My love/hate (but mostly love) relationship with China.

Hi everyone! My name is Moriah Lenhart-Wees and I’m The University of Idaho Confucius Institute’s new Program Specialist. I’m excited to help connect people in the Boise community to the great UICI programs we have. By way of introduction, let me give a little background on how I came to learn Chinese and love China.

Among people who know me, there is a running joke that China is trying to kill me. But like all tragic love affairs, I just can’t stop going back to it. China has a way of being brutally humbling with you. But after you survive—and so far, I always have—you feel stronger, more invincible, and more in love with China than you ever were before.

My first trip to China was in summer 2008 during the Beijing Olympics. It was most definitely a fascinating first glimpse of an ancient country that was trying its best to be a modern superpower. Skies were blue in Beijing at that time (an occurrence I found to be much rarer in later visits). My dad had brought me with him on a business trip to the Olympics and it was a day that he had to work and couldn’t go out and explore the city with me. Though I did not speak any Chinese whatsoever and had grown up in a small city (or tiny city by Chinese standards), I wouldn’t let that deter me and I decided that I could look at a map, hop on the subway, count the stops to Tiananmen Square, get off and have a look around and then hop back on, count backwards, and find my hotel. It should be easy, I thought. Right? Wrong.

As soon as I got off the subway, I was awash in a sea of people. Chinese people came up and gestured that they wanted to take pictures with me. I suspected my blonde hair was responsible for the extra attention. After a series of photos and wandering around in awe of all the commotion—an Olympic bicycle race rushed right past me so I was giddy with having seen an Olympic event, however briefly and accidentally, for free. But my mood was quickly dampened when I noticed my flip flop had torn and my right foot was left defenseless against the hot pavement.

I tried to drag my worn sandal beneath my foot but quickly realized it might be easier just to find and buy a new pair. Naively I reasoned that with millions of people mulling around there must be millions of shoes waiting to fit millions of feet.  But between the combination of my inability to speak Chinese to seek help finding what I needed and the size of my big American feet… buying a new pair of shoes turned out to be quite the feat… see what I did there?  I wandered around for hours looking for shoes and getting myself more and more lost in China’s capital city.  I thought I would never find my hotel

and would have to live out the rest of my days lost, confused, and barefoot in Beijing.  I hysterically thought I might not survive my first trip to China!

Finally, a kind Chinese college student named Honky came to my rescue. He spoke some English and helped me find the Chinese equivalent of a Walmart and buy the Chinese equivalent of Crocks—the ugly pieces of rubber being the only footwear to actually fit me, I kid you not. Honky and I chatted and he gave me my first Chinese name: 茉莉花, Molihua meaning Jasmine flower and sounding kind of like my English name Moriah. Spoiler alert: Honky helped me find my way home that day and I did not die lost in Beijing. He and I exchanged emails and kept touch in English throughout my senior year of high school.  After I decided that I loved languages and challenges enough to pursue a degree in Mandarin in college, we began to exchange emails in Chinese well. He was my pen pal for many years and that experience proved how valuable language learning can be—it can forge new friendships and get you out of sticky situations.

The second time China tried to kill me was in 2011. I touched down in Beijing for a fall semester of study abroad on a dreary, cold day after just spending a warm summer in a tropical Taiwan town. My body must have gone instantly into shock. I immediately felt a cold coming on and couldn’t breathe very well. Within a couple of days, the cold developed into a full blown sinus infection. At first, I wasn’t alarmed and tried various remedies: cold medications of both Eastern and Western origin and hot tea. I saw no improvement. A few weeks into my sickness, I visited a doctor, who suggested I try Chinese acupuncture. Begrudgingly I allowed a series of needles to be stuck in my face (no, it didn’t hurt) and then received small shocks to the areas around my sinuses (yes, it did hurt).  I even tried fire cupping, which to this day I do not understand, but I was getting desperate and willing to try anything to be able to breathe again. But alas, nothing worked and my sinus infection kept its death grip on me. I went and saw other doctors—by this time I was an expert at explaining my plight in Chinese. I had memorized so many new and exotic terms to describe my disgusting condition that my Chinese teachers even taught our class a Chengyu (traditional saying) in my honor: 久病成医 meaning “a longtime illness makes the patient a doctor.” On the linguistic bright side, I could now fully diagnose myself, list my symptoms and request treatment in Chinese.  The new doctors gave me some antibiotics, which helped temporarily but when the pills were gone, the infection came back and spread then to my eyes and ears. I was a sorry sight.

At night, after hours of difficult Chinese homework, I would skype my parents back in Idaho and complain that I might not survive, that I might just suffocate to death in Beijing. Admittedly, I may have been a tad dramatic in my state of illness. My mom offered to fly me home and reassured me that I could finish the semester early, but something inside of me told me to stay (perhaps it was pride or my desire to prove to China that I could survive whatever it threw my way). I finished out the semester in Beijing, despite looking and feeling like a zombie. That semester I learned more Chinese than I had the two previous years combined and advanced to a very proficient level in the language. My tones improved, my knowledge of grammar was strengthened and I got lots of conversation practice both in and outside the doctor’s office. When I arrived back to Boise, still sick, I realized how much I had accomplished.  My Mandarin had gotten quite good and I felt grateful to China for pushing me past what I thought I was capable.

