Genuine, sobering, down to earth, realistic. I swear we were a Sundance film.
A month ago, the idea of traveling to China didn’t really excite me. I attended an international language university in Beijing. My experience there was memorable, but it could have been better – it was much too hectic for me, trash and cigarette butts littered the campus, and the buildup of MSG foods over my month there did not agree with me. Yet there I was, hopping on a flight to Seoul for a connection to Beijing.
By the first week, I found an entourage of friends that consisted of people from Australia, Boston, Connecticut, Germany, London, Los Angeles, Mexico, Spain, Texas, Thailand, and Hawaii (myself), all of us here just to study Chinese. All of us were either starting or were halfway through college, and at the ages of eighteen through twenty-two, figuring out what we wanted to do with our lives. We were kids roaming Beijing, about to come into our own. We had fun. We drank a lot, went clubbing, went sightseeing at the places you “must” visit, rode the subway to palaces and rivers, made a lot of friends, and occasionally skipped classes.
Throughout the fun we had, we also realized that our time together held meaning, held significance. We learned a lot about each other, and we exposed ourselves to many different backgrounds and cultures. It was refreshing being around new people, with completely different upbringings and experiences, and hearing their stories: speeding on the Autobahn, watching the Australian Open live, or growing up with a British accent – and all of this happened in the middle of another unfamiliar culture in China.
And we all, as a group, immersed ourselves in China, by hiking on the Great Wall, rowing boats in the Summer Palace river, camping in huts with natives in Inner Mongolia, and bartering at the Silk Market. These were great experiences, but – not to sound cliché – the experience became more about us, the people. China, a foreign place to us, became an intersection for all of our cultures, where we all meshed and complemented each other.
One weekend, we all went out to a bar that was hosting a karaoke night. All six of us ended up singing I Want It That Way by the Backstreet Boys. Our harmonies were so great that the owner ended up coming to our table and talking to us later, asking us where we all were from. Of course, we all said different places, and the owner thought it amazing how conjoined and yet so diverse we were. It was truly a fascinating coming together of all our cultures. He ended up giving us some complimentary appetizers and drinks, and our boisterous, infectious energy spread to others.
In our short month, we all grew up significantly. And little Sundance moments, be it celebrating somebody’s birthday, discussing politics, drinking and sharing secrets on a soccer field until sunrise, felt real. We shared local lingo from our respective countries. The Australian would call us “dogs” (bros), the Brit would say that’s “fair” (I agree), and the Hawaiian would say “shoots” (also I agree). Our camaraderie strengthened our entourage. There was no societal or peer pressure among each other, no judgment or negative connotations. No one in China knew us prior, and no one knew who we were back home. I could just be me, and so could everyone else, which is why I think we found the experience so rewarding. China provided a home for our cultures to join, and our feelings toward China could not be more heartfelt.
I think that’s part of what makes Sundance films so great – they’re heartfelt, and they’re relatable to us. They’re about as realistic as movies get, and they’re meaningful. They matter. My time in China – the friendships made, bonds created, and memories shared – felt like a Sundance film to me, but it was real and it mattered. I think we’ll all have memories dedicated to our month in Beijing forever. And when I landed in Hawaii, after being airborne for twelve hours, I knew my personal experience in China was perfect, and it couldn’t have gone any better. True, part of me wishes it lasted longer, but it’s more precious that the time was sacred, and the memories everlasting. It was a humbling and gratifying experience for all of us. It was a beautiful film, a Sundance original.