The sky wept a light drizzle as I exited the subway station in Guangzhou, a feeling of being completely and utterly lost washing over me as I started looking for the address to the hotel where my grandparents were staying. Unlike the places I’d visited before, China was and is special. It doesn’t really have an apparent address system in place. This might have excited me on previous trips, as I’ve always felt a sense of excitement when I land in a new city — a curiosity for all the endless possibilities and discoveries that await me. But I knew that this trip would be different. In its place, I felt a sense of uneasiness — a tension fueled by not knowing if I was congruent with what lay ahead. This trip was much more personal than others. I was born in Queens, New York and, despite my appearance, I didn’t know what it meant to be Chinese.

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I think we live in a rather precarious period in time, a statement often repeated by nearly everyone who existed post-Industrialization. But I want to talk about my own precarious period in time, hopefully one that is additive to the overall ’tis-a-precarious-time narrative. I live in a period in which I can look and blend into a culture the way a drop of water disappears in an ocean, yet I am still isolated from it.

“To be lost in the physical sense is inherent in any expedition but to be lost culturally without the benefit of looking like a foreigner is such a befuddling experience.”

To be lost in the physical sense is inherent in any expedition but to be lost culturally without the benefit of looking like a foreigner is such a befuddling experience. The dominant language in Guangzhou was once Cantonese (the only Chinese I speak), but the recent influx of people from other cities and rural villages alike has changed that to Mandarin. Walking around and asking strangers for directions to the address I had in my hand was like walking around in a minefield — not knowing if my next step would be a lucky one or an awkward exchange. Awkward in the sense that I kept getting (or imagined getting) the look they gave me when they spoke to me in Mandarin and I couldn’t understand them. “What kind of Chinese doesn’t speak Chinese?” This one. Obviously.

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But even then I could get by. Even if they couldn’t speak it, the locals in Guangzhou could at least understand Cantonese. At the very best, we do some weird hand gesture exchange and I move on. But when I made my way up to Chengdu, it felt how I imagine all transplants to New York describe New York: being surrounded by people but always feeling isolated and alone. This became even more apparent when I visited all the historical places — a reminder that I could not fully grasp the history and culture behind it, even with the half-understood phrases and poorly-translated English signs.

Even the food felt very foreign to me at times — which was one of the oddest things I’ve experienced while I was there. I’d consider myself an adventurous eater and willing to try anything at least once but China was the one time I decided not to.

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Perhaps to equate my trip to the Motherland to something as sacred and religious as a Hajj might be an overstatement, but in a way I was trying to rediscover myself in the context of my heritage. This trip was personal the way religion is to those who are deeply religious. At first, I felt like I didn’t want anything to do with this culture. It wasn’t who I am. But then I realized that it was simply because I couldn’t understand it. Chinese culture is like that — it makes you jump through unnecessary hoops to get to the good parts. It’s complex and intricate and not everything makes sense right away. By the end of this trip, I realized that I had inherited a culture the same way China has inherited broken systems from previous generations. The only difference being that the language barrier prevented me from understanding this inheritance.

And like those who embark on a journey to find oneself, I had hoped my time in China would somehow deliver some wisdom onto me. But I’ve come to the conclusion that life does not serve answers on silver platters. Rather than learning more about myself, I left with more questions. More hoops to jump through. Oddly enough, I’m okay with this. I’m more curious about China and all its intricacies than ever before. I’d like to believe this trip was China’s way of saying come back again. And next time, I’ll be ready.

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Steven Chan is a self-taught photographer. He's based in New York City but can often be found in random parts of the world. One of his goals is to hit all seven continents before turning 25.

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