would also be the same. And you’d think that in China where the government has strict rules and regulations for everything, you’d expect their people would follow their rules. It’s quite the opposite. In fact, it’s pretty interesting how little fucks Chinese people give about many rules and laws. In some ways it feels like a “do until you get caught” mentality. At first everything feels like chaos. But after a while I got used to it and it actually felt kind of freeing. 

Tiananmen Square

There was a funny moment, I was in Tiananmen Square during their National Week, the 70th anniversary of the PRC. It was obviously packed with people. There were uniformed military officers standing guard everywhere. They all had straight faces as they gazed out looking around for trouble. To me, they looked unapproachable. Like I definitely shouldn’t go up and talk to them. But I found it really interesting how the Chinese people interacted with them. One by one, they’d go up and talk to them, most of them to ask questions like directions but also just like shooting the shit. They would laugh while the guards tried to keep a straight face. I could tell one guard was trying really hard not to laugh at something. The officers were probably told by their superiors to act serious. I mean, these were military officers tasked with surveilling Tiananmen Square during National Week, seems pretty serious to me. But the Chinese people basically treated them as glorified information officers. That in a nutshell is how I think the Chinese people view their government. They know that the rules exist, they know mostly, where the lines are that they shouldn’t cross, but for the most part, they seem to not take things too seriously. To them, the Communist Party is just another ruler in China’s long history of rulers and dynasties. It was interesting because I had never heard this before, but apparently its sort of just a given. China has had so many rulers who have ruled and fallen, and the Chinese people have lasted through all of them. It’s like they have the wisdom to see beyond their current moment.

Inside the walls of the Forbidden City

I have to admit that before coming here, my perception of China had been extremely bias and tainted. And xenophobic. There is a narrative out there, that I seem to have somewhat bought into, that Chinese people are rude, selfish, obnoxious, they’re spreading everywhere, the country is dirty, the people are brainwashed, they blindly follow their government, they don’t know what the world is like, etc. This was a narrative partially in the back of my mind prior to arriving. And it was gleaned from what I heard from others (especially some Chinese Americans, who sometimes seem to be the most anti-China), from what I heard in the media, from what I saw from Chinese abroad, and what I barely remember from 10 years ago. It’s really kind of a fucked up. Obviously I knew that a country of 1.4 billion people wasn’t monolithic, but nonetheless I must acknowledge these thoughts existed. Never prior to coming here did I hear about how kind, helpful, and generous people are. How beautiful the land is. How rich, deep, and expansive the culture is. How DIVERSE this country is. How fun and cute and easy going people are. How funny people are! THIS has been my experience in China. I’m sure the actions of the Chinese government have had an impact on my views of the country too but I as an American should know that the actions of the government don’t always represent the views of its citizens. It’s ironic how I thought Chinese people were brainwashed while I at the same time I unknowingly bought into this false narrative about what people would be like here.

Malls everywhere in Beijing

The Chinese people I’ve met know this global xenophobia exists too. But they don’t understand. “Why does everyone hate us so much? Life is great here.” That’s what one of my friends said to me. My sense is that yeah, people’s lives are generally pretty good. I see iPhones, Airpods, Apple Watches everywhere. I’ve seen more Tesla stores here than I’ve seen in my life (actually idk if I’ve ever seen a Tesla store in the states). In Beijing, it seems like there is a shopping mall every few blocks. It’s still not USA standards of living, but still pretty good. In some ways, life is much easier and more convenient than in the states. WeChat – a messaging app – is life. You use it to message, call, and video chat with people. But it’s also so much more. It’s a social media platform where you post pics and vids of your “moments.” It’s also like Venmo, where you connect it to your bank account and use it to pay your friends and all goods sold anywhere. All you do is go to a store and scan the QR code with your phone. It also is connected to all the other 3rd party apps, which allows you to instantly purchase delivery, a taxi, rent a bike, buy plane and train tickets, reserve a table for dinner, shop online for clothes, literally anything you can think of. This is how everyone pays for things. No one uses cash anymore. What if you run out of battery on your phone? You’re basically screwed right? Wrong! There are portable chargers you can rent at every corner, which means you never have to worry about your phone dying. On the other hand, if your WeChat gets banned by the government then yes, you are basically screwed. So yeah, there’s that. 

