Slip-ups, Solitude & Self Care

Welcome to Beijing’s Ethnic Minorities park, where the traditional Bai minority compound is built on top of a McDonald’s.

After a few days of travel in Shanghai and Hangzhou, I found myself in Beijing, finally ready to embark on my summer of independent research. Beijing is the first of my stops in a research tour of China’s ethnic minority theme parks (the rest are in Yunnan province). On Wednesday night, I checked into my hostel and on Thursday morning, I took the subway to Beijing’s Ethnic Minorities Park, excited and hopeful for my first day of fieldwork.

And it went horribly.

There was nobody at the park. I’d come on a weekday, at lunch time. I saw a total of maybe ten other tourists and a couple of poorly-attended performances. The park was nothing like the bustling tourist site I’d expected. I was too nervous to do a single interview. Frustrated with the park and with myself, I left with only a few photos and some vague, hastily-jotted notes that made no sense when re-read.

After my disappointment wore off, I told myself it was OK and that nobody’s first day of fieldwork goes perfectly. I’d give myself another shot, this time aligning my visit time with the park’s major afternoon performances.

Day 2 did not go much better.

I was discouraged. The prospect of five more weeks of fruitless research terrified me. I came to China to do research and now it looks like I’ll leave with no results at all, I thought.

But this feeling of despair was brought on by more than just research slip-ups. Other things about traveling alone were starting to take a toll on me, too. At first I had appreciated the solitude, but I was tired of being alone. I was tired of always being a foreigner. I was frustrated that I hadn’t been in one place long enough to get comfortable. I was tired of the lack of privacy that came from living in hostel dorms.

I texted my mom, expressing my thoughts about how horribly research had gone, when she replied, “take care of yourself first.” I’ve always known self care was important, at least in theory, but it never really resonated with me until then. So I took a day off. I went for a run around the lake in the morning. I joined a Spanish girl from my hostel for a meal and touristy outings. I ate a sandwich on olive bread (this is a big deal in China). I reached out to more people I knew in China. I Skyped a friend who’s spending the summer interning in Burma. I re-evaluated my research and travel itinerary. I had dinner with my former host sister. And I slept in until I woke up naturally.

I feel refreshed and much happier. Maybe I haven’t learned a ton from my research yet, but I’ve certainly learned more about traveling alone in a foreign country and how to take care of myself.

So here’s a reminder that while Pomona students’ summer plans might look great on paper, nothing goes perfectly, even with lucrative internships and sweet-sounding research positions. Shouts out to those of y’all having rough summers, and remember to step back and take care of yourselves!

Subway station selfies after a meal with my former host sister.