I’m typing to you from a student dorm in Nanjing, China.
But a month before coming here I was facing redundancy. I was called into a ‘team meeting’ exactly 2 days after coming back from a 2-week whirlwind adventure in Cuba, but as soon as I saw HR stood somberly behind my line manager I already knew what time it was. Luckily for most of us – by the grace of basic observation and common sense – it didn’t take long to cotton on to the rapid culling that was taking place across several departments.
But my routine usually went like this: I would be sat at my desk furiously typing insignificant things into my computer. Then I’d be happy that I’d managed to squeeze in 3 tasks before lunchtime instead of 2. I would eat at the canteen for approximately 50 minutes, followed by walking briskly back to my desk, and then continue to repeat what I did in the morning. At 5.35pm on the dot, I’d leave the office and power walk to the station – I always did this, even when I had nowhere to be – and after 7 minutes I’d be on the platform. The train would arrive 2 minutes later at 5.44pm, and if the service was on time I’d arrive at London Victoria at 5.59pm (giving me exactly 4 minutes to sprint to the next platform to catch my connecting train home).
And I did this everyday.
Then around the 10-month mark I sank into a deep dark stinking hole. One where you question whether life really is spending 80% of your time with people who didn’t know your middle name or grimacing whenever
the self-appointed office clown barked in his abrasive, tactless and politically incorrect way, causing your blood to curdle [he was a closeted bigot, and many of his insufferable remarks went unchecked].
Where the thought of the approaching weekend kept you going, but once Sunday night came you were filled you with dread. You mastered the art of small talking around the kettle in the office kitchen and were aware of the office politics – it started to take its toll. I would begin my day by crying intermittently, turning up for work 40 minutes late on average (20 minutes on a good day), taking hours to complete 5 minute tasks, exchanging the bare minimum of phatic utterances with members of my team and isolating myself from my lunch buddies.
‘I have tons of stuff to complete, catch you next week?’ I would lie.
I lost weight. My skin broke out. I’d have emotional outbursts. My confidence was shattered. My nerves shot. My self-esteem was at an all time low. And physical affects aside, I felt like such an ungrateful fraud. I had finally settled into what felt like some semblance of a career, but here I was detesting every minute of it. I was no longer the 23 year old finding her feet; I had arrived, right? What more did I want?
Despite feeling like my world was deteriorating into a pile of shit, the aforementioned hadn’t hit the metaphorical fan just yet. I had one thing that remained a constant and consistent thing that served as a reminder that I could achieve serious goals if I stuck at it: Mandarin.
Ever since learning basics such as ‘hello’, ‘Fuck off’, ‘Yes, I’m really from the UK’ and ‘Can we be friends?’ during my one year stint in Wuxi, I briefly flirted with the idea of translation – you know, being an expert and all – but ever humbled by the extensive requirements I decided to continue to self-study. It happened to be that I really enjoyed it and to keep momentum I decided to prep for a proficiency test with the help of a Beijing based tutor (see video below). Every Saturday we would have roughly 20 minutes to chit chat, I guess to warm me up and re-build my confidence, and then she would send me practice papers and listening materials and talk me through the test format. After a couple of months I felt confident enough to take the HSK 3 exam.
I smashed it.
[Click for Part 2]