I’m launching a new series of texts to tell travel stories and anecdotes. So I thought it might be a good opportunity to start with the beginning and tell the story of the first time I went abroad … and almost left as soon as I arrived.
I was 21 years old and I was dreaming of traveling the world. But apart from a few stays in the United States, I had never really traveled outside of Canada yet. After finishing university and getting my first full-time job, I thought it was time to start saving money to make my dream come true – to go abroad for a few months.
I did not choose the easiest destination. I had dreamed of China for years, and I thought that going to study there to learn Chinese could be a plus for my career. I found a school online, bought my plane tickets and waited with great anxiety my visa application to be accepted. Then, one beautiful September morning, I jumped on a plane to Beijing, which would be my home for the next three months.
I had curiously few apprehensions before arriving in China. I had in mind only the adventures I would live there and the new friends I would make in school. The school was taking care of my accommodation and someone would pick me up at the airport. For me, there was nothing easier than this arrival in one of the most populous cities in the world.
Well, that’s what I thought.
I do not know exactly how things started to go wrong for me. After all, my arrival went well. There was actually someone waiting for me at the airport, Pei, who kindly brought me to my new apartment.
But Beijing was not exactly as I expected it. More modern. But also more chaotic, noisier and more polluted. When I got out of the taxi near my apartment, I was a little dazed by the heavy heat, the urban cacophony and the air that smelled like diesel and spices. On the sidewalk, a shoemaker was busy working. Not far away, two men playing a game of mahjong looked up to stare at me. A policeman in the street whistled to try to control the traffic where old motorcycles, bicycles with several passengers and even a wagon pulled by a mule were going by.
After I left my suitcases in my new apartment, Pei offered to show me the nearest grocery store. Which was a good thing because after my 14 hours of flight, I was starving. But at the grocery store, I really understood the extent of how far away from home I was. I did not recognize anything. The brands, the products, the exotic fruits, the fish in the water tanks, the smelly butcher’s shop, the labels all in Chinese … And I had the impression that everyone was starting at me.
I picked a box of cookies at random (Pei later told me they were pumpkin-flavored, much to my disappointment) and I struggled when came the time to give the right amount of yuan to the cashier as I couldn’t understand her.
Feeling a slight panic building in me, I thanked Pei quickly before returning to my apartment and locked myself in my room. I had just landed in a strange city whose language I did not understand and where everything looked completely different from home.
And for the first time of my life, I was completely alone.
I thought a good night’s sleep would improve my condition, but I woke up dizzy and nauseated. I called my parents on Skype to tell them about my arrival, but my cheerful voice sounded forced and I quickly pretended to be too tired so I could end the conversation. Then I curled up in my bed, trying to calm my growing anxiety.
I knew I had to go out of my apartment eventually to at least go buy myself some food. But I did not even dare to leave my room. Through the window I could hear the cries of the street vendors and the engines of the scooters. A reminder that I was thousands of miles from home.
To try to give me a little courage, I unfolded my map of Beijing on my bed. But then I realized with horror that I did not know where I was. I forgot to ask Pei for the address of my new apartment or the name of the nearest metro station. I was in one of the biggest cities in the world, and I could not even tell in which direction the north was. I was completely lost.
I then felt on the verge of an anxiety crisis. My stomach ached, and my head was spinning. This idea of going abroad alone seemed at that moment the most terrible idea I ever had. How could I even think myself capable of such an adventure? I suddenly wanted to go home. Right now.
Some fast food to the rescue
While I was shopping for airline tickets back to Canada, I realized that I still would have to leave my room eventually. I had not eaten anything in almost 24 hours (except a bland pumpkin cookie) and I was starting to feel really dizzy. I decided to put my airline tickets shopping on hold, I took my courage in both hands and I finally went out of my apartment.
Since I had no desire to go back to the grocery store, I suddenly remembered that the day before, Pei had vaguely indicated the direction in which was a McDonald’s nearby. I decided to try my luck in this direction. And after 10 minutes of walking, I found what I was looking for: the familiar yellow arches, indicating the location of the famous American fast food chain.
The McDonald’s curiously had a reassuring effect. The interior looked like McDonald’s in Canada. The menu was quite similar. Even the French fries tasted the same thing.
While I was finally putting some food in my stomach, I unfolded the map of Beijing in front of me again. I had seen a metro station during my walk and, by browsing the map, I was able to locate exactly where I was in Beijing. I finally found my place in the universe and I suddenly felt better.
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets in my new neighborhood. My anxiety subsided, and I started being a bit more curious about this strange place that was now my home. I knew then that I would not buy this ticket back to Canada. That I was going to stay.
And I didn’t regret it.