Pull up a map of Beijing. Set your finger down dead center on the city. Draw it slightly up and to the left. It was a Tuesday night in the middle of summer, and I was there, at a small dumpling house in a nondescript part of the city. It’s the part where you wouldn’t go if you were a tourist — an out-of-the-way sort of anyplace you might stumble upon elsewhere.
I’ve always loved dumplings. If I could, I would probably just live on dumplings. In fact, one of the first words I learned in Mandarin was dumpling — “jiaozi.” In China, I largely subsisted on dumplings after learning to spot the characters on a menu. So when one of my Chinese friends asked me if I wanted to go for dumplings one evening, I couldn’t have been more excited.
We wandered left, right, left again and right again, passing through tiny little alleys as we made our way to a small dumpling shop. Inside, the oil hung thick in the air, and the restaurant smelled warmly of meat and vegetables and vinegar. My friend ordered for us and then posed to me the question that everyone had been asking.
“So … why did you choose to come to China?”
It was a question I had been asked countless times. Before I left, friends and family wondered why I was going; strangers in China wanted to know why I had come.
In English, I usually rambled something about wanting to be a reporter, about how knowing multiple languages might be helpful one day in a future career and about how China is a major world power and I can’t expect everyone to know English wherever I go in life. Besides, what better place to learn Chinese than China?
In Chinese, my response was always succinct, as my Mandarin is limited: “I am learning Chinese. I like Chinese. It is a pretty language. Lots of people speak Chinese.”
But neither of those answers was ever really sufficient. I paused, chewing over my dumpling — and my words — carefully.
I wanted to tell her what compelled me to travel about 6,000 miles from home to a country where practically no one speaks English.
I could’ve gone to Paris. I would’ve been able to get by with the little bit of French that I speak — and when that failed, my English could have taken over — but that wouldn’t have challenged me as a person. I wouldn’t have had the experience that I did at the beginning, feeling essentially illiterate and mute when away from the bubble of my English-speaking classmates.
I could’ve gone to Paris and subsisted on coffee, wine, cheese and bread for an entire summer; taken all the Instagram photos of me at this cafe with that book; and posed artfully on the “rue de this” and the “rue du that.” The weather would’ve been perfect with clear skies and no smog all the time.
I knew that Beijing would be, well, the opposite of all of that. But that’s what made me go: because I knew it would be hard for me. I knew that the language would be hard, the food would be hard, meeting people would be hard and I would, at times, feel alienated from my own culture.
But I knew that was a positive thing and that you truly learn best when you’re alone, when you expose yourself and open yourself up to a new opportunity. You truly learn best when you leave your preconceptions at the door of your airplane or even at the door of your house when you leave every day, because there are things you know and things you’ve been taught, but you need to be ready every day to challenge that, to challenge everything you know and to start all over if you find that you’re wrong.
There were days I was lonely, and then I made friends. There were days I was hungry, and then I looked up the characters on the menu and found myself suddenly capable of speaking Chinese. There were days I was uncomfortable by the stares I got, and then I said hello in Chinese, introduced myself and saw that suddenly people became interested in me as a person — not as an object to be viewed.
I recognize that my discomfort was manufactured, and I recognize my privilege in having the means go to China. I will always be grateful that I had financial aid and a Gilman scholarship to make it all possible.
But how could I ever say all of that to her, sitting in that tiny dumpling house in Middle-of-Nowhere District, Beijing? The real answer is a rough approximation, at best, in English. My words fail me in both languages. My voice is paralyzed.
So I told her about the dumplings and about how when I was little, my dad would cook them for me at home as an afternoon snack. True, they were frozen and from Costco, not fresh and handmade like these, but the taste of cabbage and noodle mixed with vinegar was the same. I told her about how I came to China because I needed to leave home and discover it anew in a place I least expected it.
Dumplings will always remind me of home, but now China is a part of that — a home that I once had, even if for a brief moment. And if I ever miss dumplings stateside, there’s still Costco. But, dear dumplings, we’ll always have Beijing.
“Off the Beat” columns are guest columns written by Daily Cal staff until the fall semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.