It still feels a little wrong to say that I’ve been living in China for a year. But I have. Here goes: “I’ve been living in China for an entire year of my life”. Wrong, because I remember coming back to New York in May and feeling like so little had changed: my Chinese is still pretty subpar (to be fair, I’m not sure I’ll ever stop saying that), I’m still not totally sure what I want to do with the rest of my life, and I still eat peanut butter by the (table)spoonful almost every day (middle-school me would be appalled).
In other ways, I feel like I’ve become completely different. I remember when I first got to Shanghai last July, it used to feel wrong to speak to people in English. That first week here, I barely ate a thing beyond yogurt and barely said a word to another person. I distinctly remember feeling like I was so much more quiet than I am on most days (although everything that transpired right before I left was partially at fault). And that may all have been from being sleep-deprived, jet-lagged, and disoriented, because I didn’t know the language, and because speaking English when I was living at the other end of the world just felt wrong..
I’m lucky to be able to do most of my work in English, but I still feel the strain when I need to explain myself to our sysadmins (“I’m sorry, I just don’t know how to say SSL Certificate in Chinese”). But now that I’m communicating most of what I do in Mandarin, the strain of having to speak a foreign language when I can barely find the words to express myself also feels wrong (I am imagining myself straining every time I say the word wrong, but I think I’m just exaggerating).
After a year, I still feel like I exist within some sort of an expat bubble (case in point, I’ve gotten tacos for dinner twice the past five days). I’ve moved out of the high-rises of Jingan into a small lane house in Xuhui, but I still do silly things like drink bottled water (probably better for my health), wash my clothes with western detergent, and insist on putting ice cubes into my glass.
It’s crazy, because there have been times, too many times, that I’ve sort of wanted to run away from Shanghai, to say ‘screw it’, and leave my life here behind (apartment and all). It’s the kind of panic that’s sent me on cross-country flights more than once, or even sent me to China in the first place. But it’s something that I’m slowly learning to get past.
Now having been here a year, I keep wondering, how does one go back after living here a year. What about four years? You just can’t. Or maybe you can. But then, why did I move abroad in the first place?