I’ve spent just over a month here in Beijing, and recently moved from my temporary dorms into my new home at Shaoyuan 6. For the most part, life here has been exciting and I’ve had a lot of chances to make friends. Here are a couple of things I have thought about/learned….
In general, life here is like learning to ride a bike. I first learned how to ride a bicycle when I was six or seven years old – making countless back and forth trips along the street behind my house. I wobbled nervously and fell often. I bought a bicycle for myself last month – it’s a sweet looking second-hand thing with a basket in the front, and I like it quite a lot. (I did try to see if I could find a Steel Pigeon for myself, but it seems like it wasn’t in the cards.) I’m planning to decorate the basket with fake flowers in an effort that is equal parts whimsy and practicality… when your bike racks are as crowded as the ones scattered through PKU, it’s helpful to have something that helps distinguish your bike from every other one in the mass.
Though learning how to ride a bicycle is supposed to be one of those things you never forget, I’ve needed to relearn the skill while I’m here in China. Biking on the streets outside of campus confuses me – I’m never quite certain when to try crossing, if I have the right of way, or how to avoid oncoming bicycle traffic that seems to follow a pattern entirely separate from the flow of cars and busses and pedestrians. As much as possible, I try to take my cues from the people around me, and hope that I don’t accidentally get run over. I consider this a lesson learned both about bicycling and about adapting to a new cultural context… there’s little simple things that sometimes differ from what I’m used to, and I know that it’s going to take me some time to adapt. In the meantime, I’m trying to stay fluid and not worry too much about the bumps in the road.
It’s sometimes a bitter pill to swallow. I mean this completely literally, as I’ve been taking traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) to manage a cold over the past week or so. I went into the pharmacy at the Wu Mei, an on-campus convenience store just down the street from my current dormitory. I explained my symptoms in a game of medical charades, supplemented by Pleco, and was given a box of cold medicine that is designed to suppress coughing and nourish my yin. (In case you’re curious about the exact wording, the box lists: “Function and indication: invigorate lung and kidney. Nourish yin and moisten the throat. It is indicated for dry pharynx, burn, sore throat, and hoarse voice due to insufficiency of qi and yin and chronic pharyngitis with above symptoms.”)
I had to ask my summer language school teacher to help me read the instructions on the box, in order to figure out the frequency of dosage, and I think I definitely earned some brownie points with her for trying out TCM. The medicine isn’t what I’m familiar with, and the flavor takes some getting used to. Understanding the ideas of qi and yin is also something new to me – but I’ve been trying to read up on it more and figure out the background to traditional medicinal approaches. Because TCM is so new to me, I feel that I have an immediate inclination to be a little bit skeptical or even dismissive, but I am trying to use this as an opportunity to keep an open mind and learn more about philosophies of wellness and bodily harmony.
I’m rebalancing my hyphenated identities. I’ve been thinking a lot about being Chinese American over the past few weeks, and wondering how this self-description will continue to evolve over the next year. Multiracial identity can be a complicated thing, and it’s definitely something that continues to develop as I spend more time outside of the United States. When in the US, and in other times that I’ve traveled abroad, I feel that I’m often perceived as being Asian/Asian American. I think that this has played a pretty big role in how I’ve constructed my own sense of self. While I’m here in China, though, being “Western” becomes one of my primary perceived identities. It definitely makes sense – I was raised in the United States, and have very American/Western ways of seeing and interacting with the world. But to some extent, this means that I’ve been feeling a type of placelessness – when I’m in one country, I’m seen in reference to another, and when I go to the other country, I’m seen in reference to the first.
I have a rudimentary grasp of Chinese vocabulary, and lack the sophistication to describe this ill-defined sense of ethnic identity. “I’m American,” I say, and “my mother is Chinese and American.” Yet this very idea of hyphenated or dual identity seems to be an American concept, and I can’t quite describe how a diasporic identity exists independently from the homeland. In some ways, while being here in Beijing, I feel as though my lack of familiarity with the Chinese language or aspects of Chinese culture is read as being “inauthentic”, or not really Chinese. But what is “authentic” to me is a distinctly Chinese American identity, an experience that comes from being part of a racial and ethnic minority in the United States, and acknowledging the influence that American culture has on ethnic traditions. What is authentic to me may not be associated with a sense of authenticity in China. I’m American, with Chinese characteristics. And while I’m working to understand exactly what that means, I’m enjoying this process.
I’ll write again soon to talk a little bit about orientation, meeting my classmates, and starting my courses here at Peking University! I have a couple of pictures that I’m collecting to share as well – things from the first few days of registration, orientation activities, and the opening ceremony for the Yenching Academy. Until then, loving you much and thinking of you often.