5 Lessons Beijing Taught Me

I got back from Australia on January 4th refreshed and energised.

My vacation was great, but then again how could it not be? It’s Australia, the land of kangaroos, sunshine, and beaches. I felt a revived sense of confidence in myself.

Before leaving for Australia I was feeling quite down, in many different ways. I felt very meaningless and unimportant. Living in Beijing has given me a real sense of what a small amount of space I occupy on this great, big planet. The sheer size of this city’s population, 21 million, is expected to overtake the entire population of AustraliaMany of my Chinese friends will tell me they are raised to believe that they are not “unique, special, snowflakes.” They are just like the others, and in fact, see that kid over? Well, he is way better at this then you, you should be ashamed of yourself. Work harder! They are constantly compared to others.

Whereas, in Western culture, I don’t believe this happens so often. We may make our own decision to compare, I think it’s natural to do this, but in most cases, our parents and teachers will tell us we are all special in our own unique little ways, that we all have our own strengths and weaknesses. I always believed this, I felt like I was a special snowflake. That was until I came to Beijing and felt as meaningless as an ant. Life in Beijing is so fast-paced. People are always coming and going, and because of this a lot of the time you don’t hold much meaning in someone’s life. Sometimes taking the subway in Beijing becomes a huge existential crisis for me as I follow the enormous crowd scuttling through underground halls and doorways like cattle unaware they are on the way to a slaughterhouse. I get this intense desire to jump up and down or run backwards to prove I am not like the others!!! I am unique and special!!! Then getting on the subway that is so cramped, I have to concentrate really hard on not breathing in the person’s hair in front of me, scanning my eyes across the subway and noticing how each and every passenger is somehow still glued to their phone, watching a TV show. Actually, it’s quite an impressive site to see others manage themselves in such a small space. It genuinely hurt me to experience these kinds of feelings, especially since I began reading a lot of David Foster Wallace at the time and wondered what the point of life was. Luckily after venting to my friends and family, they helped me get back on track. We may be just “another face in the crowd” but we should never minimize the tremendous effect one person can have on others. I am thinking of my sister Elizabeth in particular.
Since I have been back I have learned a few things. If you are bored enough to read further, here they are:

1.Teamwork is an extremely valuable skill – I had never realized how utterly important getting along with others would really be in the “real world.” Growing up, Lizabeth and I would fight over every little thing for years. The channel changer, clothes, front seats, etc. Thankfully we got the point where the front seat was just not worth all the fuss. In high-school “team projects” seemed more like a joke to me, and I wondered what is the point in this? The point is, young idiot Kimberly, no matter where you go in life or what you do, you will always deal with other humans. There will always be annoying people that you cannot for the life of you, get along with. Even if you are living on a farm off the coast of human civilization (why would you want that anyway?) you are still likely to come across someone at some point. Human interaction is important because it’s actually necessary, we are social animals, we need it. So if you can’t play well with others, life is not going to be very easy for you. Realizing this now, if I ever become a mother I will jam this into my children’s brains as they run around ripping each others hair out because they wanted the front seat. But, this is what I say now….

2. “It is so difficult to motivate yourself when you are comfortable” – I was having dinner at a restaurant and talking to this American girl who moved to China to study Chinese. She is now almost fluent, she built a great life for herself here but has reached a point where she thinks she needs to do something to continue growing. I suggested a few things, she agreed, and simply replied with, “well the thing is, it’s really difficult to motivate yourself when you’re comfortable.” She then continued talking but I was so moved by that quote I stopped listening and thought wow! How true is that? When you are outside of your comfort zone, you get so much more done. You grow exponentially more when you have no choice but to work through challenges. Frankly, life is way more fun when you are outside of your comfort zone. The only problem is, it’s not comfortable. *I was half listening to her.

3. Life is impermanent. I was having a bad few days and my Dad simply said to me, “well, life is impermanent.” It made me feel so much better. Because no matter how horrible you feel, unless you are clinically depressed and/or facing a mental disorder, those feelings will inevitably subside. Life goes up and down. When I start to feel horrible, a little voice inside of me says “pull through, it will be over soon.” And when I am in a moment that makes me feel so happy, I feel like I could burst, I simply stay with it and absorb it entirely. I stay present, because I know that too, will be gone.

4. Searching for things in the wrong people. It’s so easy to look for people to save us from the pain, or the loneliness inside of us. We are looking for others to compensate parts of ourselves that will never truly be compensated because ultimately it lies within ourselves to deal with, to love and heal ourselves. Other people can add great things to life, but they can never heal the damage we’ve experienced or pain we are facing. That is up to you, always. The most important relationship you’ll ever have is the one you have with yourself. Your mind can either be a friend or an enemy. You are always with yourself. Make your relationship a good one.

5. Enjoying the positives of Beijing – I was wandering down a hutong early in the morning and watched the scene of a Beijing morning unfold, bells of bikes ringing and whizzing by, doors of shops opening, yawning shop owners, little kids holding their parents hands, birds flying in groups overhead. It was a genuinely beautiful moment and I felt so happy to get to experience life here. The real, everyday stuff in Beijing. In the evening I had beers and burgers with a group of people and met new friends. I realized that one of the best things about Beijing is the fact that almost every foreigner is open to meeting new people. In fact, I’d say most people I meet say their favourite thing is to meet new people. It’s so cool to go to a party, not knowing more than one person, and having everyone there be open to getting to know you. That is such a great feeling. As foreigners, we are all “fish out of water” in Beijing. This isn’t our home, so it forces us to open up. In Canada, people are more closed off and less likely to form new friendships. In some cases, people downright hate meeting new people. But new people offer so much to your life. Your peers, your friends, your social circle influence your life more than you might think.

5 Lessons Beijing Taught Me | Life After Elizabeth

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