In September of 2011, I set foot in China for the first time. It was terrifying. I had grown up in Vermont and attended college just 45 minutes from home. I had never spent more than a couple of days in a major city before.
Then I landed in Hangzhou, a “small” city of about eight million. My study abroad university, Zhejiang University of Technology (ZUT), was located far away from the landscaped, gentrified lakefront areas most tourists associate with Hangzhou. Instead I found myself surrounded on all sides by narrow alleys, massive highways, and run-down shops full of locals speaking incomprehensible dialects.
By the end of the semester, of course, my nerves had calmed down. My language skills had improved, I had made local friends, and I had even forced myself to explore parts of the city by myself. But when I think back to my semester at ZUT, I still feel like I never truly mastered the city of Hangzhou. I never really knew my way around, I never quite understood the bus system, and I never felt truly comfortable walking around by myself.
Last month, I returned to Hangzhou for a reunion event at ZUT. It was my first time back in Hangzhou since I finished my program in 2011. Since then, I have graduated from college and lived in China for almost two years, navigating new cities, exploring rural areas, and traveling solo all around the country (and around other countries as well).
I hoped that when I returned to Hangzhou, I would feel distinctly older and wiser, like when you visit your old elementary school and realize how small everything looks.
I was surprised, however, to find Hangzhou almost exactly the way I’d left it. Sure, there’s a new metro system now and most of the construction around ZUT has finished. And yes, I felt immeasurably calmer and more confident this time around, knowing that my Chinese skills would be sufficient to get me out of almost any situation—lost luggage? Missed train? Police searches? Been there done that.
But while my old stress had vanished without a trace, some part of my brain retreated back to 2011 as I spent the day wandering around the city before the reunion dinner that evening.
I arrived in the train station, which was just as dark, drab, and crowded with migrant beggars as I remembered it. Although my anxiety had evaporated this time, I remembered exactly what it felt like back in 2011 to find myself alone in that crowded train station, heads everywhere whipping around to take in my foreignness, unsure of where to go next or how to get there.
As I made my way towards the ZUT campus in the afternoon, I remembered just how far away it took me from the city center. In 2015 I was able to take the metro, but back when I was studying abroad, I had to rely on the confusing public bus system. It took over 30 minutes to get to West Lake by bus, so I only ever went there on weekends.
When I arrived at the ZUT campus, it was unchanged. I recognized the road that led to my gym, and I passed the little music store where I took extracurricular flute lessons. I found myself automatically tracing my old routes from the dorm to the dining hall, the dining hall to the school store, and the school store to the back gate. I remembered the feeling of disorientation I used to get from trying to navigate the dense and confusing campus. Back then, just being on campus made me lose my sense of direction almost instantly. Now, I remembered my old routes as if I had never left, but I also did not trust myself to stray from those habit-formed paths without getting lost.
The highlight of my trip back to Hangzhou last month was reuniting with my old Chinese roommate, Nancy. Back when I was studying abroad, Nancy acted as a buffer shielding me from the outside world, translating the chaotic chatter into slower, simpler language that I could understand. She helped me buy my cell phone, set up my meal plan, and obtain daily necessities.
Today, of course, I would be able to accomplish these tasks on my own. But meeting her nearly four years later, I still felt impressed by Nancy’s poise and maturity. She had gotten married since I last saw her, and she and her husband have stable and lucrative careers. They own two cars and recently purchased a house. I smiled to myself when she told me this, thinking, here I am, working as a volunteer in the middle of nowhere, with no income, and no plans to settle down. But we chatted and lounged on the grass like old friends, and the more we talked, the more confident I felt that while my current path might be convoluted, it’s the right path for me. I love traveling, I am in no hurry to get married, and I would be happy if I never have to buy a car.
As we strolled around West Lake sipping coffee, I marveled at how relaxed I felt. Back in 2011, I might have felt worried about becoming separated from Nancy and getting lost, anxious about all the people looking at me, and exhausted from spending a whole afternoon speaking Chinese. This time around, none of those things mattered. They simply weren’t important enough to worry about.
While I have certainly matured since 2011, I believe that Hangzhou was an objectively difficult city in which to spend my semester abroad. It was confusing to navigate, chaotic with construction and traffic, and our campus was located far away from the beauty and amenities most people associate with one of China’s top tourist destinations.
Nevertheless, I am so glad I chose to spend my semester abroad at ZUT. The China I came to love during those four months was a real slice of urban China, and it gave me the confidence I needed to survive and thrive in China ever since.