A journey of emotional and cultural immersion
Content Warning: This piece has mentions of suicide and suicidal ideation
(kāfēi guăn, coffee shop)
Paradiso was my favorite place on the sprawling and sometimes unnerving Peking University campus.
To get there, you have to walk up and across a bridge over eight lanes of insane Beijing traffic, flash your ID at the East Gate guards on the edge of campus and dodge bicycles, motor scooters and the flood of other PKU students for about three blocks.
There’s no flow to foot traffic in Beijing. No one worries about keeping to the right side of the street. You just keep your eyes open and try not to get trampled or run over by a distracted guy on a bike.
Once you make it to the right building unscathed, you descend the short staircase, push past the door and through the plastic curtain flaps that aren’t much guard against the smog, and you’re there: in the most bizarre cultural mishmash concentrated into one coffee shop.
Paradiso seems to be trying to mimic a European café. There are a bunch of vaguely French Impressionist prints on the walls along with one inexplicable print of dogs playing poker. The menu features espresso along with Chinese milk tea. But the snacks in the counter are German and Japanese, and the music playing is old-school American country (I heard the Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers rendition of “Islands in the Stream” no fewer than four times there).
Inside, I felt like a bonafide global citizen. Not in the pretentious way that some political science classmates use the word, as a transition into telling you about that time they got trashed in Italy. But in an unironic hippie sense, I could see the best things about different cultures harmonizing in this crazy and wonderful study space.
On this day, I hadn’t come to study. Though I had a batch of 50 new characters to trace and retrace before my next Mandarin exam, I just wanted to read and think for a bit.
I settled onto a couch with a hot milk tea and Jane Austen’s “Persuasion.” That’s where I was when I read it.
“One does not love a place the less for having suffered in it.”
That was how I felt about China.
(dàodá, to reach; to arrive)
I arrived in Beijing shivering and clutching an airplane blanket full of my own vomit. It wasn’t the most auspicious beginning to a semester abroad.
It was Thursday, Sept. 6, 2018 — exactly three weeks after I lost my 18-year-old brother to suicide.
Throughout those weeks I had waffled, trying to decide whether to go through with the trip I had been planning for two years.
Friends, family and strangers all repeated to me that going was “what Declan would have wanted.”
The more I heard it the more frustrated I felt with the idea of trying to predict what Declan would have wanted. My brother was one of my best friends, but I was no longer sure I could say anything definitive about him. He had made a choice so breathtakingly out of character, I no longer felt confident that I had ever really known him.
From what I thought I knew, I figured Declan wouldn’t care much whether I stayed in Kentucky, went back to Ohio or fled to China. The thought of staying home for three and a half months, surrounded by memories of our childhood, was unbearable. The laundry list of logistics to go back to school gave me a splitting headache. That left China.
It all seemed logical when I boarded the plane in Cincinnati. But when the wheels touched down nearly 7,000 miles away, I realized how scared I was, in a country of 1 billion people where no one but me mourned my brother.
What was I thinking? How would I survive this? And did I want to?
I had no answers. And that emptiness in me frightened me even more than this city of 20 million strangers.
(dìdi, little brother)
I love it when people ask me about Declan. He was the funniest person I will ever know. He could twitch an eyebrow at exactly the right moment and I would double-over, laughing until my stomach hurt and my glasses fogged with tears. He was incredibly kind. He loved little kids and ugly dogs. He was obsessed with the periodic table and planned to get a doctorate in chemistry. He liked to make fun of me for picking majors that wouldn’t make any money.
He made noise constantly. He sang to narrate whatever he was doing. He would sing about everything in our fridge in a toneless stupid little song until I laughed and then he would smile, always so pleased to cheer other people up. When he wasn’t narrating, he would whistle. He taught himself to play the guitar. One summer day when I got home from work, I discovered he had moved an entire drum set into our basement.
His taste in music was eclectic and deep. He worshipped Stuart Copeland of The Police, but couldn’t stand Sting.
