The world is huge, there are so many places to go. I always dreamed about these far away countries, new cultures and unknown language. But China…? No not really.
I just never felt like China was my place. It was mostly because I didn’t really have much to relate to. Isn’t China just too far away? Isn’t is too big? It’s so many people! I think I was a little scared of the place. But life is full of unexpected things, small coincidences leads us unto roads we think we would never find ourselves at.
It was 2009, my best friend and I had to go somewhere in the world. We had a one month internship to spend and choosing a destination we both liked wasn’t easy. We sat there with the world map and tried to compromise. Middle-East? Australia? Or India? It was always one of us having an objection. Most of all she wanted to go to China, but I said no and no.
In the end she managed to convince me: China it was. We contacted some old friends, got our visas and booked out tickets to China. I was eighteen and back then only knew a few words Mandarin Chinese.
It was the perfect first time alone abroad. We were well taken care of by her family friends and enjoyed every second of the wonderful hospitality. The night we arrived to Beijing we ended up in this old auntie’s home having tea, emptying our Chinese vocabulary to communicate. “Yes yes, thank you, yes. Sweden yes”. It was a pure surprise how easy it was to communicate, even though the enormous language barrier. The next days we found ourselves squeezed at the touristy places, treated the most delicious Beijing food and busy understanding how to interact with our new friends. And our hosts were purely fantastic: they were both letting us come close to the feeling of the city and taking good care of us at the same time.
After I week in Beijing I wanted to feel a little independent. It is nice to be helped and guided, but people actually doesn’t have to follow every single step I take. When we came to a restaurant I decided that I was able to find the toilet without anybody helping me. I just whispered to my friend that I was going and sneaked away. If I had known more about Chinese culture I wouldn’t have done it.
The restaurant was the most beautiful Hot-pot place I’ve ever been to. It was fancy, well decorated and filled with happy people eating colorful food. Finding the bathroom was easy and on the way back I decided to just walk around a little bit and have a look.
Turns out I got lost. Really lost. The restaurant was much bigger than I first thought and in some way I walked in the wrong direction. A helpful waiter spotted me and came to my rescue. We couldn’t speak to each other but he helped me to search for our table. Soon there were a big group of waiters running here and there, pointing at me and looking. How big was this place even?
When I finally found my way back the host where so relieved. Foreign guests suddenly running away and disappearing? It was not only culturally awkward, it was also putting them in a stressful situation. They where in charge of making sure I was fine, and how could they take care of someone who doesn’t stay within sight? They started searching for me as soon as I left but couldn’t find me as I had walked in the wrong direction.
I felt so embarrassed. Me, getting lost in a restaurant. Getting lost at a crowded street in China is ok, but how can you get lost while still inside? So much for trying to be independent.
We left Beijing behind and went to a small city in Jiangsu province. The night we arrived we both suffered from a serious culture shock. Our airport pick up dropped us at our hotel and left. “Hey, what now? Are we supposed to sleep here? All alone? How do we even find something to eat?”
Beijing was clean and shiny, everything had been polished and prepared for the Olympics the year before. This little city was a totally different place. It was heavy industrialized, with almost no foreigners and few special landmarks. To stop the financial crisis from affecting China the government invested heavily in new infrastructure at this time, so the rebuilding was intense. Everywhere we could see workers with spades and helmets. We soon realize that they were not rebuilding only a few roads but almost every road, at the same time.
We managed to check in at the hotel and even order our own dinner through pointing at raw ingredients. Only one person in the hotel staff could speak a little English, but that didn’t stop the staff from being excited about us being there. They dragged us around the entire place to show us the best suites and their grand hall, maybe as much for showing the hotel to us as to show us for the rest of the hotel.
The next morning we found our contacts as well as a group of Swedish workers. Everything was going to be fine.
Days became weeks. Work at a local Swedish-owned factory was interesting. We couldn’t contribute much but they showed us great patience and taught us about how the factory worked. Many of the production process ideas we were taught at highschool was applied here and we had some very interesting peeks into how they handled Swedish-Chinese decision-making.
After work we learned how to get around the town and sneaked out on our own little adventures. Buying snacks at the supermarket was for us like a tourist attraction. We had meals in friends homes and asked if we could try some traditional Chinese instruments we saw in a park. The musicians made an effort to play all the foreign music they could and one of them even spoke English. We was very surprised when they suddenly played a traditional Swedish Christmas carol.
After this trip I felt like wow China, I have to come here again.
Dear friend, thanks for convincing me to come with you that time. That little stubbornness you showed that time really made an impact in my life.