Musings on China

SHERIDAN, WYOMING, USA – Chinese New Year has wrapped up and people are headed back to work this week. It was the first CNY holiday since 2009 during which I have been so isolated in every way from Asian culture (this is, of course, discounting the many Asians I pass on the streets, everywhere, especially here in Seattle), and it feels odd to me.

It’s strange to consider how China has held on to me, entirely against my will. While I was living there I labeled it as the worst place in existence (though I do recall always clarifying that it was better than the States), and warned people to avoid it at all costs (except of course when trying to convince them to come join me, either to live or to visit). However, it has shaped who I am today in ways probably unmatched by any other experience in my life. One of the questions I am asked often when meeting people, after their initial surprise upon hearing about my time abroad, is “how was China?” Sometimes Turkey, never Italy – usually, it’s China. I find myself automatically saying, “Polluted. Full of people who cheat you out of money. Dirty, corrupt, too much poverty.” I then think to myself, Can’t I find anything positive to say about it? I know what people want to hear. They want to hear about interesting experiences, fascinating places and people. Isn’t it possible to recall some good from the three years I spent in Asia? Given that I have now what I need to view imperfect situations rationally – distance, and time – I am trying to dig deeper to see if I can’t find some sort of answer to better satisfy them. At least something a bit better than, “It’s not a very nice place. I don’t like it.”

After moving out of China for the first time in 2011, I spent a couple months in the States before I headed over to Europe. Sometime during that transition period I saw a movie which, although it had been out for nearly a decade at that point, I had never gotten around to watching before. Lost in Translation became a fast favorite of mine as I sat, nodding at the screen and exclaiming “yes!” over and over again. So many feelings, so many things expressed or hinted at in the film were dead-on with my experiences as a foreigner trying to find my way in an Asian culture. Being blinded, figuratively and sometimes literally, by the city lights and the simple beauty of a culture so simplistic and different; talking all through the night with someone who was essentially a stranger; singing at karaoke bars at lost hours of the early morning; feeling like an insomniac because of the habits you get into – that was all familiar. The backdrop of the story is a beautiful space – not necessarily the bright lights of Tokyo, but the hotel in which most of the movie takes place – more polished than what the average American is used to in their daily lives, but the characters find no joy in their surroundings. Being a white foreigner in Asia usually means you have a certain level of privilege over the average citizen there. You will find yourself with the opportunity to spend time in nicer places than you would in most places on Earth. Easily. One character has wealth and fame and is well-known for their career, while the other has a plethora of free time and is still essentially a newlywed. Their situations sound like recipes for happiness… some sort of happiness. Money was not an issue. Beauty and excitement were easily accessible. Time for whatever-you-please was abundant. But these characters felt empty, disconnected. These things were not what they needed, what could fill them with meaning, give them a sense of purpose or direction – or relational connection. I remember feeling that everything surrounding me was superficial in China, from the things people cared about to the extravagance I had never experienced elsewhere to many of the friendships I had.

The fact that these two foreigners were drawn to each other felt obvious to me – they would be. During my time in China, 99% of my friends and acquaintances were other foreigners. From absolutely every corner of the globe came teachers, businessmen, designers, wives along for the ride, you name it. Our one unifying characteristic: we were not Chinese. There seemed to be something that the citizens of the rest of the world could grasp that the Chinese simply couldn’t, so we clung to each other. My closest friends were Russians, Canadians, Australians, Filipinos, Africans, all types of Europeans and people from across the Middle East. Most of them were incredible people with wonderful stories, all with a certain initial awkwardness. This awkwardness came from an awareness of our own unique cultural differences, but also from expectations of superficiality (something contributed to in part by/necessary because of said differences). A degree of superficiality was required for politeness, for us to be able to co-exist, but many people were there for and based their lives around superficial reasons, and one could never be sure about the attitude of the person they were meeting.