He wasn’t as troubled by religion as I am. He didn’t let things bother him as much as they bothered me. I’ve heard people describe their loved ones as a rock, but Declan was the opposite for me. A balloon maybe. He lifted my spirits, lifted me up out of myself and helped me realize things aren’t as serious as I make them out to be. He helped me have fun.
(nánguò, to feel sad; to feel unwell; [of life] to be difficult)
On the first morning, I woke up at 5 a.m. Beijing time, 5 p.m. Eastern Standard. The simplest time zone calculation in the world. But that just made the distance seem more momentous. Twelve hours ahead of everyone who knew me. If something happened to me here, would 12 hours pass before anyone found out?
Clarity and logic were beyond me now. My breaths ended in ragged sobs. I could feel my heart and my head pounding. I was disoriented and panicked.
I crossed to the window and realized the sunlight was fighting its way through the smog that sat heavily on the city.
I’d heard about the air pollution in Beijing, of course, but seeing it was different. Below me, red Chinese characters were fixed to the roof of another international student dorm. I didn’t recognize a single character.
It was so stupid to come here. I didn’t know Chinese. I meant to cram the weeks before I left. I had a study schedule mapped out, but that had been scrapped for obvious reasons.
I stared at the building below me. Not the best view. All I could see was an industrial-looking roof with some weird-looking pigeons milling about. God, were the pigeons different here too?
I thought about Declan, alone in Louisville, a new place, different from where we grew up. He’s alone, and he’s scared. He hangs up the phone call with his girlfriend, he sits on that ledge and then … what? He panics? Is the decision to jump made all at once?
Police officers described the security footage to my family the night they gave us the news. They promised no one else would ever see that footage; I never want to. But this feels uncomfortably close.
I study the window latch. Grubby, probably hasn’t been opened in a while. Why would anyone here want to breathe in more poison?
And I’m thinking about it, which I promised everyone I wouldn’t do. What would it feel like to jump? Quick, I hope. That’s what everyone assured me.
“Your brother didn’t suffer,” they said.
I could do it. I wouldn’t have to survive this semester. It would be simple.
I touch the window and then step back, yanking the curtain over it. I throw myself back on the bed, terrified by how badly I want to be dead.
I won’t move for an hour. I’ll stay right here. If I still want to kill myself at 6:00 a.m., I can call somebody. By 6, my mom will be home from work. My best friend, Erica, will be done with her classes. They’ll talk to me, they’ll help me out of this.
In the meantime, I need a distraction. Before the plane boarded, I downloaded “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” from the library to read on my phone.
A week after Declan died, I was sitting on the living room couch, needing something to do other than grieve and reply to condolence messages on social media.
I Googled “what to read while grieving” and the Internet delivered a Buzzfeed list: “The Year of Magical Thinking,” “The Five People You Meet in Heaven,” all books I had heard of and thought about reading someday. Nothing seemed right to me until the Harry Potter series. The author of the list pointed out the books deal with heavy themes and tackle love, loss and morality.
It was perfect. I wanted to reread something comforting and familiar. I wanted to regress into my childhood. And Declan and I had loved Harry Potter; reading the books and watching the movies was something we did together.
I started to read, still sobbing, but didn’t bother cleaning my face. I’d deal with my mind first.
And it worked. I sat up an hour later, and I could be alone with my thoughts again. I gingerly thought about what my family might be doing right now. It felt like prodding a recent wound to see just how badly you’re hurt. It was bearable. I knew I could get up, maybe say hi to my suitemate today, maybe go outside for food.
I couldn’t face the entire semester, not even the entire day. But I would stay alive for one more hour and then one more, until I got back home. I wouldn’t hurt my parents or my sisters again.
If I could minimize their pain, if I could convince everyone that I would be all right here and that we all still had a future worth working towards, all of this would be worth it.
My cohort visited the Lama Temple together.
The temple’s Chinese name, Yōnghé gōng, loosely translates to “harmony palace,” and the grounds look like pictures of China you see on postcards or in a textbook: ancient red buildings with yellow-tiled roofs, stone lions guarding the palace gates and long gold dragons over doorways.
Our teacher told us to light incense, bow and ask for something we wanted. My group joked about what to wish for: a boyfriend, to pass this semester.
