On leaving China
The “expatriate leaving China” post is now a thing, and I understand why. This place, love it or hate it, changes you, and in leaving you want to condense those changes into something small and tangible, and then finding that to be impossible you write.
And so it is.
I first came to China in May 2001. I was in college and lost. I started as a Computer Engineering major who didn’t realize that it was Computer Engineering rather than Computer Engineering.I switched to Education, which had long been a passion, and found it painfully lacking in rigor. I was thinking about dropping out and joining the military and seeing the world for a few years while I figured things out — the timing on that would not have been ideal, in hindsight. Then, on a random trip to visit friends at another school, sitting beside the pool at a water polo match shooting the shit, one of my friends mentioned a friend of his that had gone to China to teach English and was enjoying it. When I got back home I started looking into how such a thing was done, and in a few weeks had found a job for the summer teaching English in Changchun, a city I had never heard of and that took me a solid 20 minutes to find on a map. A couple of months later I flew from Orlando to San Francisco to Shanghai, stayed with a friend there for a week, and then flew to Changchun.
The job itself sucked, and I ended up spending two of the four months I was there in a tiny town near the North Korean border called Baishan, as the town’s only foreigner and resident sideshow attraction. The 9/11 attacks occurred while I was carousing with a bunch of other teachers, essentially none of whom I could communicate with in any meaningful way. I flew back as scheduled less than a week later, on an almost empty 777, and landed at an O’Hare under siege, with Illinois National Guardsmen and their M-16s smothering the airport.
I came away from my time in Changchun with two realizations:
- Holy shit, that was fun, I want to do it again.
- I need a college degree — any college degree — to live there long-term.
So I switched my major to Political Science (which had been my minor originally), busted ass for five semesters, graduated, and hopped on a flight to Shanghai three weeks later, en route to a job in Hangzhou. That was August 2003, and save for a few trips back to the US, and elsewhere in Asia, I’ve been in China ever since.
That is, until today, at 3:55pm, when I leave on another 777, again bound for Chicago, on the first leg in my move back to the United States. I didn’t quite make it ten years, but it’s close enough that I’m going to call it that.
When I arrived in 2003 I had a single checked bag and a backpack. Today I’m flying back with four checked bags, three carry-ons, a wife to whom I’ve been married for eight years, a five-year old, and a six-month old. After a brief three-week interlude with my parents, we’ll be living in Austin, TX, a place to which I’ve traveled only a handful of times. I’m ten years older, my hairline has receded significantly, a fact only partially compensated for by a beard-growing ability my shave-twice-a-week 23-year-old self could not have imagined. I can speak and read Chinese, which still astounds me every once in a while. I’ve done some really stupid things. I’ve met so many amazing people, many of whom I’m honored to call friends. I know so much more about the world than I did a decade ago it’s hard to imagine that I was considered even remotely educated when I graduated from university.
This has been without question the best ten years of my life. Looking back there are some things I would have done differently, but I regret nothing. For all the negatives often quoted in going away posts like this one — the pollution and lack of space, the corruption, the censorship, the general lack of civil society — there have been so many positives, it’s impossible for me to come away with anything but good memories of the experience.
At the end of the day, I’m leaving for my kids. What is fun and exciting for a recent college graduate is dangerous and stifling for a preschooler. I know I’m taking chances with my health and safety living here, but it’s a choice I’ve made. My kids have made no such choice, and I don’t feel comfortable making it for them. I’d like them to grow up in a place where airborne particulate matter isn’t part of daily conversation, and where food safety, while not perfect, is not a major concern. I’d like them to grow up in a place where blind, rote memorization isn’t a valid educational technique, and where expression and self-confidence and critical thinking are rewarded rather than chastised. If it were just me, or just my wife and I, we’d probably stay, but China is a tough place to be a kid, as if just being a kid isn’t tough enough already.
China is a different place than it was in 2003. If I were graduating from university today, would I come to China? Maybe. I’d certainly go somewhere — I’ve learned things living overseas that I would have never learned at home, and would without reservation recommend it to anyone — but I suspect the opportunity that China presented to young expatriates a decade ago has moved elsewhere now. Southeast Asia? Africa? I don’t know. Or maybe in fundamental ways China hasn’t changed all that much, but I have and what I’m looking to get out of life here has, and it’s still as exciting of a place for newcomers as it was in 2003. There’s only one way for you to find out.
I’ve taken more from China than I’ve given, in life and love and learning. It’s been a great ten years, and I have a funny feeling I’m never going to really leave this place. But for now, it’s on to new places and new adventures, and I’m excited.
But I’ll miss you.