A Canadian in Beijing: Reverse Culture Shock

(This will be my last blog for this travel series. See the end of this blog for where to read my blogs in the future.)

I have been back in Canada for just a few days and the music touring has launched in full force. Only two full days at home after three months away is not enough to recover and balance the reverse culture shock – a legitimate phenomenon that I can personally attest to – and even though I am ultimately responsible for deciding my fate, I’m currently shaking my head at my scheduling insanity.

I’m writing this from the Vancouver International airport where I am waiting for our transfer flight to Castlegar, BC where we will be performing at a Peace & Justice Festival called “On Our Way Home Reunion.” We will only be there for less than twelve hours, however, because we are expected in Illinois the next day at the National Women’s Music Festival and no connecting flights would get us there in time. That means that we have to drive all night back to Vancouver (about six hours directly following our performance) in order catch a morning flight to Chicago. This flight will then transfer to Bloomington, IN where we will arrive tomorrow at approximately three p.m. central time to be picked up and driven to Normal, IL. We perform tomorrow night and then drive back to Toronto on Sunday (about 11 hours) and then back to my home in the country on Monday (5 hours).

I am the one who approves or declines performance offers. The main problem is that I do this at least six months in advance of the actual travel time and I often imagine myself capable of anything when it’s so far away! So, here I am wondering what poison I was smoking when I decided that this was a good idea.

I am already exhausted from the twelve-hour, China-Canada jet lag not to mention the emotional adjustment to leaving Beijing and returning to my life here in Canada. Top that off with an early morning of five a.m. to catch my first flight out of Toronto and I’m wondering how we will ever make it back to Vancouver tonight without copious amounts of caffeine and some serious injections of good humour?

And people ask us how we stay healthy on the road…

My answer is usually “by staying home.”

On the flight over here from Ontario, I opened the in-flight magazine and flipped directly to a picture of the entrance to the Forbidden City and Chairman Mao’s face (top image). My heart nearly stopped when it fell open to that picture. That image feels so far away and here it was, staring at me from the pages of a magazine, smooth under my fingertips.

Just outside the bathrooms in this spacious waiting area in the Vancouver Domestic Airport (I actually miss the squatters!) are the computers that list the flights. I was walking briskly towards relief and then almost tripped over the friction that suddenly gripped my sneakers to the carpet and stopped me dead in my tracks. It was as though my feet read the screen before I did.

Beijing flight. 12:30pm. Air Canada #29.

My stomach, already heavy from the food I’m not used to – french fries and salad and a veggie burger that had too much relish and mustard on it were all squishing in my now non-western stomach – felt like it was going to lose my whole lunch. I’ve been feeling that way for the past two days, actually. I was convinced that it was the kind of wheat that I’ve been eating and I vowed to avoid wheat today. My burger was without the bun, but the nausea persists. And then, just the sight of the word “Beijing” and I felt sure I was going to wretch.

On the plane, I could hear a couple a few rows up speaking Mandarin and I was craving that perfect moment to interrupt, to pass them by and say something – anything – to have just to have another conversation in this beautiful language. I have felt like part of my ears have been plugged since I arrived home because all I can hear is English and French. Where’s the song of Mandarin? Where’s that language that has become like a friend, like music lilting through my head, like the perfect companion for my brain as it’s constantly challenging me, pushing me, waking me up and forcing me to think. There’s something so dull about English and French. Hearing just these languages (and mostly English) just awakes more of the despair at being separated from Mandarin.

For instance, as I was speaking French with my friend from Quebec two nights ago, I felt more and more sad. The words in Mandarin kept coming to me first and I had to translate them into the French words. It just feels like Mandarin is trying to come out and I was keeping it locked up inside, against its will but for its own good, of course.

Because no one understands here.

What a stupid thing to think while sitting in Vancouver, BC! Of all the cities to write that sentence in, this is not one of them. There is a huge Chinese population here…

Only, they’re not sitting across from me in this little café, or sitting beside me on the plane, or standing behind the counters at the cafes waiting for my order. At least, not on this particular path that I’m on towards Castlegar in the interior of this province (here’s a picture of the tiny plane we took to get there) and the festivals that will fill my weekend with music and other challenges.

I’m clearly flipping between stability and complete meltdown here. Half of my sentences are crying out and the other half are quietly comforting. The overall truth is somewhere in the middle. On the outside, I’m going to be fine. Maybe a little tired, but fine. On the inside, I’m going to be sad. Maybe a little happy too, but sad.

There is such loss and such gain. I have returned to my amazing life: my loved ones, my home, my music, the stage, my band… and I have lost my beloved China (until I return) and Mandarin (until I build more contacts here to keep it alive in my mouth until I return to China) and, last but not least, contact with the loved ones that I had to leave there.

To all of my friends in China: I miss you already. Save me a su baozi for my return.

And to my stomach: get it together. You’re home and you’d better start digesting this food! Head down, and forge ahead.

Keep it down.

And to my overall self: reverse the reverse culture shock. There is no choice in the matter. Eventually, you must arrive home.

Wo lai le 我来了。I have arrived.

It’s okay.


This blog will soon be located in its chronological order at a new location on Gadling entitled “On The Road.

I will continue to blog for Gadling about my North American travel adventures (and beyond), so keep checking the www.gadling.com site and just clicking on my name for new blogs. If there’s a new series, I’ll let you know via my own site‘s main news page, which is also the front page.

Thanks so much for reading this blog and for being so encouraging… and for reminding me that people far away cared enough to check in. I loved writing it and I’m thrilled that I’ll continue to blog for Gadling as I coast from coast to coast in between longterm adventures like this one in China. And, besides, I’ll be back in China before too long.

Of this, I am sure.