I let the group go ahead and waited for my sticks of incense to catch fire.
I didn’t know much about Buddhism, only that it seemed more chill than the Catholicism I was raised with. But the temple felt peaceful. More than that, the halls and statues I wandered through held a sense of authority.
I wondered if I would anger my God. But I couldn’t stop myself from praying here. Surely it would be good for Declan if I covered all the bases, right?
So I walked slowly through the halls, staring up at the giant Buddha statues and pleading silently for them to do what they could to make sure my brother was having a good afterlife.
Once I found the last Buddha, a 60-foot tall statue carved from a single sandalwood tree, I felt peaceful for the first time since Declan’s death. Something about the trip – the prayer, the atmosphere, maybe just realizing I wasn’t here alone – had worked.
I looked around at my cohort and didn’t resent their excitement. I even felt a little myself.
(rìcháng, daily; everyday)
My suitemate Tara was from Chicago, but her parents were Chinese. They had immigrated to the U.S. from the Fujian province and spoke a dialect at home. She could understand spoken Chinese much better than the rest of us, but still struggled with written characters.
Tara introduced me to the rest of the students in our cohort as we explored our new neighborhood.
We were all from American universities, but not all American. Two students, Akiko and Nobuo, were from Japan and studying at Soka, a private university in Southern California that had a sister school in Tokyo. Mark studied at Soka too, but he had spent the first 10 years of his life in Singapore before moving to Seattle and becoming a dual citizen.
Most of the other students came from small colleges on the East Coast. I latched onto Jacob and Alyssa, two students from Wisconsin.
We took an online test that sorted us into classes by language ability. It placed Akiko and I in Class Eight together with three other Americans, four other Japanese students, and one student each from Canada, Germany, England, France, Italy and Thailand.
We took our reading and speaking classes together, chanting our new vocabulary aloud each day. We spoke Mandarin with each other even when the teachers weren’t paying attention, because it was the only language we had in common.
My classes required lots of practice, drilling and rote memorization. Mandarin is supposed to be among the most difficult languages for a native English speaker to learn, which is why I loved it.
I’ve always loved learning new languages. I find vocabulary memorization comforting, and the intricacies of grammar fascinating in terms of what a language’s rules reveal about the people who speak it.
Learning a new language means you have clear-cut accomplishables: I need to know 60 new words by next class, I need to be able to write these new characters in the proper stroke order before the next exam, I need to understand how to talk about time and past-tense for this next composition.
Studying required no deep thought, which was ideal. I studied, I learned and I felt a sense of accomplishment as the semester went on.
Now I could walk into the dumpling place near my dorm and order without stuttering and pointing at the pictures on the menu. Now I could ask my classmates about their majors and their hobbies.
The first weeks passed quickly, and I settled into a routine of language classes, homework and exploring Beijing by night and on the weekends.
I got to know more of the other students as we visited the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven and the 798 contemporary art district.
Living in the city, much like learning Mandarin, gave me straightforward goals and obstacles: Don’t get sick from the air, the food or the water. Don’t say anything about the government online or in person; that would get me detained. Don’t act like a naive foreigner. Watch out for scammers and black taxis.
The semester felt like playing a mentally ill video game. The stakes of my life became much simpler, but much more significant: I needed to survive, preferably with my sanity mostly intact, until Dec. 15, when I would go back home.
Everything I did felt like a life or death situation. Some of them actually were, but most would have felt manageable were I not grieving or dealing with culture shock.
I was grateful for the never-ending intensity of life in Beijing, however. I couldn’t numb myself or dwell too much on what had happened. The video-game logic the city inspired in me had me convinced that if I stopped moving forward, or made too many mistakes, I wouldn’t make it back home.
The adrenaline rush to my daily life was terrifying, but exhilarating. There’s freedom in only worrying about your survival and a kind of healing that I couldn’t have found anywhere else.
Foreigners are noticed in China, especially outside major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. I often heard locals refer to me as waiguoren, foreigner, or bai nu, white girl, as they passed me. People took pictures of me on the subway or in restaurants.
