I lived in China in my early twenties.
The best way to describe China is the way my sister did when she came to visit. Instead of arriving in a different country, she said felt like she stepped off the plane onto a different planet.
The swarms of people staring at us foreigners took some getting used to; but this challenge was only second to the language barrier. Not being able to read anything or ask where one might find a (sanitary) restroom proved tougher than I imagined, but I had friends to stumble through Mandarin alongside, so everything felt doable.
That was until I went out on my own and loneliness set in.
I initially moved to China with a group of like-minded Americans, but then I took a leap of faith and went back on my own. I moved into an apartment by myself and really tried to step out of my comfort zone with my Chinese friendships and language (which made for many embarrassing linguist snafus).
I have never experienced the ache of loneliness like I did living alone in a foreign country. I wasn’t alone all the time, but I felt isolated most of the time. I went to class, made friends, engaged in conversation with the street vendors, so it wasn’t like I stayed in my apartment all day, everyday. But despite living in a city of 13 million where I was constantly bumping shoulders (and bikes) with people, my heart ached.
I wanted to be known. I longed for community, for my friends back home.
And then something miraculous happened. I didn’t suddenly have a jam-packed social calendar. My phone didn’t ring with calls from new friends. But the room that the ache of loneliness left in my heart gave room for something else. For someone else.
Her name was “Xiao Li”. A mother of three girls, she was an illiterate, vivacious Chinese lady who made her living as a housekeeper. She came to my apartment once a week and her joyful presence coupled with my lack of busyness often left me following her around the house while we talked and laughed.
One day as she finished up at my house, it was around 5:00 and I asked her if I could take her out to dinner. She nearly tripped over her mop as she insisted it wasn’t necessary for about five minutes until she finally agreed. I can be pretty persuasive.
We went to dinner and it’s strange how our personalities and character traits translate into other cultures. She opened up about some very hard issues she faced and I listened, trying to comfort her the best I knew how with my less than stellar vocabulary. At the end of the meal, I said, “If you ever need anything or get in trouble, you know I’m here for you.”
We left dinner, linked arm in arm, and wandered our way back to my apartment where she headed across town on her scooter.
Three days later, my phone rang in the middle of the night. It was Xiao Li and she explained in panic that her arm and maybe her leg was broken. A heated marital dispute left her needing to go to the ER.
The story is long and tangled, but I spent the next month with my friend and her youngest daughter in the hospital while she awaited surgery. After being released, Xiao Li and her daughters came to live with me for a while before finding a new home away from her abusive husband.
There are many layers to this story, but I’ve been reflecting on loneliness ever since my friend Andrea wrote this excellent post about the topic.
An aching heart gave me a window into the hearts of others. Loneliness gave me room for people–people I might have considered less important if I was surrounded by friends. It was perhaps the only season in my life where busyness didn’t demand all my attention and drive me away from perhaps the people who matter most.
When Xiao Li’s daughters had a jump rope competition completely naked in my living room and shrieked with laughter every time I miscounted (it’s hard to count to 400 in Mandarin), I realized that without loneliness I would have missed this incredibly rich experience.
Have you experienced loneliness? What have you allowed it to teach you?
If you liked this post, you may also like:
- The Road Less Traveled : On Choosing the Right Path
- On loneliness and love
- Is God like the Men who Have Hurt Me?
- What Now? | When Life Doesn’t Turn Out Like You Planned