The third and last time China tried to do me in actually wasn’t really China’s fault. I just happened to be in China during one of my worst moments (okay, let me be honest, worst months) and China will forever be my companion in those dark memories, while also being the light at the end of the tunnel that saved me. I was a student in the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship Program in Chengdu and I was living in China for a few months after my graduation from Georgetown University. Not long after I arrived in Chengdu, my long term relationship ended. As Charlie Brown would have said were he in China, “nothing takes the taste out of spicy rabbit head quite like unrequited love.” Needless to say, it was a rough time and instead of taking full advantage of the deliciously spicy food, the cute panda bears, and the fantastic Chinese classes, I found myself in a whirlwind of emotion. It was hard to be in China away from everyone I knew and unable to express myself with the same depth and complexity as in my native English. Unfortunately I was focusing on all the negatives and I thought to myself, “Curse China and the despair I feel here! I knew China was bad luck for me!”

But one day on my way to my rigorous Chinese classes, I was walking through the most intense rain storm I’ve experienced. Even my umbrella couldn’t save me from the torrential downpour so I gave up and strolled by the edge of a pond on campus soaking up the rain. The pond was dirty and grimy looking, but in the midst of it, I spotted a lotus flower floating there—just bobbing cheerfully under the pounding rain. Right then and there, I decided that I, like that lotus, would emerge from a messy, ugly situation more radiant and full of life than before.

I spontaneously decided to get on a bus from Chengdu and go hike Mount Emei, considered to be one of China’s four most divine Buddhist mountains.  My plan was to hike up and down in one day and board a bus back at night to return to Chengdu. Unfortunately, my failed sense of direction led me to take a wrong turn at some point and as dusk began to fall on the mountain, I realized I would not be getting back on a bus that night. I had to seek refuge at a Buddhist monastery deep in the forest of the mountain. That night the grounds of the monastery were so utterly dark that I saw more stars than I had ever seen before, even after my childhood of camping out in my own private Idaho wilderness. All the stars seemed to tell me that this world was much bigger than we can ever imagine and perhaps the things we see as problems are just the next step in our journey. I may have been feeling overly philosophical on top of that mountain in the middle of China, but my feeling of hope was only heightened the next morning when I was awakened by monkeys (yes, monkeys!!) howling and jumping across the tin roof of the monastery. I rushed outside just as the sun was beginning to rise over the mountains and the view was truly magnificent.  It lived up to the gorgeous landscapes found in Chinese paintings. A thin layer of mist rested on the treetops and the sky was streaked with brilliant colors. A red Buddhist structure stood off to the side and lush green vegetation was all around. While Buddhist monks used slingshots to keep the monkeys at bay, the first rays of sunlight hit my face and I felt an enormous, involuntary smile creep across my face. In that moment, on top of Mount Emei in the Sichuan province of the Middle Kingdom— after so much sadness– I felt authentically happy. Happy to be in this country that I still needed to learn so much about. Happy to be learning one of the most complex and beautiful languages in the world. Happy to be alone in the country with the world’s largest population because I was really just minutes away from meeting someone with whom I could forge a lifelong friendship. I realized that in that moment, I possessed the two things that make initiating friendships possible—a smile and the ability to communicate with another human being… in Mandarin no less! It was a glorious morning on Mount Emei and it was a glorious realization that everything was going to be okay and I would not, in fact, die in China—not from getting lost and stranded in monstrously large city, not of a terrible, incurable sickness, and most certainly not because of a broken heart.

Moriah

China had once again pushed me to grow and change, and in the end, I not only survive— I thrived! Learning Chinese has given me the ability to navigate unknown territory (and only get mildly lost, just as I do on a daily basis in my own country).

Learning Chinese opened the door to a billion new friendships. Learning Chinese taught me diligence, perseverance, and discipline. And at the end of the day, if you can commit to studying Chinese and loving China (thorns and all), you can do just about anything.

Maybe it’s best not to compare my relationship with China to an ill-fated love affair, but instead to something more akin to the tiger mom I never knew I wanted. It will watch me fall on my face and make me get back up, and then when I finally figure things out for myself, it will give me a knowing wink, and whisper, “I knew all along you could do it.” And then I can’t help but feel insanely proud for getting through, expressing myself in a new language and culture, and embracing life.

That’s what China does. It teaches you to embrace life—the good, the bad, the ugly. In Chinese there is a Chengyu (traditional saying) that describes the ups and downs of life: 酸甜苦辣, literally meaning sour, sweet, bitter, spicy—all the flavors that make for a magnificent, albeit challenging meal called life.

中国我爱你。 China, I love you.

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