But being a foreigner in China came with a sort of freedom. You know that you’ll always stick out because you can never truly look or behave like a local, so you can let go of self-consciousness. I felt like I had the space and chance to redefine myself, away from anything familiar.
Everything in the country – the food, the fashion, the politics – was so unlike what surrounded my life before and that felt right. Declan wasn’t in the world anymore. Everything should be different.
(chángchéng, the Great Wall)
Jacob, Alyssa, and I piled into a truck with Cybele, a girl who went to school in New York, and bounced part of our way up the mountain.
Our driver was friendly and kept shooting us questions in Mandarin. I let Jacob and Cybele take the lead answering. Their command of Chinese is leagues above mine.
After the bumpy ride, we met the rest of our group at the host family’s house. Besides us, they were also hosting a French couple for the night.
The open-air seating area where we would eat dinner looked out on the mountains and, I guess, the wall, though it was too dark to see. I kept my coat on to eat. It was so cold, I wondered if I’d have to sleep in it.
Once we dropped our stuff on the kang, making sure to turn on the heater so it worked by the time we went to bed, we headed to the outdoor platform that looked out onto the mountains, where our teacher, who we called Jiang Laoshi, had a small fire going and a surprise for us.
I had no idea where she tracked down graham crackers and marshmallows in Beijing, but I was so happy to see familiar food that I could have cried. We immediately started toasting marshmallows and making s’mores.
Even the small daughter of our hosts got into it. I don’t think she had ever tasted a s’more before. Her eyes lit up as she crunched into it, marshmallow and chocolate smearing all over her face.
Jacob, ever-ready with his speaker and a playlist, started blasting ABBA and The 1975. It was surreal to listen to “Dancing Queen” and feel the music drift toward an ancient wonder of the world. Tara, Mark and I linked hands with the hosts’ little daughter and spun in a circle with her to the music. She giggled, and every time one of us would have to stop, protesting we were too dizzy, she insisted we keep dancing and so another student from our group would sub in.
After a while we were all dancing in a circle. The hosts’ daughter would point to one of us at random, and that person would move to the center to show off their best or most ridiculous moves.
The smoke from the fire still rose into the cold night air that numbed my nose and cheeks. It seemed like every song Jacob picked next was a favorite of mine.
I looked out at the circle of these people I had come to know so well in such a short amount of time, and had one of those rare moments when you can come out of yourself and see where a moment will be in the span of your life. A moment when you think, “Man, on my deathbed, I’ll be glad I have this memory.”
Full of love for my friends, for our host family and for China, I felt more than happy. I felt peaceful, content, joyful. I hadn’t felt like this since Declan’s death. I’d assumed it would be years before I felt this way again.
(zàijiàn, goodbye; see you again later)
I went for Indian food with Class Eight for one last outing. We managed to break through the language and cultural barriers a bit to tease and laugh with each other.
When I got back that night, I felt queasy and tired. Hoping to sleep it off, I got right into bed, barely stopping to take my shoes and glasses off.
When I woke up, pain was shooting through my stomach and I felt too dizzy to stand. I was desperately thirsty and annoyed that I didn’t have any water left in my jug. I’d have to boil some and wait for it to cool down.
Hē rè shuĭ (Drink hot water) is the instruction any older Chinese person gives an ailing foreigner.
Like Europeans, Chinese people do not believe in ice in their drinks, and think any beverage cooler than room temperature is a shock to the digestive system. They believe hot water is far better for your health, and can improve any affliction, from a headache to food poisoning.
After setting up the little electric kettle in my room, I messaged my teachers an apology and told them I wouldn’t make it to class.
I tried to stand up to get the water. As soon as I was fully vertical, the room spun. I lost my balance and fell back down onto the bed.
Hours later, the agonizing stomach pain woke me up around 1 a.m. My phone was dead and my charger had broken after getting wet.
I freaked out. When was the last time I talked to my parents? They knew I was sick, but I had last updated them yesterday morning. If they were trying to reach me and I wasn’t answering, they had to be insane with worry.
When I was away for school in Ohio, we went as much as a week without talking. But China was different and Declan’s death had made our communication different too.
