Finding balance in a world of “chaotic good”

I’m not doing great.

I’m not doing bad, either. I think I’m somewhere in this weird mix of teenage angnst/hormones/homesickness—that, mixed in with dipping in and out of the classic “study-abroad-honeymoon-phase”, has led to me, the discombobulated mess, attempting to memorize Chinese flashcards one minute and write college application supplements the next.

Or at least that’s what’s been happening in my head/in my life this clear, cold Sunday morning from the 19th floor of my host family’s apartment. Yesterday was spent at the United States Embassy in Beijing with our favorite diplomat, Nick, and about 40 Beijing university students in real-time people-to-people diplomacy. Engaging in considerate conversations that connect us to Chinese young adults (hope my middle school English teachers are proud of that alliteration) is my favorite Saturday afternoon pastime. I also think that a considerably large portion of the cohort (myself very much included) have been so influenced and inspired by Nick that we’re all quite seriously considering careers in the Foreign Service. Maybe more in that later… let’s put a pin in that.

Nick in the foreground, NSLI-Y kids and Beijing college students intermingling in the background.

This feeling of unbalanced-ness really hit me Friday night. I think the simple act of being alone has had a wider effect on my mental state than it ever has in my life. What do I mean by that? Well, I’m with the same 16 people day in and day out. We’ve been together every day for almost 2 months now. For 10 hours a day, I’m sitting no farther than about 20 feet from any one of them at any given time in an academic setting. For the other hours of the day, we’re eating, walking to Carrefour (I promise it’s less frequent than it was in the beginning of the program), or chatting on the pitifully over-used turf field. But when I’m alone—on the metro, bus, or in my room in my host family’s home, my thoughts are whirring a mile a minute. Sometimes there are so many words in my brain that somehow I get out a meaningful journal entry. Sometimes that chaotic energy manifests in an (albeit pretty crappy) college essay. Sometimes I bang out a couple emails. Sometimes I sit on my bed, blinking at my phone, reading the Times or Columbia Spec (thanks Kim), trying to stretch my brain or feel connected to my life previous to this new life (that is beginning to be not so new anymore… more on that later too). There’s so much to do with my not-so-free time, and so little time to do it. I haven’t even found a moment to do my groceries. Oh, gone are the days of daily trips to Carrefour, and here I am squeezing by (literally) with the last drops of my Korean shampoo.

Through the chaos, however, there is good. A lot of good. At Leila’s birthday dinner last night (buffet-style, hotpot and barbeque, sushi, desserts, giant prawns… all for about 12 USD) four little New Zealander girls came up to us with bottles of RYU, this cotton-candy colored lemonade beer drink. Greta (our Resident Director) was pleasantly surprised and accepted the gifts at first, then upon closer examination, realized that it was alcoholic. “这是酒!” (This is alcohol!) Laughing our asses off, we tried to hand the beers back to the girls but they had already run away. Chaotic, but good.

We climbed the Great Wall on Friday. Alec, Joel, Ella, and I wanted to get a photo together, so I asked (in English) the closest foreign-looking person around if they could take our photo. Gruffly, the man replied, “We are Russian.” Alec, Joel, and Ella all cracked up behind me. I ended up just asking someone in Chinese instead. Also at the Great Wall, I met a Swedish man and chatted for a few minutes while I was waiting for my honey-lemon water (Mom, I miss you). (Side note, but all the delicious wonderful comfort-snacks that Mom would make at home—honey-lemon water, cut-up Jello with fruits, cut-up Asian pears in a bowl—are all being given to me here as comfort-snacks by my host family and the like. I love it. But I miss Mom.) He’s only going to be here in China for 9 days. When he asked me how long I’ll be in China, it finally hit me that I’ve been here for 2 months. And—get this—I’ll be here for 7 more! Chaotic. But good.

Alec, me, Joel, and Ella on the Great Wall. (Russian guy not pictured. Chinese guy took the picture.)

