love letters to china, part i

dear china,

i know we just met, but i feel that i owe you an apology.

on my first night in beijing, you rolled out the welcome carpet, no expense spared. your smells, your sounds, your tastes, all unfamiliar, wrapped around me, trying to give me a hug, but i'm afraid it was too much for me. you see, it takes me some time to open up to people. your kindness overwhelmed me, like a brown auntie who tries to feed her guests too much food, or an overenthusiastic supermarket greeter.

i did not know how to respond to your welcome, so, instead, i ran.

i wish i hadn't run.

 Communist statue in Peasant Movement Institute.

Communist statue in Peasant Movement Institute.

i kept my head down and eyes closed. i ignored your smiles because i only saw unfriendly stares. i did not hear your sounds as signs of life, but i mistook them as indicators of how you had perhaps not understood the ways in which you were destroying it. i felt that somehow my presence allowed me to pass judgement on who you are and this was wrong.

i tried for a few days in beijing—explored the small hutongs with their lively shops, meandered through the sightseeing spots like summer palace and temple of heaven, visited the historic tiananmen square and saw the flag lowered at the end of the day. but on my third day, i went to the great wall, as all of us do, and i felt something else. i felt fresh air and saw a blue sky and i knew that somewhere in china, there was something that would feel like this every day. i needed to find it for my own good, and perhaps for my own comfort, too. i hope you understand.

i moved onto xi'an, where i explored, but i also hid from you more. i felt somewhat grateful when i fell sick, as it gave me an excuse to watch some tv shows on netflix. i used the rain as an excuse to spend more time in bed or at cafés, only venturing out for a few hours a day. i think, in a silly way, i was intimidated by you. it's always awkward to admit that to someone, isn't it? but i was. i saw something in you that i was afraid of. it seemed familiar but also completely new, and it took me some time to figure it out.

 Old Buddhist bell near Small Goose Pagoda, Xi'an.

Old Buddhist bell near Small Goose Pagoda, Xi'an.

i understand now, though. for after i realized that i was wasting the time away, that our time was passing quicker than a midwestern summer, i entered your embrace. i walked out into the visible air and let myself feel the stares and shouts and smells and all of it. i looked deep into the eyes of your people and i finally recognized it: strength.

in your shouts and relentless horn honking, you refuse to be unheard. in your smells and dusty air, you refuse to be unseen. in your words and walk and manners, you refuse to let the world forget you exist.

to be frank, i think i fooled myself into thinking that simply coming to see you would allow me to break out of the western mentality that had made me think poorly of you in the first place. seeing you, though, was a reminder of how much america has crafted my brain and how hard i must work to reach outside of her.

you've taught me that an american mentality often means i expect the worst and hope for the best, i search for the bad in people because good is only a rarity, and it is a lucky day if i come back to my hostel alive. you also taught me that this is not the way i want to spend my eight-plus months outside america.

it's okay to trust strangers because most, if not all of the time, they will be good too. it's okay to laugh and smile when people stare because they're only curious and don't mean anything by it and it's okay to try and speak the little chinese i learned from my dictionary app because trying is better than nothing.

i'm thankful for the chance to explore a land with such rich history and people and culture. but i wish that i could have spent more time appreciating what was in front of me rather than misunderstanding it.

 Temple of Heaven, Beijing.

Temple of Heaven, Beijing.

although i think half of traveling and seeing new things is recognizing that the glasses through which the world told us we must view it aren't that great, and we can see just fine without them. thank you for challenging me to throw my preconceptions away and start new. perhaps, next time, i can see more clearly from the start.

best regards,

harleen kaur