"So," everyone starts. "Tell me about China."
"Uhh ..." I answer. "Well, I mean ... It's great?"
That's about all I've been able to come up with so far.
It's great. It's challenging. It's been a hell of a year.
But I've yet to come up with a good response to this request. Something worth the request-maker's time, anyway.
Since returning to America two weeks ago, I've been on a multi-state tour of sorts, seeing friends and family as much as I can. And with each reunion comes the same blanket request — a challenge to me to sum up a year's worth of living abroad.
Now don't get me wrong. I adore, in vast and immeasurable amounts, my family and friends, and their interest in my past year. I'm so grateful they want to hear about it, that they patiently listen to all my ramblings and stories and pointless anecdotes.
But I've found I don't have a good answer. No way to explain all the many things I saw or did or learned about China and Asia and myself. Much to my own frustration, I haven't been able to tell anyone about China in any sort of satisfying or encapsulating way.
Sure, I have my classroom anecdotes — the little boy who whipped out his junk in my class or the wise-ass preteens who reason that I better find a boyfriend soon lest I slip into an undateable age (*cough 28 cough*).
There's the dining adventures, wandering through rows of food stalls in city markets looking for anything familiar. Searching Hong Kong City for hours for a dim sum place that's open late. Watching my friend eat a tarantula and shark from the tourist snack street in Wanfujing (no, I did not partake). Arguing with Beijing locals about what constitutes vegetarian cuisine. (Hint: Brains, organ meat and cartilage still count as meat. A concept still too foreign for many to grasp.)
I have plenty of stories from trails around Hong Kong and Beijing, ducking terrifyingly large spiders and slipping through a veritable downpour. The motorcycle ride through northern Vietnam, the solo tour through Seoul's temples, the boat ride through the karsts of Halong Bay — each experience was incredible.
But even these stories don't really share what I want them to.
They don't convey how difficult it is to leave all comfort behind and move to a place that's so utterly foreign. They don't show how much of a struggle even the simplest things are — how you learn to break language barriers with sometimes embarrassing sign language attempts, or how you improvise because you can't figure out where to buy what you need.
They don't show how much you grow when you live abroad, and how much more you love and trust yourself. They fail to explain how different you feel, how strong and patient and ready for a challenge you are.
Even now, I can't find a way to tell any of you about China, though I'll continue to try every other week.
To all those friends and family members still waiting for my response: Thank you for wanting to know. And please, keep asking — I'm bound to have a good answer eventually.