Great Wall

It seems people do have qualms about their government. They know it’s far from perfect. But people also usually bring up the fact that Chinese people used to be extremely poor and that the government has been able to life hundreds of millions out of poverty and into the middle class in just a few decades, no small feat. And my sense is as long as you follow the rules, don’t speak out too much, keep your head down, your life will be pretty good. You’ll have a job, a family, a home, etc. The American Chinese dream, lol. But obviously everyone knows, there are things they can or cannot do. Things they should or should not talk about. They know where the line is. But I guess some are okay giving up some of these freedoms. I guess it doesn’t impact their lives too much. They’ve fallen in love with Capitalism just as much as Americans. Maybe even more. 

As I said, this year is the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, so it was a pretty big deal. They held their biggest military parade yet. Lot’s of Chinese flags everywhere. Lot’s of patriotism. In a way it kind of scared me. And at the same time there’s a sense of patriotism that made me feel… idk, something? I’m not sure. Was talking to a friend, he said he thought it was weird to see all the Chinese flags everywhere. I told him I thought it was weird to see American flags everywhere at home too. He told me he still loves China and being Chinese though. Not because he particularly loves his government. But because he loves his homeland. I think it was important for me to hear this distinction. As I stated before, I often conflated the state of China with everything else that makes up the country of China. They’re not necessarily the same. The distinction is important.

Great Wall at night

Last time I was Beijing was 10 years ago as a student studying abroad. A lot of it looks and feels the same, but it also feels much more modern. I went to visit the area that I used to live. Really, it looked identical. As I was walking I noticed a sidewalk where me and a couple friends were sitting on one of our final days in Beijing. We sat there, talking and having some snacks. I don’t even remember what we were talking about. But I remember it was a bittersweet moment. It’s kind of amazing how moments like that exist in your memory. You never really remember what you talked about but you remember how you felt. And you remember the people. And you remember the place. And that place, it’s still there. And when I look at it, I still get that same bittersweet feeling. I wonder if that’s how this journey will feel for me 10 years later…

Lol this is how everyone was posing 😆

There’s so much more on my mind. Let’s just say that two weeks wasn’t enough time in Beijing. I’m starting to think that two weeks isn’t enough anywhere. I wrote this as I was getting ready to leave:

So my second week in Beijing is almost over. And now I don’t want to leave. Going to a farm to learn about sustainable agriculture in China. I’m excited, but also, I want to stay longer in Beijing. Two weeks feels too short. There’s so much I want to do, not enough time. It’s so weird. Just a week or so ago I was feeling such shock. Now, I feel like I’m just starting to dig in to this city and meet people here and I want to stay longer. I haven’t felt this way about a place in a while. There’s something extremely comforting about being here and I’m not sure what it is because everything here is still very UN-comfortable. But there’s also something deeper that I’m connecting to and relating to. It’s maybe the people and the culture and the food. I think as a Chinese American, there are some things that just feel right. Even though I’m a foreigner, in a far away land, in a place that is so different, in a place where I barely get by speaking the language, it still feels oddly familiar, oddly comforting, oddly… like a piece of home.

So I left Beijing and headed to a farm outside Zhengzhou, Henan Province. Zhengzhou is a mid-sized Chinese city, meaning it has about 9 million people and is about the same size as NYC (crazy right?!). It lies in the plains of the Yellow River and the area is supposedly the birthplace of Chinese civilization. I found the farm through WWOOF, a cultural exchange program made up of organic farms all over the world – farms take in visitors who live and work on the farm in exchange for housing and food. I came to the farm to learn more about the landscape of organic agriculture in China and to think more deeply about how we integrate organic practices into urban development. The farm I visited was called Zhongyuan (中远) Farm. The long name is the Henan Institute of Zhongyuan Organic Agriculture. The farm is made up of a lab, the farm, and the community that lives and works there.

