The Lost History of a Forgotten Time: My Year in China

I spent the weekend reconnecting with my friend Lucy, who was my roommate and teaching partner during 2004-2005, the year that I lived in China. The conjunction with Chinese New Year was purely coincidental on our part.
When I first came back to the States, my experiences in China dominated my thinking. That year colored my interpretation of everything. Like most experiences, however, the memories faded. Honestly, as important as that year was to me, sometimes I forget that it actually happened. Based on some conversations that I had with Lucy over the weekend, I really have begun to forget that it happened. At least, I've started to forget exactly what happened.
Through the course of this past weekend, Lucy and I were both astounded at the sorts of things we'd forgotten. And I don't just mean "forgotten" in that we didn't remember certain events until we read about them in our respective travel journals. I mean "forgotten" in that even after reading the journal entries, neither of us have any memory at all of the events described.

These aren't little things, either. These are the stories you bring home to tell. These are stories of helping to catch rats in convenience stores and attempting to leverage our rat-catching skills into a discount on our purchases. Stories of witnessing Chinese people picking pockets with pairs of kitchen tongs. Stories of almost-relationships and confessed feelings. Stories of being tasked with picking people up from the airport without knowing when they would arrive and still somehow showing up within ten minutes of their flights landing. Stories of illness, injury, and experiments with Eastern Medicine. Stories in which we've not only forgotten the events, but all of the people described in the journal entries.
We've forgotten much more than we've remembered. Why?

Certainly, this has something to do with the passage of time, but I don't think that's the entire story. I think a decade is too short to forget catching a rat in a convenience store and then using the act as leverage in bartering. I think the forgetting has much more to do with the fact that we experienced so much in 2004-2005 that China actually broke our brains a little bit.
Living as a foreigner in China is intense. Since the language is tonal, it's extra hard for non-natives to learn; and since it's written in characters rather than with an alphabet, it's taxing to memorize. Many cities and regions in China speak their own dialects rather than the standard Mandarin, making in-country travel challenging even for visitors who learn some Mandarin. Eastern and Western cultures are pretty much polar opposites in every way, making social situations complicated to navigate--especially at first. Since more than 90% of all people living in China are Han Chinese, anyone who's not Han is subject to much scrutiny.
Once in China, Lucy and I grappled with learning the language; adjusting to life in a city of 18 million people; navigating the transportation system of Shanghai (much of which was labeled with Mandarin characters rather than numbers); exploring entirely new grocery-shopping, cooking, and dining experiences; adjusting to our team dynamic; finding our place among the the faculty of a large Chinese university; working to understand discipline and student-teacher relationships in an Asian classroom; planning trips across Asia without the benefit of most travel sites that are popular today; and living without our relational and spiritual support systems. We had no social media, no Skype, no translation apps, and no way to contact people when we found ourselves lost and far from campus. Winging it became our baseline.
It was a wild, beautiful, and terrible year. Bursts of excitement were followed by long stretches of tedium. We were confused and discouraged much of the time.
The tasks of daily life worked our brains so hard that they occasionally just short-circuited entirely. In the middle of October, I suddenly forgot every number and password I had ever known: my phone number, my e-mail password, my bank card pin number--all of it. It's as if the section of my brain that stored such information had suddenly gone dark. My e-mail password was a simple enough fix, but when I went down to my Chinese bank and worked through a translator to explain my pin number problem, the bank employee kept insisting that I give my old pin number in order to change it to a new one. The fact that I couldn't remember my old number didn't seem to phase her. 

"See--that's why I'm here," I'd say through the translator, "because I forgot my pin number and need to change it so that I can start paying for things like food and bus fares again." 

And she would say, "I understand. Just tell me your former password and we will change it." We probably repeated this conversational circuit ten times. She seemed a little surprised when I eventually just started laugh-crying and slapping at my own face repeatedly; but after all, I was a foreigner. Foreigners will do anything.
The face-slapping must have worked eventually, because the bank changed my pin number. At least, I'm assuming that's what happened. I have clear memories of not starving to death during the second half of the year, so the situation must have resolved itself somehow. I just can't remember how.

That's the thing. There was just so much to remember.

When nearly every day brings something "unforgettable," the brain quickly becomes overloaded, keeping some memories and jettisoning others--sometimes indiscriminate of vital information like passwords and pin numbers. 

If I have one regret, it's that I didn't journal more during my year in China: that I didn't write down everything. 

That I hadn't assumed I'd remember the unforgettable.


  1. China is overwhelming! I kept a journal while I was there too and took probably a thousand photos. I think sometimes these major out of the ordinary experiences have to be compartmentalized for us to get "back to normal". However, I will never forget the rats of China and how gleeful they seemed to scare the foreigners!

  2. At least you didn't forget each other- the best parts of the year!


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