I knew not hearing from one of their kids would send them into a tailspin. I couldn’t live with myself if I let them wonder if I was dead any longer.
I sat up slowly and the stomach pain intensified. I moved as slowly as possible, not wanting to blackout again.
The neighborhood had to have at least one 24-hour convenience store. If not, campus certainly did. It would be hard to find without using the map or translating apps on my phone, but not impossible.
I grabbed my room key and shuffled out, pausing to rest in front of the elevators. Already the pain and the vertigo had me worried I wouldn’t make it to the campus gate without fainting.
Mom and Dad need to know you’re alive, I reminded myself. You can do this for them. People are praying for you.
I made it all the way to the alley a block away from the pedestrian bridge I had to cross to reach campus before I had to sit down again. I crouched in the street and heard laughter and voices bouncing off the adjacent walkway.
It occurred to me that I could get jumped on the way to the convenience store, or end up lost and unable to return to the dorm, or get hurt because I was too weak to jump out of the way of a car or motor scooter. That would also not be great for my parents.
I don’t know how long I stayed crouched in that alley, desperate to find some way to reach the people I loved most. Eventually, I realized the situation wasn’t going to get any better the longer I stayed outside, so I dragged myself back into the dorm room.
I stayed in the dorm for another day and a half, alone and deliriously afraid, unable to stand up or let my family know I was alive.
When I next woke up, Tara brought me food and let me borrow her phone charger. I immediately called my mother, who told me she had been a few more hours away from calling Miami and the embassy.
She urged me to go to a hospital. I refused.
I didn’t say it out loud, but I was certain if I went to a hospital now, three days before my departure flight, I wouldn’t be able to go back home. I was so scared I would be quarantined or detained for something else, and the idea of staying any longer than I had promised myself felt like it would be the breaking point. My mind would snap, and I wouldn’t ever make it home in any meaningful way. I’d be too broken.
When I first arrived in China, a part of me wanted to die. Now that it seemed the experience might genuinely kill me, I wanted nothing more than to live.
I stayed in bed for the next couple of days, missing the farewell dinners, final classes and last-minute goodbye trips. On the day before my flight, I got up and tried to pack, stopping frequently to rest. Jacob and Alyssa came to visit and help, promising that they’d see me again at the airport.
We left for the airport, and I said goodbye to Jacob, Alyssa, Cybele and Tara. We all promised to find time for a Midwestern reunion soon.
(huíjiā, to return home)
When I got off the plane, I felt that sense of emptiness again, but it was different from the pit that had settled in me when I arrived in Beijing.
I felt lighter.
Once I was back in my family’s embrace, sobbing together in the middle of the airport, I felt the burden of carrying Declan’s memory lift slightly. I was back where other people remembered and mourned Declan. I was sharing the grief again.
A year later, I’m still trying to make sense of that time and how it’s changed me.
I thought as I left that I would grieve Declan in China, it would be the worst three and a half months of my life, and I would come home and be okay again.
For that time, I could let myself be as broken as I needed to be, far away from anyone who knew me. I wouldn’t have to be strong for anyone else. I could scream and cry alone in my tiny dorm, surrounded by strangers who wouldn’t care.
In that sense, going to China was as freeing as I’d hoped it would be. But you have to come back home. While there was relief in that return, I hadn’t left my grief in Beijing. There was pain that was now a part of me, that would stay within me, bone-deep, no matter where I traveled. As sad as that sounds, I find it comforting. Declan is gone, but I think about him every day. I wouldn’t be able to forget him if I tried.
In one of my first language classes in Beijing, our instructor taught us the word ái (挨), pronounced with a rising tone, like you’re asking a question. She told us it was a verb meaning to suffer, to pull through hard times. I was grateful to add it to my vocabulary, but confused. In Ohio, my professor has taught us ai meant love or affection. I realized later that night I had been thinking of ài (爱) with a falling tone, pronounced short and sharp, a staccato sound.
I was reminded of the contradiction any time somebody called me by my Chinese name (jĭ ài ruì) because it included yet another ai sound. A native Mandarin speaker would always be able to tell the difference, but to me the sounds of my own name, of love, of suffering would forever be indistinguishable.