Money was the most common thing to turn people. The Chinese have an interesting relationship with money, and I have seen an attitude towards money that is discomforting, to me, in every Chinese person I have ever known. It’s ruthless. When I say “people who cheat you out of money”, I am not exaggerating, nor trying to be vicious – but I also can’t write them off or despise them for this. (Though in the moment, when dealing with that kind of behavior, I may say differently. I have before.) China has not always been a wealthy country, or a successful nation, or one that has known freedom, protection, fair play. The generations of Chinese alive today have grown up knowing that money isn’t a given, that if they don’t work hard and accomplish certain things, someone else will be there to take their place – their work, their money, their guarantee of a home and food and a future. They could very easily end up with nothing. The fear is real to them, for the reality of the situation surrounds them – poverty at an extreme scale remains. What could easily be described as slums are tucked between skyscrapers and found amongst the wealthiest areas of the city, as well as the poorest. Money runs their lives, but for a reason. They do not feel guilt about finding some way to pocket your money rather than giving it to you – it was their lifeblood, it was their children’s future, it was their future superiority over others who failed.

Many foreigners who came to China fell into this mindset as well, though often for reasons much more superficial than survival. I did, for awhile. It wasn’t difficult, with such an attitude surrounding you and with such luxury at your fingertips, so easily attained. We often felt that we lived like kings compared to the ways we had lived in our own countries. Yet many were still eager to get out. It was empty to us.

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One thing I found interesting and positive in a lot of ways was the importance that Chinese placed on family. Grandparents would live with parents and take care of the children, meaning there were usually three generations in each household. It gave the grandparents an opportunity to stay close to their children and bond with their grandchildren. The parents benefitted from having people they could trust to care for and contribute in the upbringing of their children while they were not around (at work, etc.). The children, well. They ended up entirely spoiled by their parents and both sets of grandparents, and even more so since most of them were only children (see the One Child Policy), but that’s another issue entirely. The majority of people seemed to marry with family in mind, both their existing one and they one they hoped to create through their union. (This led to an entirely different attitude towards marriage than what we have in Western countries, where we find feelings of society-inspired “love” more often behind the decision to marry.) Families seemed closer and more involved in each others lives, and decisions seemed less complicated and easier to make for many when the consideration was not their feelings or ideas in the moment, but rather what was best for their family in the bigger picture.

Though it is something our society would frown upon, Chinese seemed to use people – be it in marriage, in friendship, in their work. It came from placing importance on different things than we do in the Western world, and it was very obvious that it was effective in leading to a incredibly stable life. Due to the lack of emphasis or dependency on emotion, it also often felt empty to me, but it was the first of my many steps towards trying to detach myself emotionally and think more rationally about things in my everyday life. (A process I am still working on applying to my life in the appropriate ways at the appropriate times.)

The greatest thing that China brought to my life, in my opinion, centered around the students I had at Mayland International Kindergarten. They were joyous children. Spoiled, and with parents who were often confused about how to properly raise them – that is the only negative thing I could ever find to say about them, and is entirely no fault of their own. They were the biggest learning experience for me. I had never had much contact with young children (except when I was one) before I was thrown in front of a class of twenty of them and expected to teach them a second language. Initially, I was clueless about what to do with them in almost every way. It took months of spending time with them before I got into the swing of dealing with children.

They have the most interesting mindset, the most surprising personalities, the most amusing imaginations. They have no filter, for what they say or what they feel or what they’ve seen, which is what made them so appealing to me: they were honest in ways that adults lose the ability to be in the process of growing up and adapting. I fell in love with those kids, learning a love that felt more comforting and true than anything I have known elsewhere… something totally selfless and without need of reciprocation. Though I had always wanted children, my time with them solidified not only that desire but instilled in me a sense of capability – I could do it. I could raise a child, find the greatest joy in a child, devote my life to making the world better for this little person and this little person better for the world. I learned what not to do, from my own mistakes and what I saw happen as the result of all different sorts of influences upon the children. I learned to be flexible. I learned to be creative again, find joy in small things, and be content simply by sitting with a friend in my lap and a book in my hands. Life was tranquil with the children, and the moments with them were my most fulfilling while in China.

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My three years there provided me with an excellent atmosphere to become open-minded in ways that I would never before have imagined to be necessary, or possible. It was the first time I had lived abroad or even out of my parents home, and it challenged me. It was tough, the cultural differences were vast – both in the country I lived in and between the people of various cultures I lived with – and I have both a thicker skin and a better understanding of myself and of people in general now to show for it. It gave me a great new perspective on life. Something that it taught me, perhaps the thing I appreciate the most, is that the world is large. There is always a new chance out there: new people, new places, new experiences. Nothing in this world is terrible or final enough (except, like, death) that you can’t pick yourself up, move yourself elsewhere, plunge yourself into a different life and start fresh. Which is important to me. I was running from my own unhappiness and dissatisfaction, and I found relief from those things in China. The problems of my previous life were irrelevant and hardly ever considered, and this was consistent with each move I made during my four years abroad. It seems to remain the case even now.

