In reading some fresh accounts of China, I’ve been reflecting on how I seem to have lost my “China touch.” In short, I find that my ability to evaluate and describe China in a clear and poignant way, as I did when I first spent four months in China in 2005, has somehow vanished. And this isn’t like losing your mojo (whatever that actually is). I can live on in perfect happiness without ever writing about China, Chinese, or Chinese people ever again. But I feel as if something is different after spending upwards of five months in China this go-around.
I landed in Beijing on December 28th, 2007, and I didn’t go into culture shock. In fact, I have accepted or, as the Chinese say, “become accustomed to” China in ways I don’t even realize. I don’t think twice about crossing the street, buying things, getting on buses, hanging my underwear outside, etc. Something extraordinarily out of place has to happen for me to take notice: an earthquake in Sichuan revealing how the average Chinese isn’t particularly well educated in disaster preparedness, or violence in Tibet revealing nationalism sewn into the fabric of the nation’s youth. I miss the small things that reveal China at its core: conversations, people, customs, traditions, etc.
The question is how did I manage to get to the point where I can ignore so much of China. Why are my cultural receptors off or just numb? I tend to view this issue through the language lens. Day-to-day interactions in Chinese are almost effortless. I don’t need to fight to be understood and that is a good thing, but the result is not necessarily an increased understanding of Chinese culture. I can compare the nuances of the languages (and take great pleasure in doing so), but knowing the language removes me from the outsider position. I no longer am the person looking in, observing and evaluating. Instead, I find I place the expectation on myself that since I am already “on the inside,” I already am supposed to know everything. And that simply isn’t the case.
But I also sometimes worry that I’m just tired of China. It’s not as new and exciting as it was the first time I lived here. Every pundit from those who’ve never stepped foot in the country, to democratic candidates Clinton and Obama, to those who’ve lived here extensively, all have something to say about China. It is the new popular kid in class, and sometimes I feel popular is boring. Been there. Done that. Maybe it’s partly my increasingly bland studies, but I miss that passion and excitement. I have to rekindle the flame (and no, it’s no Olympic flame) this summer.