The air in Beijing is the stuff of legend. On the good days, there is usually a bleak, gray haze hanging drearily over buildings and coating trees with a thin layer of dry, waxy dust. On the bad days, you can taste the air. To me, it has a subtle sweetness, which might even be pleasant if it weren’t for the all too-frequent whiff of car exhaust and the feeling, after a few minutes, that your lungs are being turned into a paste.
The physical effects of breathing in this bad air can be very sufficiently counterbalanced with the timely use of a professional grade N-95 mask. They are cheap and easy to find on Amazon or taobao and—in China at least—are just a same-day delivery away from being snug against your face, protecting your sensitive lungs, securing them away from the dreadful Beijing air. How I wish the psychological effects were as easily remedied!
I am not sure that I will ever really get over the psychological effects of living with this Beijing air. It is an outright assault on the senses: I can see it, taste it, smell it and even feel it when it rushes into my lungs. I was prepared for an adventure in China, but I wasn’t prepared for the air. As recently as three weeks ago—after spending more than three months here—I was seriously considering walking away. Walking away from the air. From my job. From China.
I had never felt the kind of self-doubt and loneliness that hit me three weeks ago. My research was not going well, and I hadn’t made many new friends in Beijing. To top it all off, the air had become almost unbearable. So, I did what I normally do in times of crisis—I consulted close friends and family. I Skyped with or emailed mentors I had been close to while at school.
Thankfully, people listened. And I realized that help was just a phone call or click away—as it always had been. Over the course of about a week it became clear to me that my situation at work and in Beijing was hardly ideal and that it could account for a great deal of my unhappiness. But still, there was another problem—it was me. I realized that I had come to Beijing with unrealistic expectations and that I had done very little to meet or adjust them.
It was not just that my situation at work needed to change. I myself also needed to change. And I did. (As much as one can “change” in the span of a month, anyway.) Thankfully, my situation at worked also improved drastically. This was partially due to my own efforts, but a large part is hard to attribute to any one person, event or thing. In the end, things just worked themselves out.
There are clearly a number of lessons to be gleamed from my story. But I don’t want to dwell on those: I think my ink is better spent telling another story. It’s the story of someone who did walk away. I recently met a young man from Japan, Kato Yuki, who was educated at Cambridge, returned to Nagoya to teach and just this past week walked away from it all to start a new journey. I’m very happy to count him as one of my friends.
He is embarking on a one-year adventure inspired by an old Japanese story, called the “Straw Millionaire.” In the story, a hard-working, generally unlucky peasant amasses a fortune through a series of successive trades starting with a single piece of straw. Yuki’s plan is to travel the world to meet and interact with people from different places and cultures. He studied social capital and network theory at Cambridge and believes this will be a meaningful experience that really puts his education into action.
I’m looking forward to the next time that Yuki’s path crosses mine. How many months, years or possibly decades will have passed? How will our very recent decisions, mine to stay and his to walk away, play out? How will they shape and change us? What will be different? What will be the same?
I wanted to relate Yuki’s story, because it is a compelling alternative to my own. I received a lot of helpful advice during my crisis and have decided to stay in China. A month ago, I was dreading the prospect of six more months here, while now I feel that six months may not be enough time to fully enjoy and experience this place. I don’t want to walk away or to imagine a scenario where I am not here. Yuki made the opposite choice but in the same spirit. In both of our cases, we are walking forward with great purpose.
Paul Horak, Trinity ’13, is currently conducting research as a Peking University Young Health Economist Fellow in Beijing, China. This column is the tenth installment in a semester-long series of weekly columns written on the gap year experience, as well as the diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom. Send the columnists a message on Twitter @MindTheGapDuke.