University of Wisconsin–Madison

Mapping the Unmapped Map

Thirteen hour flights are inhumane. I cooped myself up in a 50-seat plane from Milwaukee to Toronto, then rode in a huge slingshot across the Arctic Circle to Beijing. You’d think that time and half on a flight with nothing more to do than read, play solitaire, and watch movies would have a lazy person super hyped, but the reality is much more degenerative. Your earbuds start to erode the insides of your ears, your knees begin to fold the wrong way, and you have sudden, inexplicable urges to take your purse strap and strangle the person sitting in front of you because of the onset of your RLS.

But the 13 hours of torture put aside, this shotput ride has seemingly landed me in a diverse, resilient, enigmatic, and yet familiar-feeling country. I spend my time desperately searching for Wi-Fi, feverishly brushing up on my vocabulary, embarrassingly ordering food by pointing at the menu, and tiring of the constant search for dinner. I also, however, laugh at peoples’ fascination with foreigners, enjoy the beautiful skylines of Tianjin, appreciate the shade and breeze on a hot day, and learn from amazing teachers.

It’s a confusing thing to both hate and love something.

But it is also another to devote yourself to loving a place where your loved ones can’t be. I have a picture of my fiancé and a picture of my cat propped up on my nightstand in my hotel room, and I can’t tell if they are helping me cope with their absence or making me resent it. This struggle is intensified by the fact that an internet connection is rare to stumble upon, and so skyping Wayne is both the best and the most anxious part of my day. I feel bad if I can’t call during the right time and stress that I won’t be able to get a connection before he goes to work or goes to bed. But when it works itself out and I can finally hear about his day, it makes the stress worthwhile.

Of course, amidst the joy and anxiety of every day here, I also struggle to come to terms with where I am and who I am here. I am a foreigner and a student, but I am also an adventurer, a fiancée, a young adult, and so much more. Where do those identities fit in?

I have spent my several days here so far trying to form a kind of map in my mind, thinking up a blueprint of what China looks like for me. It is like putting together the first glimpses of China I caught from the plane: agricultural squares and winding rivers, peaking hills of green intersected by swirling roads, patches where cities lay… I couldn’t put together a big picture. When the pilot announced the descent into Beijing, all I could see were disjointed economic areas; there was no cohesive Beijing.

But as I moved through the airport, the countryside, and the city by bus, by airplane, and on foot, I filled in the gaps of my blueprint to help me understand where I was. Of course, it will take all six of my weeks here and more to complete my picture, but I have that goal to push me into Tianjin and beyond. And my map will not only be a physical one, but a mental one and an idealistic one that will augment my language learning and broader education.

I keep that in mind as I adjust to my schedule here. I get up at 7, shower, eat packaged food from the convenience store, go to class at 8:30, go out for lunch at 12, meet my tutor at 2:30, and spend the rest of the day reading, doing homework, grabbing dinner, and exploring. I will have to see how big I can make my map, especially while spending all my time in a clamor of confused stomping about.

A place near downtown Tianjin where you can find all the food, bakery, and sweets your heart desires.
A place near downtown Tianjin where you can find all the food, bakery, and sweets your heart desires.