It was 25 years ago this week that I first went to China, which makes it that much more interesting that it coincides with me moving there now.
Back in the summer of 1993, I was two years into a Mathematics Specialization university degree, and I was dealing with the fact that I did not want to continue to study mathematics. At the same time, I didn’t know what I wanted to study, and so I decided to take a year to try out a variety of classes, to try and find some new direction. That summer was when I first watched the film The Last Emperor (which led to an obsession with the films of Zhang Yimou) and it’s what inspired me to take a history class on Chinese communism.
The result? I took another history class in the following semester (related to Japanese history), and then a year later declared a Major in History at that university, which was in my hometown. After I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1996 (with a Minor in Mathematics, since I had enough credits — although I was actually missing 1 credit, and so had to take another math class during my final semester, which was hell). I then decided to go to Montreal to enroll in an East-Asian Studies program, focusing on China, which is what led to my first opportunity to visit that country.
There was a summer study abroad program between two universities in Montreal (Université de Montréal, where I was studying, and McGill University), and Nankai University in the city of Tianjin, China. It was a 10-week summer program where you would go to Tianjin and follow Chinese language classes every morning, with the credits recognized at home.
Then, a funny thing happened.
I met my wife on the very first day I was in Tianjin. I didn’t even know she was Japanese at the time (before speaking to her). It took a few weeks before we started dating, but that led to one of the biggest decisions in my life: at the end of the 10-week program, as everyone flew back to Canada, I didn’t. I enrolled at the university to continue my Chinese studies. It also meant that I had to renew my visa, which needed to be done outside the country, which led to my first visit to Japan.
In the summer of 1997, in July, I decided to take a boat to Japan, where I would arrive in the city of Kobe, which is where my wife was from (and she had returned there during the summer). It was a two-day boat ride (which turned into a three-day boat ride on the way back, as we got caught in a tsunami), and that resulted in a fantastic two-week visit to Kobe and Tokyo (where I went to the Chinese embassy to change my visa).
The rest, as they say, is history. I later moved to Tokyo in May of 1998, and lived there for a two-year stint, before returning to Canada for a year, and then going back for close to 15 years (until 2015).
So early May is always quite nostalgic for me, as it marks these big turning points in my life, and although we landed in Shanghai on March 28, our quarantine period and city-wide lockdown means that we’re still in a hotel, waiting to get started on our new life here. In early May.
(Being in China in 1997 also meant that I had the opportunity to be in Beijing near Tiananmen Square as the official handover of Hong Kong took place, but that’s a story for another post.)