Xi'an Update - March 2015 - TJ Acena

I’m back in Xi’an. I spent two and a half months traveling Asia, so this isn’t so much about Xi’an as about what I thought about Xi’an while I was gone.


I didn’t know how small Xi’an was until I was in Shanghai. Objectively I understood that Shanghai was 24 million people and Xi’an was 9 million people. But until Shanghai I didn’t realize how small eight million people are, Xi’an felt provincial in comparison. I sometimes wondered if I was getting an ‘authentic’ experience of China. But as a friend in the city put it, “Shanghai is China/not China.” The life of a Westerner in Shanghai is easier than in other parts of China. Everywhere I found Western food, quality Western food, which I had missed so much living in Xi’an. I even found passable enchiladas. The Bund is full of neoclassical colonial architecture from the British, the French Concession is full of old villas, the streets lined with trees, and even though I’m not European there is something inherently familiar about those buildings. I even saw more Westerners in five days in Shanghai than I saw in four months in Xi’an. Though many of those foreigners in Shanghai live in a completely different world from me, wearing suits as they hop in and out of private cars that shuttle them from their offices to their luxury high-rise apartments, to the private schools for their children. Back in Xi’an all the paint has peeled off my windowsill, exposing the concrete. There is something fuzzy growing on the concrete.


The other thing about Shanghai is that it feels new, a city operating a decade ahead of Xi’an, and even Portland. The skyline of Pudong, on the West side of the Huangpu River is the modern history of Shanghai’s attempt to be a city of the now, from the retro-futuristic Oriental Pearl TV Tower to new streamlined Shanghai Tower. It’s hard to imagine another place I’ve been where so much of the world’s business is happening. There is still ‘old China’ to be found in the city. Go down a side street and young locals in designer clothes give way to old locals buying vegetables from small markets. Ancient temples and gardens sit down next to enormous shopping malls filled with LCD screens. But the city is changing fast, as it tries to always be part of the now. Twenty years ago Pudong was fields.


After Shanghai I traveled to Taiwan, my friend in Shanghai joked that Taiwan was ‘like China, but without all the bad parts of China.’ It was glib, but I agreed after going. The air was better, the people were more polite, the food didn’t make me sick, and the Internet isn’t blocked. But what I really liked about Taiwan was the art I saw, even in small cities. In Taichung I visited the Fine Art Museum, showing a retrospective of modern art from Taiwanese artists and a collection of photography from the 20th century. I also found a small bookshop that sells zines. All over the country I found local craftsman, cafes with local art, and modern graphic design. It’s strange comparison, but Taiwan has more interesting souvenirs than China. Or at least souvenirs that I find more interesting.


Why didn’t I apply to teach in Taiwan? I thought. A useless question.


After Taiwan I ended up in Hong Kong for a few days. Hong Kong was like Shanghai compressed into a much smaller space and with a lot more foreigners living there. I found it easy to imagine living in Hong Kong, though I imagine it would be like living in New York, scraping by just enough money to afford a small apartment. I didn’t have enough money to stay in Hong Kong for more than a few days so I flew to Vietnam to spend the rest of my holiday somewhere warm and affordable. On my night in Hong Kong I passed an old Chinese woman begging outside of a bar full of Westerners in business suits.


Traveling alone in a country full of backpackers means it’s easy to meet people if you put in minimal effort. Everywhere you go there are other people just like you, outsiders, people more open to letting strangers in. You meet in hostels, on tours, trains, busses, or just in a café. You strike up a conversation and then for the next few hours, or sometimes days, you become connected. Sometimes I became part of a group of strangers connected by proximity, agreeing that we all have to watch out for each other. Sometimes I didn’t know the names of these people I mingled with. Over and over I started the same conversations:


Where are you from?

Where are you heading next?

How long have you been in Vietnam?


You don’t meet a lot of Americans traveling, especially traveling as long as I was. People would always remark on my long holiday and I’d always say it was because I lived in China and was on holiday from my job.

“Do you like living in China?” They always asked.

I’d always say no. Then I would tell them about what I didn’t like about China.


I met an expat in Saigon who told me that about 4-6 months into living in Asia you hate it. And I realized it was true. I was in the thick of hating China. My last week in Xi’an had been bad. I hated the pollution, I hated how the education system worked, I hated the crowds of shoving people in the subways and busses, I hated how dirty my school is, I hated my crumbling apartment, I hated how the food constantly made me sick, I hated how hard it was to learn Mandarin, I hated that the Internet was restricted, I hated being gawked at by people, I hated how there was no insulation anywhere and no heating, I hated how lonely I was.


I realized I had to stop hating China. China is China. It’s exactly what it’s supposed to be. I’m the foreigner, I’m just passing through. Even though I knew I wouldn’t become that expat in China who stayed year after year and kept hating China (I don’t understand those people), I had to stop focusing on all the things I hate. I had to come back to seeing living in China as an opportunity for growing as a person and having new experiences.


I briefly dated a yoga teacher in Portland right before I came here; when I met him he had started a practice of gratitude. He was in a dark place, and so he focused on finding things in his own life to be thankful for. Leaving my house one day he grumbled that he had to walk home in the rain; I leaned out the door and grinned.

“Gratitude,” I told him, and kissed him goodbye.

“Gratitude,” he repeated to himself before turning and walking into the rain.