This summer, Portland has been plagued with smoke from nearby forest fires. As I find myself surrounded by Portlanders worrying about the air quality (valid), I found myself thinking something strange: “This?! This is nothing.” What is a devastatingly smoky day for Portland (it actually “rained” ash at one point), would have been considered a normal-to-mild day for me in China. Of course it never rained ash on me there, but I’d opt for a little ash over the other pollutants I’ve ended up exposed to. Something else odd happened to me during our stretch of smoke-filled days: The poor air quality stirred up a whole wave of nostalgia in me. I missed being in China and was…well, weirdly excited to have a reason to use my pollution masks again.
Do I miss living in a city where clear, unpolluted skies are few and far between? Not particularly. I’m happy to not be living somewhere where the day-to-day pollution level is still high enough to be damaging, even on a good day (a day you can walk around mask free). Among my souvenirs from China are many memories of the hospitals and the after effects of a major lung infection. Pollution is the reason I moved back stateside. I do miss a lot of other aspects about living there, though. I liked my job and my friends and being able to easily travel around Asia. But atlas, there are no more weekend trips to Hong Kong for me, at least for now.
Some of my friends have been saying for a couple years now that I should write about my experience and I even started a short-lived travel blog for bit. To be honest, I killed the idea when life in China started to get tough. For a long time, I didn’t feel like talking too openly about my experience. I needed a significant period of time after coming back to readjust and sort through my feelings about it (apparently, I needed about a year). Living in China was full of many ups and many downs. Further more, my departure from China ended up feeling even more tumultuous than the life I was leaving behind, which made me even more hesitant to talk freely about the whole thing. (But more on that later.)
First off, I never planned on moving to China. Before China had ever entered the picture for me, I had been planning on moving to Europe—Europe has always been the plan. It’s vaguely been my plan since I was kid. I used to fantasy about it (still do actually)—and I’d been networking for a job in Sweden for months. Then, out of seemingly nowhere, a job opportunity popped up with the Walt Disney Company! (I love Disney.) Within a week of hearing about the opportunity, I’d applied, completed two interviews with the company, was offered a job, accepted a position in the city of Chengdu, and started paperwork to become a resident of the People’s Republic of China. (It’s where the panda bears live!) Life for me changed in a direction I’d never predicted very, very fast.
Living in China was tough for the first oh, few months? Half a year? Nine months? I really didn’t hit my stride ’till closer to the end (outside of my career, which I rocked from the get go). My social life was a rollercoaster (the Westerner scene in Chengdu is cliquey and made me feel like a teenager trapped in a horrible high school movie), my language skills were shaky, and the pollution was oppressive. Living with constantly polluted air is a difficult feeling to describe accurately and deserves a post all on its own. So all I’m going to say about it is this: I’m a person who needs a lot of physical activity to stay healthy mentally. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a dedicated runner. When I’m unable to run consistently, life becomes more difficult. I can’t handle chronic stress or stressful situations as well. And it can trigger serious depression, among other things. The pollution in Chengdu not only caused me to get sick, multiple times, it also prevented me from running.
I stopped feeling like a fully functioning human.
Again, I did hit my stride towards the end. I’d developed a few solid friendships. I had a boyfriend, who I ended up living with (a Canadian guy who also worked for Disney, I’ll call him Canada). I felt good in my career. I’d explored so many amazing places and had my spots that I loved to hangout in the city. I miss all those things. Somedays I miss it a lot. But despite all that, when I was alone, I’d turn on old episodes of How I Met Your Mother, hug a pillow, and cry. I’d jump from mild depression (signs of this state include such things as playing Death Cab For Cutie and Bon Ivor covers on the ukulele) to full-on catatonic. All my energy went into work and maintaining a “happy” persona in public that the minute I would get home, I’d feels so scraped out and drained that laying on the couch (or on the floor in the corner of the bedroom) was all I was capable of doing with my downtime. I knew that running consistently again would “fix” me, like it has before. I knew it was important for my emotional well being and that I couldn’t give myself what I needed in life while living where I was. (Canada was actually pretty great about the whole depression thing. He is still living in China and we’re still friends, but I always felt like he never got to see the real me. The fully functioning, not depressed version of myself who I’m much more proud of.)
Moving back to Portland and resuming my running wasn’t exactly a quick fix either. I still spent most of my downtime for the first few months lying motionless on my bed, gazing out my window, and quietly crying. I questioned if coming back to America had been the best decision or if I should have stayed in China. Coupling reverse culture shock with depression makes for a difficult transition. Running itself was difficult because I’d lost much of my endurance while abroad and my lung capacity was decreased (I also came home with lung damage from a lung infection that hospitalized me in China). It took a long time to build my running skills back up. It took even longer to feel fully human again.
I don’t regret moving to China. I value the experiences I had immensely. All of it. The good and the bad. I always knew that running was a large part of maintaining my mental health, but I never tested just how important that physical activity was until living in Chengdu. That’s a lesson I’ll have to take with me wherever I go.
This blog is the first in a new series I’m doing about traveling and living abroad.
GRETCHEN IS A WRITER-BASED IN PORTLAND, ORE. SHE GOT HER START AS A JOURNALIST WORKING ON THE SUSTAINABLE FASHION AND RESTAURANT BEAT BEFORE MOVING INTO COPYWRITING AND ADVERTISING WORK. SHE CURRENTLY BLOGS AND WORKS AS A FREELANCE WRITER.