The first thing I’ll say is that everything on the farm was beautiful. The people, the buildings, the flowers and trees, the lake, etc. The whole farm forms an ecosystem, they grow fish in their lake, ducks, chickens, geese, and goats. Tons of veggies, fruits, and grains. They make their own compost and organic pesticides on site. They are a leader in China for breeding open pollinated seeds. There are about 30-40 people who live and work on the farm – from office staff, lab workers, farm workers, kitchen staff, etc, people of all ages from their very early 20s to people in their 60s or 70s.

Grapes

Everyone on the farm was just extremely kind. Full of smiles. High spirits. Generous souls. On my second night two workers took me to eat melons from a different farm (the area is full of different farms). I think it was probably the best honeydew I’ve ever had! Afterwards we walked around on that farm at night. Just walked around talking (well I mostly observed cuz I suck at Chinese >.<). I looked around and up in the sky. It was pitch black. I could hear dogs barking in the background. I took a deep breath in through my nose and exhaled to appreciate the moment I was having. That crisp autumn air. It was great. The next day after dinner I was sitting by myself observing the scenery and another one of the workers came up and started talking to me. He was kinda cute actually LOL. He said I looked lonely and offered to show me around the farm on his motorbike. Of course I went. He then took me on his motorbike, went outside the farm to see the Yellow River, and then came back to pick fresh pomegranate and grapes in the dark. He’d ask me questions about my life, what the US was like, talk to me about the river and the farm, tried to pick the best fruit for me. Just an incredibly kind and generous human being. As I was on the bike I could feel the cool air blowing in my face in the dark night. I took another deep breath in to appreciate where I was. There’s something about these moments that just felt really special. I think when you’re constantly traveling, little moments like these feel like they have so much more meaning. To my new friends, it was probably just another night. For me it’s sort of like a, “wow, I can’t believe I’m here right now, in this place, doing this thing.” Even if it’s a little thing like these two instances. To me they’re moments of connection, to the people, to the culture, to the land. Moments of learning and growth. Moments of cultural exchange and understanding. But also, they’re moments of appreciation, for the immense privilege I have to be on this journey. I think sometimes we can take moments like these for granted. But to me, it’s these little moments that keep us alive. I feel incredibly grateful for all the special moments I’ve had on this fellowship. And to all the people I’ve had them with.

Fresh Pomegranate

So I imagined that I would be actually doing farming while on the farm, right? Wrong! Turns out they wanted me to work in the office lol! I was honestly a bit disappointed at first, but I guess they’re such a big farm they don’t really need help on the land. The director asked me to help them write three workshop proposals for the Organic World Congress in France in 2020. Since the proposals needed to be in English it was actually something they really needed help with. He even invited me to present them with him if they were accepted 🙂 They were also organizing a Conference that weekend and he asked for my help preparing. Turns out that everything worked out really well for me. I was not only able to learn about their organic farming methods but also about larger landscape and policy matters related to the organic sector. The director invited me to all the special dinners he hosted with his conference panelists and introduced me to local government leaders, including a County Vice Mayor and another who was the Propaganda Director for their party at the local level (I’m assuming this is like a Communications director). In China, the word propaganda doesn’t have a negative connotation like it is here in the US lol. It was interesting to see the amount of support local governments provided towards this conference and organic agriculture in general. China’s President recently made a strong public commitment to preserve the health of the environment so I think that is one reason why you are seeing so much support now. I was also able to meet other organic farming leaders in Asia. I was even invited to attend IFOAM Asia’s organic leaders summit for young organic leaders and local government officials. So yeah, it was definitely up my alley. I guess you just never really know what to expect. I had a totally different idea of what my experience would be like on this farm and it turned out that the work was even more aligned than I expected.

