This is a story about Susan and Alex who met, dated and, very recently, got married. It’s a story of how Alex and Susan, independently, experienced a place that shaped them, directed them and molded them into becoming the people that would ultimately meet one another. This story has three characters—two people and one place. Alex, Susan, and China.
Alex, from Montana, was completing his senior year of college in California when an organization visiting campus offered him the opportunity, with a few friends, to live and teach in a city called Harbin, which is in North East China close to Russia. Looking for an opportunity to travel and intrigued by the idea of moving to China, he signed on. Arriving in Harbin a few months later, not speaking a word of Mandarin, he built a life teaching, socializing, and traveling. He didn’t think of himself as much of a teacher but built great relationships with his students—swapping food, adopting new traditions, learning a new language. He joined the local nunchuck club, learned taichi and drank baiju, connecting with the heart of the community.
Living in Harbin, though, was hard. Even with the international travel Alex had done prior to moving there, Harbin felt foreign, isolating at times. So, after 14 months, he enrolled in a masters program for Chinese language and philosophy in south west China, where it seemed life might be a bit easier, or at the very least, warmer. As he was preparing to make the move south, he was offered a job back in DC. Promising himself he would return someday, he boarded a plane back to the states.
Susan grew up in Connecticut, the daughter of parents who had emigrated from South Korea in the mid-1980s. In her junior year at University of Maryland, she was looking for a way to get out of campus for a while, which, in its enormity, felt vast and lonely. She decided to enroll in the Shanghai study abroad program, thinking, “how different could it be from Korea?” Growing up in a Korean household with frequent visits to her grandparents in Seoul, who leaned toward the traditional and conservative side, being female meant she didn’t get as much freedom as her brother and she experienced herself often shrinking to fit inside the confines of Korean social codes in which hierarchy and honor is paramount. She expected China would be similar. Arriving in Shanghai in the winter of her junior year, she realized how wrong she had been to make the comparison. In the late 1960s, Alex and Susan explained, China started experiencing a cultural revolution. Part of the revolution, led by Mao Zedong, was, for better or for worse, to equalize facets of Chinese society. During this time, language, which previously had been deferential, lost its hierarchical nature and became more egalitarian. In China, Susan, found herself not only allowed to, but needing to be loud and assertive to fit in and make her way. It was liberating for her in a way she couldn’t have imagined. Her semester abroad was so formative that she decided to take a year off to work in China during her senior year. Excited but nervous to make the solo trek back, she purchased a refundable one-way ticket.
She split her year between Shanghai and Beijing. Her favorite times were wandering through colorful wet markets, riding smoky train cars to travel into China’s mountains, and relying on the kindness of strangers to help her find her way. However, China was still challenging her. She found herself feeling far away from home, struggled to decipher packets of information she received from doctor’s visits and felt on guard as a single woman living and traveling through China. Though fraught with difficult situations, she was able to experience her own strength and resilience in leaving a job she hated, moving into an apartment that she felt was her own and forming a community of friends. She returned to the United States determined to finished her degree and come back to China. Susan, in her own words, felt like China helped her shed her “jello spine”. There, she said, she realized her own gumption.
Alex and Susan
Months after both Susan and Alex returned from China, they both enrolled in the same evening Chinese class at the University of Maryland. Susan had returned to campus to finish her senior year and Alex had moved to Maryland to work a maintenance job at a convent with his cousin until he figured out his next step. Susan showed up late part way through the third class without a textbook. The professor asked Alex to share with her and thus began their friendship, which slowly, and eventually, blossomed into a relationship.
Susan and Alex describe China with such vivaciousness that I, who have never been, found myself poring over photos of China while listening them talk. They paint a picture of a transformative experience, an incredible country that you can’t help but think, “there must be something magical about this place.”
I asked them if they ever thought there was serendipity to their meeting after having shared experiences of living in China around and at the same time, or, if it was all just blissful randomness. Susan, growing up on the east coast and Alex, growing up on the west, both zigzagging, at the same time, far away to one part of the world and then finding each other in a classroom, on a college campus, all the way on the other side of the world again.
They thought about it.
Alex said: I don’t think it’s random. There’s this idea that if you never choose a path, you’ll wind up in the gutter. There might have been some randomness in the choices that we were first making. But we either decide to stick with those choices or pick something else. It’s not even that we chose China, but through the lens of China, we chose each other.
Susan said: We’re not quick hit people, neither of us are looking for quick hits, that’s something we share. China brings you to your knees, shows you what you’re made of. Shows you that you’re capable of much more than you thought you were. China helped to teach me about me.
When I started the conversation, I was expecting to hear a story about how two people, who found the same love for a place, also found each other. But what stands out most about their story is, while they as a pair are at the center of it, so much of their story is how they both separately, and together, were able to foster their individuality.
There is more meaning, they told me, in them together when they are able to recognize the meaning of them separately. As Alex said, the fate of it is that we were both making similar choices and those ultimately became a bonding force.
The serendipity then, perhaps, isn’t that they met at all. The serendipity is that, before even meeting, they had started to form their togetherness through shared values, beliefs and experiences. Magical? Maybe. But looking at them, it’s pretty easy to see that even more magical than serendipity is the magic of two people merging their individual pasts to create a life, and story, together.