“Aberystwyth – A nostalgic yearning which is in itself more pleasant than the thing being yearned for”
– Douglas Adams, The Meaning of Liff
It is now a year and a half since I came home from my year-long trip to China and, to be honest, I don’t know exactly how I feel about it all. As a very nostalgic person, I’m the first to whip on the rose-tinted glasses when looking back at past experiences – much to my boyfriend’s dismay. So, although I know in my logical mind that China was one of the most challenging, difficult and emotional times of my life, my heart is screaming that it was wonderful, life-changing and exciting. But which do I believe? Well, I suppose, as always in life, the truth lies somewhere in the grey spaces between both poles.
Isn’t it funny how even the worst travel stories quickly become amusing tales to tell at parties? And how once you have told the story once or twice, you quickly become fond of the time you narrowly escaped the jaws of peril? Possibly my worst experience in China was when I left my bank card in an ATM in Xi’an before unknowingly getting on an overnight train to Shanghai. Stranded in Shanghai with no money and no way of getting back to Chengdu to speak to my bank (the branch in Shanghai inexplicably could offer no help), I had to borrow money from my long-suffering Mum to fly to Chengdu and back. This left me with 8 hours to close the bank account and withdraw all my savings in cash before my next scheduled train from Shanghai to Beijing. Let’s just say tensions ran high. However, looking back on that, it feels like a triumph of perseverance over misfortune. And although it cost £300 for the return flights, I got to see Chengdu a final time, took a nap in my favourite coffee shop and still managed to get onto my train to Beijing clutching £4,000 in cash.
Despite the bad times in China (there were many), I can’t help but think of the friendships I made. Of the times when none of us knew what we were doing, but somehow muddled through it all together. When we all got through the chaos of living in a different country, surrounded by confusing culture and crazy bureaucracy with a sense of humor and a lot of alcohol. We made questionable decisions frequently, but somehow all got out alive with a long-lasting bond of camaraderie.
And then there was the travelling that living in Asia allowed me to do; I travelled to some of the world’s biggest megacities, saw the Great Wall, and trekked along the frosty Himalayan plateau bordering Tibet. I clung to the side of a sheer cliff edge, peering over a lush green bamboo forest. I got to spend three sun-drenched and lazy weeks in Thailand waiting for my visa to be renewed. I saw and did so many amazing things while living in China, that the difficulties seem to pale in insignificance in retrospect.
Even when I think about the time I sat down and cried because I simply couldn’t get home for the fifteenth time as no taxi would stop for me, there was no public transport anywhere to be found and the whole situation seemed utterly hopeless, it doesn’t fill me with dread as it once did. Instead, I tell everyone that it’s what developed my problem-solving skills – sometimes, life in China felt like one long exercise in thinking outside of the box.
However if I’m completely honest with myself I do know that if I went back to China to re-live that experience again, the pollution, the constant illness, the culture-clash and my lack of Mandarin would slowly wear me down to an emotionally unstable mess again. The memories of bad times would suddenly spring to life in full colour, instead of the rose-tinted versions I now treasure. Add to that the fact that most of my friends have now moved away from China, and I know Chengdu wouldn’t be the same place that I left. Having spent a year back in London, I would never have the same experience again in China. In the same way that we all can only go forwards and never backwards, my time in China will never be re-lived. If I were to try it would only be a watered-down, hollow reconstruction of what I remember.
Therefore I will live and be content with my “Aberystwyth”, because after all – it’s a rather lovely feeling to have.