Sweet Potatoes

The last few days on the farm, the workers began tearing down all the houses. This was because a local government official visited and told them that the buildings were not up to code and had to be torn down. This meant that all the workers, their rooms and offices, had to be moved. It’s a prime example of the “do until you get caught” mentality, but also represents the extremely transient nature of “place” in China. Whether it’s because of continuous new development, new government rules, or new government leaders who are now cracking down on old rules, things and places just seem like they’re constantly changing. A place will be here one day and the next it could be completely gone. In the case of the farm, the workers were all moved out of their rooms within one week. And now they had to live in TINY concrete rooms. I wasn’t sure if they were getting new rooms or if this was indefinite. I felt really annoyed that they had to do this and I didn’t even live or work there. But I didn’t really hear much complaints publicly. They just did it.

Tearing down their housing 😦

Also, I’m still trying to figure out how to be gay in China. Like I’ve had multiple people on the farm ask me if I’m married, if I have a girlfriend, what kind of girls I like, all of it. I haven’t felt this way in a long time. 

Sigh. IDK how to be gay in China. It was a weird feeling. I told him I used to be in a relationship but didn’t specify gender. Felt like I was lying to him and not being my full self. I really fucking hate that feeling. And in the middle of our convo I kept thinking about telling him.

So weird. I haven’t felt this way in a time. The dilemma of whether or not to come out. The back and forth in my head. The anxiety. The inauthenticity. 

Yeah so I did feel really disappointed in myself at one point. Felt like I wasn’t being true to myself. But at the same time, it really is just a split second decision. Usually I’m just responding to a question and literally have a second to determine whether or not the situation feels safe enough. Whether you want to risk something. Whether you trust the person enough. Sigh. I guess I’m still trying to figure it out. The story of our lives.

Rainbow home. Gay?

Still overall, my time on the farm felt really fulfilling. I learned a lot and also met a lot of genuine, down to earth, generous people. Obviously I wasn’t ready to leave. Definitely a trend. But I had to. Needed to keep going. It’s something that I’ve learned to do – say goodbye to new friends and community. I know I don’t want to, but later on in time I know I’ll be okay, and they’ll just be a memory. It’s kind of a sad reality. 

My favorite place on the farm

Here’s what I wrote on my last day on the farm:

It’s this really weird feeling of not wanting to let go of something that brings you joy. Whether it’s a person, place, or thing, regardless you have to let go. You don’t want to. And you can’t really imagine what it will all be like to have this sort of void in your life. But you do it because you have to. And soon enough, you’re able to live without it. Soon enough, that feeling changes and becomes a just a memory.

I’ve had to do this a number of times these past two years. Sometimes it’s because of a person. Or friends. Or family. Or it’s the place. Or probably a mix of some or all of it. I know that I’ll be ok. I know that soon enough, I won’t miss it anymore. But still in the moment, I don’t actually want it to go away.

So many crushes I’ve had lol. They’re now just distant memories. My strong attachment is gone. I knew these crushes would go away, but I couldn’t imagine it at the time. I didn’t want to leave Beijing. I really didn’t. And now I’m here on the farm. And I also don’t want to leave. It’s a continuous cycle. I remember first arriving. How shy and nervous I was. But also how great it felt. A walk in the dark on a farm in the middle of China with friends. Riding a motorbike with a new friend who took me to see the Yellow River and picked me some fresh pomegranate. Feels like I’m just scratching the surface. Getting to know people. Making friends. Just starting to dig in, and get used to things. And now it’s time to go.

But. Wisdom. I know it’ll all be okay. And something similar will occur next. IDK what this next place will be like. IDK what to expect. But one thing is for sure – I’ll meet some great people. I’ll learn and grow. I probably won’t want to say goodbye. But I know I’ll have to. 

It’s a cycle that I’m becoming more and more familiar with but still feels difficult every time. I guess it’s a lesson for me about letting go. The fears that come from it. But also the great unexpected joys that can come because of it. It’s like life and death. And life again. And so, the cycle continues on.

Until next time, my dearest.

Nick

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