I recently decided to stick around with my boyfriend while he travels for his studies these next few months, and part of the process of making this decision was finding work that I could do from anywhere. After a good deal of research I realized that I was qualified to do one thing in particular, and that thing just so happened to be something I could do from anywhere. I’m talking, of course, about teaching English. I applied to a number of companies, I did interviews and demo lessons, and I now have a job teaching English, to students in Asian countries, online. I will have to wake up at insane hours to do this (hello, 3AM while on the West Coast) since the company and all their classes are on Taiwan time, but it could be worse. This is a job that I can take anywhere in the world with me. It may be 3AM on the West Coast of the United States, but it would be noon in Italy – something to think about (and believe me, I have). When I detailed the new job to a French friend of mine (who recently married a Chinese woman and has permanently settled in Guangzhou) during his CNY vacation throughout Southeast Asia this last week, he laughed at the irony. “Teaching English to Asians again. Don’t you see? It always comes back to you – you will end up in China again! We’re waiting for you.”

He said something like this before, and he wasn’t wrong.

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2 thoughts on “Musings on China

  1. Emily, what a honest and heartfelt account – as someone who constantly lives with a foot in both worlds, your essay particularly struck a chord with me.

    I’m amazed that you stuck it out for three whole years; my own brother worked for several months in Shanghai and he couldn’t be happier when he returned to Hong Kong. There is that widely held belief that China holds the key to the future, but frankly I would never consider living on the Mainland long-term.

    The attitude to money also disturbs me and I guess it’s at the root of all the problems with food safety. There are those who argue that decades of Communism have left a moral vacuum, and now that the market has opened up, plenty of opportunists are taking shortcuts to make a quick buck. Here in Hong Kong we constantly hear horrifying reports about reusing “gutter oil” for cooking, repackaging expired products, and even substituting cardboard for meat inside steamed buns. Sometimes these are hard to verify but Hong Kongers love to find ways to look down on their Mainland cousins…

    Chinese culture is by its nature more introverted and it’s incredibly difficult to break into local circles. You see that even here in cosmopolitan Hong Kong – I would say there is very little overlap, if any, between expat communities and locals. A lot of it boils down to language ability as neither bloc is comfortable in each other’s lingua franca. Then you get those who are lucky enough to be well-versed in both; a lot of my friends and extended family fall into this category so they have the advantage of being the “bridge”.

    Maybe if you do end up coming back to these parts, you might consider Hong Kong as a more liveable alternative. It has that wonderful quality of being deeply Chinese but with a cloak of internationalism.

    • I did have wonderful experiences in and therefore a positive impression of Hong Kong. I was living in Guangzhou for two and a half years and then in Shenzhen for six months, so it wasn’t too difficult for me to spend plenty of time across the border in HK (or as I liked to call it: sanity). I would be more than happy to live there – although the pollution, while not as bad as some places in the Mainland, is a concern.

      I think it’s really interesting that you talk about Chinese culture being introverted because, while I completely believe it and know it to be true, the majority of Chinese people I interacted with during my time there were, on average, fairly extroverted. I suppose that since this was the crowd with advanced English skills and spending time with foreigners, it was to be expected. You are definitely right about there being very little overlap between expat communities and locals – 99% of the people I spent my time with (outside of work) were fellow expats who had similarly low levels of Mandarin (and I only had two expat friends who spoke any Cantonese).

      Many of the reports of things such as suspicious “meat” and so-called “gutter oil” are ones I have no trouble believing. The first year I was living in GZ I would eat out often, but when it finally registered that I was feeling terrible after just about every meal, I started shopping at foreign supermarkets and preparing my own food – and I felt infinitely better. Who knows exactly what was in the dishes that was making me feel so terrible (we’ve always suspected it was the oil, reused time and time again)… I’m pretty sure I don’t want to know.

      Sometimes I really have no idea how I lasted three years. That said, I loved my time there. I loved my friends and I came to really love Guangzhou. It was a wonderful experience. But there are many, many reasons that I decided to leave.

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