Those who can — do. Those who can’t — go teach in China?
I admit it. Asia has been everything but clear for me. I have always had mixed feelings about the life here. Changing my mind about the Chinese way of taking the subway, Indonesian food and even local western friends was my daily bread. It was not a six-faced dice but more like a twenty-faced one. It was never simple.
My first night out in Beijing hutongs, with a university-time friend. Long time no see, craft beer, first impressions and she presents me with a statement: “They see westerners (especially teachers) as someone who couldn’t make it in Europe so they have to come to China”. The timeline of my response could only be compared with someone who has just been told they have a terminal illness and three months to live.
- Anger: “How dare you say that, why do you think being a student and living from your parents’ pocket is more honourable than earning your way through life?”
- Denial: “For sure, everyone has their own reasons, no way to fit them all.”
- Questioning: “Look at that couple! A perfect petite Chinese girl and a very average-looking American with straight jeans and worn boots. He was most likely single in the States”.
- Acceptance: “All of my guy colleagues have Chinese girlfriends, are carrying a little muffin-top and know a lot of geeky jokes. I find them ridiculous, but who am I to say, I am in the same boat…”
I am now bustling between questioning and acceptance. I have won and lost numerous arguments with myself on that topic. Is it a matter of failure or simply being realistic and smart about your resources? If your race or nationality can be a given advantage in a Far Far Away land, why would you not want to make use of it? There are stories upon stories about westerners becoming models or being cast for movies and advertisements in Asia (I am not capable of even stepping close to that industry). China is also one of the best-paid countries to be an English teacher. Everyone has their own reasons, yes, but there is a pattern in everything. Since I love categorising and making lists, here’s the list of people you can expect to be around when coming to China.
I am completely honest with myself. I have not been having the most glamorous lifestyle or promising career back in London, it is no secret. I always tell myself I am not tied down to a geographical region (no one knows how much of that is actually true), but more to a lifestyle and outlook. And carrying lifestyle around the world is easier than you would expect.
With them, it is a little bit like a rehab camp here. People leave after suffering break ups, debts (I mean, American-style debts — “If I am crossing that border again, I might get arrested”) or depression. The list could be hung in a lobby of a rehab centre. They see it as a reboot and a chance to start anew. How sweet. These might be a burden if they start whining. Otherwise, can make perfect friends!
Well thought through
They might come with wives or boyfriends. Buying a house in the States has not been an option yet, and they are coming to save money. They get a cheap yet cosy housing, cook a lot and go out just the perfect amount. They have mostly been teaching before and are highly professional. These are possibly some of my favourites: their only drama is that fight in IKEA when they wouldn’t agree on a sheet pattern, they keep funny stories from home and are always there for you if you need anything. It might also be an additional skill-building for their career. Generally, they have their life together and know what they are doing. Everything is done with a calm face. Oh, they might also be single, but that doesn’t change much.
Possibly flaky. Their natural habitat is that bar where you can drink all you want for 100 yuan (£10). They tend to be excited about anything new: a funny Chinese word, a hip café or a gig. Might come across as either really fun or simply lowbrow. Even while earning higher salary than their friends in Europe, they are broke most of the time. There’s a mysterious hole in that pocket. Lately, I have been growing less and less fond of the student life, and gap year teachers are carrying a very similar vibe. Look, I get it, gap year is great. I would recommend that to everyone I know. I am just going to be in the next room if you need me.
Go with the flow
There was probably not much to do back home. Or not exciting enough. So they go and become deep diving masters or teachers. There is not much keeping them rooted and they tend to get rid of their material possessives with little heartache. Maybe some. These are the people I want to talk with all the time. They are constantly learning something new, eating fruit for breakfast and buying second-hand books. Usually, they know Chinese better than me after two weeks in, but I cannot stay annoyed for a long time. Might possibly carry a Thermos with them.
Everyone has their own reasons. I cannot yet pick a category for myself. I know I want to be between “go with the flow” and “well thought through”. If I had to pick a side now, I would say, yes, of course, I belong to all those who couldn’t make it back at home. Otherwise, why would you even want to leave? But “couldn’t make it” applies here by their standards, not the general ones. Looking from the outside, it might seem they were doing pretty well. But standards, funny enough, are rarely fixed. They change shape moving from one person to another. My current window is facing another building, but it is on the 25th floor in Beijing, so, by my standards, that is pretty cute. Though I might change my mind later.
Originally published at cityofjungle.com on January 14, 2016.