Everyone slowly stopped eating. Forks ladled with eggs Benedict hovered as I spoke.
"When you're doing the communal hot pot, anything goes, even things like brain meat." Noticeable discomfort suffused the room. "So I usually stick to the individual pots. Nothing like pulling out cartilage instead of tofu."
And so the forks hit the plates for good.
This trip, like last year, I'd been answering a lot of questions about life abroad.
How do you save your money? Do you have a bank account there? What about the subways, what are they like? Wait, what do you mean public toilets are all squatters?! What about the houses, do they have real toilets?
By the end, the discussion having turned to the struggles of living in a country like China, it's always the same: Why do you stay there? And why are you going back?
I have to admit, sometimes it seems like a real head-scratcher. They don't make it easy, with various restrictions on free speech and internet usage, with the pollution and overpopulation and varying degrees of hygienic standards. I didn't fault my friends for asking. It's been two years in Beijing, one year longer than anyone thought I'd stay. So what gives?
I used to bristle at this sort of question. That's kind of personal, you know. Why should I have to justify my life choices to you? Now I smile and respond with gusto.
I have a lot of reasons to stay.
In two years, I've learned a lot. You don't realize how utterly different another person's life can be until you're there next to them, living each day with the same struggles and successes. Sure, I'd read statistics about China's population, but I never could have fathomed the overwhelming chaos that comes with living in a city of over 20 million people. While my experience as a foreigner is vastly different than someone born there, I still stand in the same shops and ride the same crowded trains to get to work.
Living in a hub of cheaper travel options is a dream. I love that I now have a smattering of languages in my repertoire. I can start a story with, "Actually, I was talking to a guy in Yogyakarta about that" or "Oh, that reminds me of this time in Malaysia," and my photo albums are classified by country instead of event.
I've learned more Mandarin than I ever thought I would. My newfound language confidence has made life in China more exciting than ever. I'm elated after a successful chat with a shopkeeper. I feel like Wonder Woman returning from running errands.
Admittedly, there's also the matter of a certain Manfriend, also an eager expat, who has made this beautiful world all that more colorful. The possibilities seem even more infinite now — the dreams bigger and more attainable than ever.
Yes, China is difficult. It's frustrating and challenging (and occasionally gross as hell). But it's home, it's exciting, and it's where I'm becoming an even stronger me.