By Yulia Chan
Beijing is the most beautiful in the fall.
The smog-free days unveil a clear blue sky — a luxury for Chinese people nowadays. With the temperature settling below 30 degrees Celsius (that’s 86 degrees Fahrenheit), you feel the crisp air brush your skin as you ride your bike along the gridded, perfectly perpendicular roads the city was built on.
Beijing in the fall is the sight of harvest coupled with city dwellers going back to their normal routines. Summer holidays for students and the tourist peak season have ended. Whether it’s school or work, the city is rediscovering its inherent rhythm.
Fall in Beijing is the perfect time to remember the city’s strong history; if you ride past the Bell Tower and all the Hutongs (old alleys lined with blocks of walled courtyards that represent the true heartbeat of the city), with many parks the Emperor used to visit alongside, your mind starts to drift and wonder what other imperial beauty this city has to offer.
This is what I was thinking when I posted a photo of the city on Instagram the day I left Beijing, ready to head back to school for my senior year. I woke up at 5 a.m. and biked about 15 kilometers to Jingshan Park to climb to the top of its hill for a magnificent panorama of the capital and to catch a glimpse of the princely roofing of the Forbidden City.
But these were NOT the thoughts I had when I landed in Beijing at the beginning of June, a few months prior, to start my internship at the World Health Organization (WHO).
This was the second time in my six years since leaving Beijing — since my family immigrated to Canada — that I had returned. Landing with plenty of expectations and excitement, the cabin door opened and I stepped off anxious to see the place I had called home for 16 years.
“I forgot how crowded the city was, how fast urbanization took place and about the developments that would inevitably come with it.”
What welcomed me was a heavily polluted Beijing with a metro population of more than 20 million people a sea of automobiles and bikes filling the streets. The cacophony of the honking of cars and ringing of bike bells and engine revving of the increasingly popular mopeds took me awhile to get used to. I forgot how crowded the city was, how fast urbanization took place and about the developments that would inevitably come with it.
I soon met up with a dear friend from junior high I had not seen in six years. He told me that every time he comes back to Beijing from Singapore, where he now lives, to visit friends, he basically has to recalibrate and become “more rude” to fit in and to understand the locals. “Pleases” and “thank yous” are almost entirely omitted in public here, and waiting in line and personal space also seem to be foreign concepts to many.
I too had to recalibrate: It took me about a weekend (which I consider quick compared to some) to get used to prepping for the impending “PM 2.5.” (That’s particulate matter less than 2.5 microns wide, which means these particles seep into your skin. Yes, we are talking about air pollution here ... Scary.)
And readjusting to Beijing didn’t end up being the only challenge of my summer. Work introduced new questions as well.
On June 13, I walked nervously from my house to the WHO Beijing office, where I learned that I would be responsible for researching how China has transitioned from “hygienic cities” (which emphasize only physical cleanliness) to “healthy cities” (which instead emphasize the importance of putting health on the agenda for policy makers, as well as providing a holistic awareness of the social determinants that can contribute to the people’s health) — a noble cause to be sure. And although some might think that my being pre-med and being selected to intern at a UN agency means I have it all figured out, it’s actually quite the opposite.
Between my feelings about Beijing and about this internship (I didn’t love the research), the primary lesson I learned this summer was to be more at peace with my confusions. If you asked me whether I now have my life figured out, the answer would be: Hell no.
“Although some might think that my being pre-med and being selected to intern at a UN agency means I have it all figured out, it’s actually quite the opposite.”
My summer in Beijing exposed me to different people both in and outside of work — people who have had some crazy journeys. From gaining field experience in Somalia with the UN peacekeeping force to mitigating the ill-treatment of women and civilians in conflict zones, working multiple jobs and self-financing life after university to having the courage to take a gap year in the middle of university to learn Chinese in Beijing and reevaluate goals, my new friends certainly weren’t on the straight and narrow. I want to have these adventures too.
I think Beijing has provided me with the opportunity to take a step back and reevaluate my situation — to think outside the box about how I can use my passion for healthcare in different and innovative ways and not let it confine me.
Although I may be more confused than ever and feel like I am being bombarded with the possibilities of so many different routes to take, I do believe in finding the good in everything. Beijing has provided me with the perfect opportunity to re-engage my roots and again analyze my future goals.
It’s confusing and daunting to pick what I want to go into. For some strange reason, society puts this invisible pressure on you to have it all figured out by the end of undergrad, but what does “figured out” even mean? I’m in my last year of my pre-med undergrad degree, and I am probably part of just about 10 percent of my class who are not applying to medical school this year. I have not taken my MCATs and don’t plan on doing it anytime soon.
Do I freak out every time I think about this? Yes. Do I have a mini panic attack when I think about the fact that all of my friends submitted their medical school applications yesterday? Yes. Do I feel like in a way I’m devaluing myself if I don’t apply to medical school? Hell yes. But, for me, there is so much more to the world than “stable” jobs — doctor, lawyer, engineer.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, if I took away anything from this summer, apart from the digital detox (thanks to the Chinese government) and being literally on another continent happily disconnecting from my friends for awhile, it’s that feeling overwhelmed is OK.
I know I’m the type of person who will not be satisfied until I find a job that brings me purpose and is meaningful. And it might take me a long time to figure out what this is.
As I meander my way through my last year of undergrad, hopefully not cracking under the pressure or confusion, please think of me, and I will think of you. I know you fellow “Croppers” are out there fighting these same internal battles. Stay strong.
Yulia Chan is in her senior year of pre-med in Kingston, Ontario. She considers herself a third culture kid and probably makes around 400 decisions about food every day (the average a person makes a day is 200).