My China love affair began in 1998 – my first trip here to visit my sister who had come to continue her Chinese language studies. I found the cities we travelled to overwhelming large, active, and impenetrable without Chinese language skills. I was smitten.
I came on two more visits, finally moving to Beijing in 2003, with a plan to study Chinese for 6 months. I had just graduated from university in Australia and still had no idea what to do with my life.
My sister made my transition easier and pushed me to speak Chinese at every opportunity. She seemed to have so many interesting friends who could not speak English, and it was the push I needed to start really trying to converse in Chinese as quickly as possible. The city was alive with promise and something exciting around every corner.
Then SARS hit – well, it hit a little earlier, but as I’d come to learn, we often only really heard about things here well after they were in full swing. The foreign student section of my university turned into a permanent departure zone, with most international students being called home by their worried parents. For many nights in a row, I dreamt I was suddenly back in Australia with a horrible feeling of the unfinished adventure I had left behind. It strengthened my resolve to stick around and find out just what this country had to offer, and 13 years later, I’m still here.
It can be a tough place for outsiders to adapt to – without Chinese language skills, it can be frustrating, and hard to get things done. Without some cultural understanding, it can be confusing, exhausting and annoying at times. And with the world’s largest population seemingly squeezed on to one public bus in peak hour, it can be hard to get a quiet moment to yourself.
But if you can get past that, the challenge of learning to speak and communicate in new ways, the amazing array of food and the warmth and curiosity of the people here in China can be one big addictive adventure.