Living in Shenyang has been one of the most influential times in my adult life. It was there that I learned to love being alone. It was there that I walked along the river every night listening to Nick Drake on my headphones noticing the college couples cuddling on the cold benches, hiding away from their conservative culture and stealing some kisses. It was there that I first felt true homesickness. It was there that I learned to live with constant stares as I ate and walked and read and did anything, really. It was there that I first made love to someone who wasn’t American. It was there that a 30 year old diplomat from Ghana invited me to sit on his floor and eat garri while we chatted about international affairs. It was there that I learned I could be smart, and it was there that I learned that if I wanted to do or be something, then I should do or be it.
It’s not a special city by any international standards. It was cold, and dirty – eight years ago it was ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world. I hear that this past November it broke the record for the most smog. Historically, it’s a very important city as it was taken over by the Manchurians in the 1600s and was the original capital of the Qing dynasty (Manchurians are an ethnic minority group in China who, despite their small numbers, moved in from the northwest and took over all of China establishing the last dynasty, the Qing dynasty. Today in China they have a population of about 10 million.) When I left, I swore to myself that I would never go back to that city, but Shenyang never left my mind. I know now that it was the experiences I had there that shaped most of my twenties. I still dream about it at least once a month – usually it’s me trying to get into the dorm rooms, walking along a long deserted corridor, in the back of my mind knowing that I only have a few minutes before I have to get back home. Other times I’m on a street trying to find a bar I used to go to, some old Chinese friends invited me out but I can’t find them anywhere. And every time I wake up I feel like it’s an impossible journey to get back there. China is on the other side of the world, and the person I was before Shenyang is gone.
On the train ride there I understand that it’s just a city, Shenyang Normal University is just a school, and the dark lonely memories I have from there are just reflections of personal growth. But eight years is a long time.
My first two months there I hated it, Ren and I would sit in our room late at night talking about how much we missed home and how we were fools to leave behind everyone we loved. And then it got easier. And then it became amazing. And then I didn’t want to come home.
How did I end up there originally? I was undeclared my sophmore year of college and was starting to get depressed. My friend’s all got good grades, and I didn’t. I was self conscious about how poorly I did in class and was afraid people would think I was dumb, so I decided that if I could speak Chinese, people would just assume I was smart and not give it a second thought. Maybe it would even make girls like me. And it really worked, well, except for getting girls. In Bloomsburg there isn’t anything to do but drink and go to the gym, especially because I never studied (which explains how I weighed 215lbs and drank 12 beers a night), and then one day in Chinese class my professor mentioned that Bloomsburg had developed a relationship with a university in China and they wanted to send students over. There was never a moment of hesitation in my mind, I was going, and that’s that. What an adventure it would be! You can refer to my second blog post so see exactly what kind of adventure my first 24 hours would be.
It’s a funny feeling, going back now after all these years with everything in between.