Preferably, when you’re young and resilient, so you can handle the pollution. Living in the pollution will make you question how so many people can live like this, to have days where you can’t see the sun because of the smog. Living in the pollution will make you have a greater appreciation for the environment, and perhaps, to be more active in conserving it.
Live in China, and be surrounded by the 1.4 billion people that inhabit the country. Surprisingly enough, there will be moments where you feel completely and utterly alone. You will learn the power of human interaction, and you will learn to appreciate your friends and family more. You might become more shameless, and be more prone to striking up conversations with strangers. You’ll build relationships that you never would have had otherwise.
Go and live in China, for the sake of wholly immersing yourself in a culture where the language is completely different, where people are glued to their cellphones and iPads, where most people grew up without a sibling. You will be marveled by how remarkably similar and different we are from one another, but how we are all connected through humanity.
Experience the pushing, the cutting in lines, the yelling, the honking, the gawking, the thumping in your heart as you play Frogger with your life every time you cross the street. You’ll learn patience. If you’re a foreigner who doesn’t look Chinese, experience the fan girl club, of being stopped so often to have a picture taken with you that you might be in the cellphones of hundreds of giddy Chinese girls. If you are a foreigner who does look Chinese (or is Chinese), prepare to be seen as the translator, even if your more foreign-looking counterpart has better Chinese than you. People will be confused about the fact that you are American, but have Chinese origins. You’ll experience identity issues of race and gender you may have never felt otherwise.
If you are a female, go live in China and be subjected to the implicit and explicit sexual discrimination in China. Lift your head up high as you get gawked at by Chinese men, staring at you as if they are trying to peel the clothes off your skin. Exhibit your strength as you fend off men who think they can do or say whatever they want to you; hold your ground when you get passed over for your male counterpart. Use these experiences and channel it into a more steadfast commitment for women’s rights.
Go live in China, and the dormant history nerd in you will emerge. Observe the juxtaposition of towering skyscrapers next to dilapidated apartment complexes, of streets lined with luxury stores such as Louis Vuitton and Fendi when right around the corner are shacks and stands of cheap Chinese goods. Revel in how a country that was turned upside down from the Cultural Revolution only 30-some years ago has transformed itself into a country pushing its way to the forefront. You’ll feel as if you are living through a crucial moment of history, as if something dramatic can happen any moment. Take in the excitement.
Then, leave the big city, and find a rural village. Get transported back into time, and observe a simpler life. Watch the barefoot children play among the fields, farmers planting rice in steeple terraces with oxen, chickens running amok and the elderly with leathery skin and missing teeth. See if anyone comes up to you and asks you to help read to them the writing on the seed packet–I bet you some of them will. Stay in the village for as long or for as short as you want, but just remember this: juxtaposition. How a country can have cities like Shanghai and Beijing, but also villages tucked deep into the mountains you can’t imagine why people would move there in the first place, how basic amenities such as electricity can sometimes be a luxury. Does this qualify China as a developing nation still? Perhaps. So go to a village. You’ll learn to think. Priorities may change. (That, and don’t forget to go to the bathroom there at least once. I guarantee you it’ll just be a hole in the ground).
Go, go live in China and experience the chaos, the people, the culture, the food. Go and meet new people, talk to strangers, learn their history–it’ll be so much more different than what you’re used to. Get pushed and shoved, feel alone, and appreciate humanity all the more when you find that one person who isn’t trying to rip you off or cuts you short when you stumble through your Chinese. Pay it forward. Embrace the nation with two arms, and laugh it off when you get bogged down by so many frustrations that you just want to scream at the nation. Because you will. And when you return to the States, or wherever you are from, you’re going to be a different person. You will have stories. Stories of rickshaw drivers, of baijiu, of tonal mishaps, of being ripped off, of babies defecating on the street, of those euphoric moments where living in China for this brief period was worth it. You won’t regret it.
Everyone should live in China at least once.