Contracting / Expanding


The day after my lockdown ended, I stayed home. I wrapped my schedule around me like a blanket, exercising in the morning, studying in the afternoon. Standing at the counter chopping vegetables for my meals. Sinking into the couch, not even bothering to look beyond my laptop. A few more days went by. I forced myself out for the inevitable covid tests, but that was it. I ordered my groceries in and stayed in.

What happened to me? World traveler, stuck on her couch, doom scrolling her phone.

I got scared. Scared of going out and trying to talk to people in a language I barely know. I am getting to a point in my Chinese studies that the false arrogance of the true beginner is falling away and I am suddenly deeply aware of the limitations of my understanding. I have become so accustomed to expressing myself with ease in my native language. When I write, I feel blissfully free. Writing in English feels like running with Olympian form, my feet barely touching the ground, the sun’s rays shining to meet the joy radiating from my chest.

Thinking in Chinese, at this point, feels at once like crawling with the dead weight of my unexpressed thoughts dragging behind me and at once like climbing a steep trail, struggling towards the high summit of my own mental freedom. Even now, as I write this in English, there are glimmers of efficiencies in Chinese that nag at me, beautifully elegant constructions that beg to be used.

Initially, with the first few words and overexcitement, I felt I could say more than I understood. I am getting to the point now where I can understand more than I can say in terms of grammar and constructions. This, I feel, is true progress. Chinese is a marathon, not a sprint. Like anything, it is the daily dedication and consistency that will pay off, not the one heroic study session or big push.

Check on your Chinese learning friends, we are not ok.

And, for the first time in my life I am experiencing the barest hints of discrimination, and it’s getting to me, and I feel ashamed that its getting to me, because it just goes to show how little of it I’ve had and how much of it others, the global majority in fact, have to face on a daily basis, both in the US and all over the world. This is a reality of the world that I too am now facing.

People are generally very curious about foreigners. There aren’t very many of us here. Some people here, it must be said though, straight up do not like foreigners. People take pictures and videos of us, and there are websites where those stealthily taken pictures of foreigners are ridiculed and mocked behind the anonymity of the internet. And worse, as I’ve mentioned before.

I feel the burden of my own existence here. I cannot just be me. I am me and I am what I represent, who I represent. America, the outside world, the west, women, westerners, it goes on and on. I curl into myself, avoiding, protecting.


I left the house. I went hashing*. I didn’t feel like it, I was nearly late to the start, but I did it. I brought my tired, grumpy, borderline depressed shell to the party because I know that the inner goo of our bodies and minds is malleable. It will conform to the forces applied to it. Socialization, sun, fresh air, blood pumping with sweat and exertion, these are the wash cycle for stale, motionless humours.

The trail is my church. A vertical climb, feeling my body work like the animal I am, dappled sun filtered through forest leaves all come together to create a mystical effect on me. I move through the woods in reverie, heart soaring, mind still.

My life has been split by so many irreversible falls of the axe of fate. My knee is one of the biggest cuts. There’s Before the Knee and After the Knee. Before the Knee I could hike as long as the food in my pack lasted, run as long as my breath would carry me, bike as long as my wrists would hold out. I planned a thru hike of the Appalachian trail. 2,000 miles, six months, living in my church. Weeks prior, the axe fell. The thru hike never happened. I never knew there would be an After. I never would have believed I could bear living in it.

In many ways, I can’t. I play games of negotiation with myself. What if I thru hike anyway? A cortisone shot, a knee brace, some painkillers, the lightest, most expensive gear. I take the trail slow, go into town more often, carry less food. Maybe I only do half the trail one year, half the next. I tally and re-tally as my body’s own physical inflation rate raises the cost of my dreams.

Yesterday I let myself run, a minute or two at a time, my form shit, my knee twinging, birds that have been trapped in my chest for two years finally taking flight. The biggest bug eating smile plastered across my face.

Was it worth it? It was worth it then. Is it worth it now? Yes. I got lucky. No flare up. Phew. We are told to live in the moment, but delay gratification. Be disciplined, but live like it’s your last day. Find your bliss, but recalculate your present joy in light of future consequences. Maybe worth itself has no objective value. Maybe two things can be true. I want joy now and satisfaction later.

I have a date tonight. I wouldn’t have made it had I not gone hashing. Had I not gotten up and started the process of movement. I will always be happier in motion. I will likely spend the rest of my life learning how to find balance in rest, how to rest without collapse, how to find peace in stillness.

But, for now, I gotta get moving.

*Hashing (the Hash House Harriers) is a social group (“a drinking club with a running problem”) that exists all over the world. There’s one in your area, I guarantee it. Go on, look it up.




Anna is a language nerd currently located in China.

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Anna Ka

Anna Ka

Anna is a language nerd currently located in China.

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