Amidst all this chaotic goodness, I found myself lying on my bed at 11 am on Saturday morning desperately searching for order in Bing.cn searches for “how to find work-life balance” and really not-so-well-written Wikihow articles. I asked Nick this question after the panel that afternoon and he gave me a wonderfully relatable, thoughtful, and encouraging answer. Among his various nuggets of wisdom, one thing he said really applies to my thoughts and feelings regarding life here: “control your schedule. Don’t let it control you.” He recommended finding designated “me time”—whether that be hanging out with American friends, talking about anything and everything, not necessarily being rigidly “on program” with my Chinese practice, or sitting at home, on the couch, watching terrifying Spanish murder mystery thrillers (yes, that is what happened Friday night, I couldn’t understand the spoken Spanish nor the lightning-fast Chinese subtitles but I still was terrified) or glorious VPN-enabled Youtube. I’m working on it.

And hey, I feel better now. Maybe a good time away from my Word documents of college essays is all I needed. With all that in mind, I’m going to head to Carrefour. And pick up my groceries.


  1. (Heads over to http://www.bing.cn to check out the SERP (marketing-speak for Search Engine Results Page) for a China search on the term ‘work-life balance’, and gets this page instead: http://html.youyo88.com/spread/pcplat/87919/1.html – it looks like a site where I can get ‘unlimited ingots’ and ‘massive diamonds’. Oh well. )

    You know there was a Navy enlistee turned MIT chemical engineering grad turned clergy-man turned newspaper reporter who wrote a very interesting book that I read in graduate school, that was one of the all-time bestsellers – I see that ‘what color is your parachute’ was originally self-published in 1970 and then has gone on to sell 10M copies worldwide, updated just about annually.

    Richard Nelson Bolles also wrote a book called ‘The three boxes of life and how to get out of them’, and it’s all about – you guessed it – work-life balance. I’ll find a copy for you.

    In brief, what are the three boxes? Education, work, and play. You are still in the first section – something like 18, 22 or 25+ years worth of formal education. The second section is where most of us are – tack on another 40 or 45 or 50 years here in the working world. And the third section is whatever is left in the ‘golden years’ – a fun relaxing world of travel, perhaps grandchildren, of course dependent on both the financial and health situations.

    Its a big juggling act, remember that no one has it all figured out, and that we are all making things up as we go along.

    Hang in there Mei! Talk soon.


    1. Like I said earlier, those Sunday morning run lectures/stories are all coming back to me now. So appreciate you Pa.

  2. Your story reminds me of my first six months when arrived in the US. Not knowing the language and culture- but as a full time student (still had to take TOFEL test to be officially accepted) – it was a total chaos and to be honest, I don’t think I did anything as well as how you are doing in China in only two months! I badly missed my mom and family, too. Two decades have passed and looking back the experience, I am so grateful and proud to stay put, work through, find balance between work and life. It was a process, not a sudden flip. But over time, slowly but surely, it all became much clearer and doable. (Although by the time it became manageable, a new challenge arrived… ) in fact, life is still throwing a new challenge everyday at me. But it is all good! Yes, you are the product of your experiences. Your story is so exciting because of all those rises and falls. You are also the product of the choices that you make. It’s empowering and free, and comes with reward (or consequences). I love the feeling of anticipation before the new chapter begins. Without it, the life may be too hard or boring to continue. Because of the uncertainty, we all can dream. I see you taking a wonderful adventure and I and beyond excited to read your new chapter!

    1. Kyung—thank you so much for sharing. Your words are like a hug for my heart all the way here in Beijing. Much love!!!

  3. I am sending my biggest hugs and love to you! Think of you in every breath I take.
    Love your sharing, Kyung!, beautiful and heartfelt

  4. Oh, Mei, these are such true feelings! Finding work-life balance is a life long task and we are still working on that. It’s so important to always have good friend like your mom so that you have someone to talk to and share your feeling. Writing is always a good way to get out your feelings too. We’ve been thinking about you all the time and wishing you all the best.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *