Now that I got the negative aspects of China out of the way, I want to say what I will miss most about China. Some of these will, hopefully, be replicated in Vietnam such as having students I greatly enjoy teaching as well as positive relationships I hope to establish with fellow teachers.
But I feel I would be remiss without writing about some of the many positive experiences and relationships I had in my life these last three years. Again, as with the previous list, the rankings are in no particular order with the exception on “number one”.
Number ten- The subway system: As I wrote in the last posting, it’s something I will miss and at the same time, not miss. The subway system in Beijing and Xi’an and no doubt all the cities in China is cheap, reliable, fast and usually can get you anywhere you want to go with perhaps the worst case being a 20-minute walk to your final destination if, like me, you avoid taxis at all costs.
I will especially miss it because there isn’t a functioning one in HCMC although, apparently, one is under construction and is years overdue. (how very American!) It’s now slated for 2020 rollout which no one really believes. That leaves me at the mercy of the unforgivable traffic morass on the streets.
Most likely, for the foreseeable future, I will be walking far more than I do now which is far more than I ever walked in America. It may develop that I will have to get some type of vehicle if I want to get from point A to point B without taking all day.
Number nine- Living in one of the oldest cities in China: I love history. Having lived in an ancient city for two years will be a highlight of my life. How “ancient” is it? Xi’an became a cultural and political center of China in the 11th century BC. Xi’an is also the starting point of the Silk Road and home to the Terracotta Army of Emperor Qin Shi Huang (second century BCE). I loved hanging out in the Muslim Quarter with its vast warren of shops and alleyways because, despite all of the modern trappings, the look and feel harken back many centuries and you really get a feel for just how old this city is by watching the locals plying their food, arts, and crafts much as how they’ve been doing it for centuries.
Also, as a “tier-two” city, it is far more genuinely Chinese feeling than Beijing or Shanghai, both international in feel. As a foreigner living in Xi’an, you will never feel like you’re in a “touristy” place. You can walk all day and you are the only westerner you see, In fact, I see no real outreach to lure foreign tourists even though the TerraCotta Warriors exhibit is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Xianese are decidedly modest about what French President Jacques Chirac in September 1987, praised as the Eighth Wonder of the World. For the record, I visited the TC Warriors twice.
Number eight- The Chinese people: I have a great affection for the people of China. While living here I have read extensively of the history of this country and came to appreciate the endurance, fortitude, and determination of this country to find “its place in the sun” to quote from history. I can see how proud these people are of their accomplishments over the past few generations. In 1978, China was poor. It had a GDP per capita level similar to Zambia. China experienced an average GDP growth of close to 10% per year until 2014, raising per capita GDP almost 49-fold, from $155 to $7,590 in 2014, lifting 800 million people out of poverty – an unparalleled achievement.
They are aware of this dramatic change and understandably very proud. It shows, and even a foreigner can see this in the people. Despite the fact that President Xe has “made China great again” relatively speaking, the Chinese are much more modest than Americans are about their status. From what I’ve read and experienced, the Chinese have always been relatively passive about their sense of national pride. America, as many countries have unhappily experienced has an evangelistic insistence that the American way of life is not only better than the rest, but everyone should adopt it whether they want to or not. Just ask my next host country, Vietnam!
The Chinese way appears to be one of setting an example of how to organize a society and others are welcome to accept or reject it. Like or dislike the government here, the reigning belief is that different social systems work for different countries. “You don’t have to like ours and we don’t have to like yours but that should be the beginning and the end of that debate such that there should even be a debate about another country’s social system.” Americans could learn a lesson in “MYOB” from the Chinese but learning from others is something American conceit doesn’t abide by very well.
Number seven- It’s an atheistic country: Living in a country that isn’t besotted by faith and belief is a very nice change of pace. I could write volumes about my contempt and disdain for how the “three desert dogmas” have completely and utterly ruined the human experience on planet earth. Combined with all the other unevidenced beliefs that there are invisible sky wizards (“supernatural agency” -if you must!) who control human destiny, civilization has been dragging itself torturously forward for the last two thousand years with this self-imposed “ball and chain” wrapped securely around its neck. It truly is the poisoner of civilization. Ergo…
I absolutely love, love that the overwhelming majority of Chinese have no clue about and less interest in the West’s three desert dogmas. Most Chinese aren’t even interested in learning more about the West’s “sky wizards.” Why should they? None of it makes a shred of sense and of course, in the West, the less sense a faith proposition has, the more reason to believe in its veracity for some strange reason. A simple truth is if you don’t grow up in a society dedicated to a set of ancient superstitions about how humans came to be, you accept the reality that we live in a natural universe which is evident for all to see who are unblinkered by Bronze-Age origin stories. Wow! Now I’m really fired up and want to write much, much more about The Greatest Evil in All History but I’ll spare the reader my over the top invective on the subject. Although I am happy to share my feelings about Scientology, aka: “Stalintology” if anyone asks.
Suffice to say…
The very fact that over a billion people don’t know about, don’t care about and have no interest in “being saved” and consequently (according to “The Big Baffling Book of Bronze-Age Bullshit”- my own quote, by the way) are condemned to the “Fiery Lake” for all eternity by a loving sky wizard simply because they don’t “accept” “Him” as their savior merely points to the sheer risible ridiculousness of the entire proposition. (see grossly offensive photo below.)
I imagine the collective Chinese response to this “threat” of eternal damnation would be the Pythonesque response of: “I fart in your general direction.”
But in fairness, I present both sides: My Christian friends, on this Easter Sunday in America, would reply: “Brian, Jesus loves you. Everyone else thinks you’re an asshole.”
Number six- China is a safe country: America is the freest country in the world, right? We can say and write almost anything we want without worrying about getting “the knock on the door.” Free speech is a great thing to have. I’m not even in the category of persons who say, “Freedom of speech, but...” Free speech, full-stop for me, please.
However, one can also consider living your life without having to worry about getting assaulted, raped or killed, as a component of freedom. Using that metric, China is a much freer country.
I’ve never had to think twice about my personal safety when going about my business, anywhere, anytime, day or night (as long as you don’t consider the dangers of crossing a street). In America, if you are walking in any major city at 3 am and something terrible happens to you, you can expect most people to say, “Well, what did you expect?” You never have that as an issue, at least in Beijing and Xi’an and from what I’ve heard, that’s the case in most cities. I’ve never had to assess my surroundings in regards to my personal safety. When walking around late at night, I don’t have to size up anyone walking towards me or behind me to determine if I have to prepare to take some precipitous action.
It’s very liberating to be anywhere: public transportation, at the school I worked at, in a mall or a movie theater without having to worry about a maniac with a firearm who’s pissed at life because he never had a girlfriend and takes out his anger on innocent people, with a shooting rampage. This worry is standard operating procedure for people living in or visiting America. How many places in America are there where people simply cannot go outdoors at nighttime because it’s too dangerous?
So which country is actually freer?
Number five- The weather: At first blush missing the weather may seem somewhat odd. However, I’m projecting the fact that I’m moving to a climate with two seasons: hot and hotter. Coming from the San Francisco area, to me, Beijing and Xi’an in the summer were absolutely oppressive in temperature and humidity. I’ve actually written blog posts about the heat.
However, I’ve been told that despite the heat, Xi’an isn’t really very humid in the summer. At least in comparison to Southern Vietnam which essentially means I’m doomed! I even liked the winters in China because I got to experience snow on a daily basis versus traveling to the mountains back home to get a taste of real winter. It was a nice change to “bundle up.”
So, I’ll miss the fact that there are four seasons in Xi’an. Right now, late April, it’s very temperate out. As I type this it’s mid-afternoon and 70 degrees. Yesterday it was rainy and in the ’60s. By comparison, in HCMC right now, according to weather.com it’s:
Number four- My students: Of course I will miss my students. As the Chinese with whom I can have complete conversations, I’ve been able to learn so much about the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of people of all ages and walks of life. I got a glimpse at the lives of Chinese who hold very modern, progressive ideas about cultural norms, individualism vs. collectivism as well as people who feel more bound to traditional teachings and filial piety. I’m thankful to my students who shared their life experiences with me.
Because I’m so much older than most students, I didn’t spend nearly as much time socializing with them as the other teachers who were in their age group. Still, I did share plenty of occasions outside the classroom setting and was able to connect on a level beyond “teacher-student.”
Number three- English First: I will miss working for EF. I’ll always be thankful that they gave me a chance to move to China and teach ESL even though they knew I would be 58 years old when I arrived and that meant I might only be allowed to work in China for two years. As it turned out, I was allowed to stay and work for one year beyond the age cutoff.
I hold EF in high regard as a learning environment that really does care about delivering a quality product to their students. I appreciated that EF always provided professional development for its teachers and made sure we had opportunities to develop as ESL teachers. In three years as a teacher, I never had any issues or problems with my managers and despite some of my tendencies, I never quarreled with anyone about anything which is noteworthy because I wear my ideas, political leanings and life philosophy on my sleeve so too speak. It helped that most people who work at EF are politically liberal. People who are inclined to travel tend to have an open mind. An open mind tends not to be a conservative one.
Number two- My fellow teachers: I have to acknowledge how much I enjoyed working with my fellow teachers in Beijing and Xi’an. It was especially fun here in Xi’an because the two adult teaching centers were very much interconnected in doing things together. In Beijing, there were over 20 centers so there wasn’t the dynamic of bonding with other teaching centers. In Xi’an, the two centers had about 16 or so teachers. I didn’t get to spend quality time with everyone but I always enjoyed our time together.
As noted previously, I’m far older than most of my teaching peers. My daughter is older than most of the teachers, come to think of it. Now, that really does make me feel old! Probably because I have a daughter in this age group, it helped me relate better to the “young-uns.” Also as a representative of “baby-boomers”, I definitely brought a very different perspective that I was never shy about sharing with my fellow teachers.
I also appreciated that the teachers were a variety of westerners: Americans, Canadians, South Africans, Australians, and the various Brits such as the Scots, and Welsh and Englanders. It was fun to banter about the variations of English we all possessed and the constant ribbing of each other’s use of English, and the different accents we all had. Or in the case of Americans, the fact that we don’t have accents! (and spell words much more logically than say, the teachers from Great Britain).
Number one- My “shout-outs”: Consider this last entry similar to “Yearbook signing day” where you write silly or pithy things in your various friend’s high school yearbook. I just want to recognize certain people who in one way or another stood out either because of how we connected or in some way played a role of some significance in my three years of living in China. The laudatories (not sure if that’s actually a word) are in alphabetical order with one exception.
Azara: My BFF who now teaches in Spain. We still “Wechat” every week and still “take the piss” out of each other. Azara was the one whose age was closest to me in Xi’an (“Hey old girl…!”). She also moved into my community for her second year teaching, so I had someone to hang out with and share dinner and a couple of bottles of wine, many a night. I appreciated the fact that she liked her wine and in abundance. She is a political junkie like me and fortunately, we both share the same politics. It was nice to have someone come over and watch MSNBC with. She never cared for China but she claims she’ll visit me in Vietnam. I’ll believe it when I see it.
Belle: My former colleague from Beijing. We bonded because I found out in late Summer, 2016 she shared a un-airconditioned apartment with five others and although she was moving back to Szechuan at the end of summer, I insisted on her moving into my spare bedroom because I had central A/C.
It was great to have a temporary roommate because I could go anywhere and Belle could speak the language. I loved showing her some of my favorite movies and TV shows while she stayed with me. She also came to visit me last summer here in Xi’an. I hope she’ll visit me in Vietnam.
Beth: A former American colleague from Beijing who left EF last year and is teaching at a private university in southern China. She too is also close to my age. (sorry Beth!) Despite our completely different upbringing and lifestyles we somehow managed to get along and enjoy each others company. Probably because we both have a healthy skepticism for many aspects of America and she also has very similar political leanings. I was also her “shoulder to cry on” because, without question, Beth had the original “roommate from hell.” She will definitely be visiting me in HCMC.
Cici: One of the local teachers in our office in Xi’an. Cici is a “hoot” to work with. She lived in Michigan for a year while at University so her understanding of Americans and their culture is exceptional. Very in tune with American idioms and slang, and, ironically, possesses a much better grasp of English grammar than I did (see? I just mixed my tenses and failed to correctly capitalize,) I loved that she didn’t put up with the periodic “boneheaded” statements and jokes of some of the male teachers. Her command of English is outstanding and she was always helpful when I needed someone who spoke Mandarin to help me out.
Claire: One of my colleagues from South Africa. Another friend who shares the same political leanings as well as a love of arts and culture. I enjoyed our sociological musings about the sorry state of humanity. Even though we didn’t work in the same teaching center, because her roommate, Sarah and I worked and played together, I got to spend a lot of time with Claire and got to know and appreciate her- South African eccentricities and all. Special “shoutout” as the only other person who likes to drink 192 proof vodka. I really, really hope she visits me in HCMC.
Kim: My fellow “Angelino” who lived in Westwood, Los Angeles, where I grew up. Kim is nine years younger than I am which makes her the other teacher much older than her peers. She also moved into my community, so we have shared many meals and shows together. She moved from Vietnam to LA in 1975. I think she should move to HCMC to teach there seeing as it would be a kind of “homecoming” although she doesn’t quite see it that way. Regardless, it would be fun to share HCMC with her. And if Kim doesn’t move there, well at least she should come and visit me in her country of birth.
Minnie; “She’s so tiny…” I just adore Minnie. She started out as one of my students in Beijing but she then got hired at EF so we also became colleagues. When Nancy and Sophie visited me there, I enlisted Minnie to show us around Beijing before we started our tour of China and then she joined us for my most memorable meal upon our return.
Minnie also helped me celebrate my first Thanksgiving in China. And, like Belle, she came to visit me here in Xi’an. Sophie also adored Minnie and loved to say, “She’s so tiny” because even though Sophie’s barely five feet tall, she is actually taller than Minnie who was given that name by one of the teachers, for the obvious reason. I really hope she visits me in HCMC.
Patrick: My “boss” in Xi’an. My time at EF Xi’an would simply not be complete if I didn’t give a “shout out” to my former boss who is actually moving back to Florida, taking a very nice and well-deserved promotion as a director of foreign language studies in the Southbeach EF teaching center. Although half my age, if you ask me, he knows far more about life than any of his peers, I was always surprised when I would make some cultural reference from way before his time but he usually knew what I was talking about. I also sensed that he understood me even if the others weren’t quite sure. I had no qualms in deciding to sign up for another year at EF under his tutelage.
He was also an outstanding manager who was always helpful, patient and really tried to promote professionalism in his teachers. Even though he’s taking his new Chinese bride back to America, I doubt he will be returning to Asia anytime soon. However, when I visit my mother in West Palm Beach, I now have a reason to visit Miami.
Sarah: The one who I will miss the most from Xi’an. Sarah is like my surrogate daughter. It’s a special relationship. We sat next to each other so it was probably inevitable we’d bond as long as we were on the same wavelength. Unlike most of her American peers, she has an intellectual curiosity towards academics such as Philosophy, for its own sake (probably something to do with going to Amherst College). That just resonates with me. I will miss playing the online trivia game “Quiz Up” with her. Our favorite topic: Etymology. She possesses a vocabulary much greater than her peers and it shows.
Other things we shared in common: usually what annoys her about people are the same things that annoy me. We could “vent” to each other when someone grinded our gears. She is a wine lover and appreciates haute cuisine (made sense; she taught English in France for two years) and for some strange reason actually liked my sense of humor. That made her my new best friend! I will miss her calling me “teacher Brain” which is how my name was always spelled by Chinese.
Manager Zoe: When I visited Xi’an in January 2017 to meet with the two managers of the Xi’an branches, Zoe invited me to join her staff at a dinner at a local restaurant. I hit it off pretty well with everyone and hoped I would be assigned to work at her branch. As it turned out, I ended up in Patrick’s branch so I never got to work for Zoe. But, before she got promoted to Regional Manager which has consumed all of her time, we socialized together and I even met her mother who comes to Xi’an for long periods of time.
Like Patrick, she is far beyond her years in terms of her age versus her experiences. She has the wisdom to be in upper management in the teaching industry. I really appreciate all that she did for me even though I wasn’t her direct employee. Even though she’s been to Vietnam, I’m hoping she will also come and stay with me. I’m also hoping she’ll actually get the birthday presents I got her for her birthday last year, before I move away.
Teacher Zoe: One of the other local teachers. While Sarah sat at the desk to my left, Zoe sat on my right, so we spent almost two years side by side. Like Cici, Zoe is fluent in English and far more knowledgable about english grammar than I am (See? I didn’t capitalize “English.”) We also bonded over having the same perspective about people, relationships and the human condition. Zoe was my “go to” person when I was in a situation where the language barrier was insurmountable. I am so thankful for her taking the time to either write a note for me to use or speak on the phone with someone on my behalf. Probably more than any other Chinese, Zoe understood me the best and I’d like to think that I understood her, too.
Winnie: My manager in the Wudaokou teaching center. Winnie was the best manager a teacher could have. (that title may have gone to Zoe, but she wasn’t my manager.) The atmosphere and vibe in Wudaokou made it a joy to go to work. Winnie set that tone. She let us do our job, didn’t interfere, never read anyone “the riot act” although there were plenty of times when that was called for, and made my first year at EF so enjoyable, I had no problem in deciding to sign up for another year.
Madison. The one person who isn’t listed alphabetically because she holds a special place in my heart. A former student from Beijing. Even though I haven’t seen her since I moved to Xi’an, Madison stands out among everyone I’ve met in China. If there was one person I could adopt and take home to America, it would be Madison. I’ve written many postings about my time hanging out with Madison, but the one where we celebrated her 29th birthday would be a good reference point.
She lived fairly close to me in Beijing and she spent a few nights as my houseguest. So we spent many hours together. She is also fluent in conversational English and at the time worked for a well known international maker of slot machines. Madison, like Zoe and Cici, has an “edge” to her which appeals greatly to me. These ladies don’t have the “sweetness” that is fairly typical of Chinese girls. Nothing wrong with being “sweet” but I prefer to spend time with edgy people. More complex, more cynical, opinionated. I gravitate towards that style.
Of all the people in Beijing, it was Madison who I missed the most when I moved to Xi’an. And of all the Chinese I will miss when I leave (and there are plenty), it will be Madison I miss the most. I truly hope to see her again, in HCMC.
An astute observer may have noticed that with the exception of Patrick, the most significant persons in my life these last three years, are all women. That’s not terribly surprising. I’ve always gravitated towards females and prefer the company of women over men. It’s one of my “calling cards.” I fully expect that to be the case in Vietnam.
So there you have it. As I wrote, three blogs ago, my farewell to China would be “Two parts love, one part snark.”
I depart in eight days.
My final post will be my annual remembrance about Ellen on the fourth anniversary of her untimely death.