A Cultural Misfire

How I managed to lose 4 months of my experience in China to working instead of looking & listening.

I’ve recently rejuvenated my enthusiasm for China. One month ago I could have been coaxed onto an airplane for the United States so long as you made sure my things would be handled and shipped behind my departure with a promised delivery of at least 30%. However, today, it would perhaps take a candy bar or a bottle of gin to coax me onto that flight home. What changed? Well, in short… I was fired.

I’ve had a wonderful amount of time, vacation time, to evaluate my mood. Two weeks ago I did a similar evaluation, which ultimately, lead to my termination.

Two weeks ago, I decided I was distracted by a life of trivial frustrations and work. Frustrations with authority, frustrations with pride. I decided I was frustrated with the very same things I was frustrated with while working at home in the U.S. I decided I no longer wanted to meter my day with lists of faults, stories of intimidation, and levels of anger. I evaluated my situation and I meditated on that which could be changed, that which might be changed, and that which wouldn’t be changed. First, I accepted that which could not be changed. Second, I sat down with those things that could be changed and changed them, a great deal of which was my attitude. And third, I made steps to attempt to change that which sat in the middle. This worked. Discussions at lunch relaxed a bit, and my relationship with the people who surrounded me changed to. Some for the better, some for the worse.

Initially, people accepted these changes as an up for my mood swings, however, after some time, I was no longer perceived as happy-go-luck, but instead, disrespectful and untrustworthy (or so I perceived it). Still, my goals for ‘successful living’ were being met. While I still felt I was missing, I was feeling much better about my world. However, as people around me changed their attitude, it became more difficult to adjust my new senses to reflect those changes, and eventually I was back in a funk. I was miserable again.

Then came friday and I tell my boss I hate work. – The weekend happens and I’m fired.

Spring Flowers in Hohhot, China

Today I went to the park. Have you seen this park? Becci would be insulted if you came to Hohhot and you didn’t go to the park, or you went to the park and didn’t enjoy it. You have to see this park. It’s got two lakes, if not three, or four. It’s got duck boats, swan boats, submarine boats, 2 seaters or 4. It’s got a roller coaster, a log ride, carnival games, and a ferris wheel. And it’s got hammocks ice cream for sale around every corner. It’s quite the park.

Here in the park I found a great sense of renewal today. I found what I had been missing the last four months. The thing that was killing my sense of vitality. I signed up for a 6-month trip to China. I got a month at the beginning and then it ended. I began work and my world became a stew of English & American psudo-tradition wrapped up in a Chinese package. My world became a cultural mix-tape left on the side of the highway.

Why? How? When?

I’m sad it took so long to answer these questions.
It happened because I worked for a school that sells not only language, but culture. It sells a WHITE face. It sells promise. It just sells. And because it sells that culture, it’s attempted to take the culture of the ‘west’ and siphon off all things marketable about it, presumably all things good. Because it would be insane to represent all things bad in western culture, that is left out, and Chinese culture is used to handle the negative aspects of daily life, and this became my world. My adventure, hijacked, it was terrible.

I was indoctrinated into a western system, augmented by a Chinese system, that I was supposedly comfortable with. Every day I lived in a fake fantasy world that didn’t represent home, but was suppose to, and didn’t represent China, but was suppose to. I had all the worst parts of China mixed up with all the worst parts of being western, of being WHITE. It was terrible. I hated China. I hated life. I hated teaching. I hated children. I hated. Period.

Today I was in the park. Have I told you about this park? Today I was in the park and I was reminded of all the reasons I really liked China. All the reasons I really liked life, teaching, children. Period.

Outside of a silly institution are eager people, happy people, regular people, who go to parks on their weekends. Who work during the week, who have goals, and who are reaching for their goals. In the park, people approach me because I’m White but not because I’m WHITE. There’s mystery in a foreigner, just like there is mystery in a woman. But in order to figure that mystery out, you ask the cute girl next to you in 5th grade if you can borrow her eraser, you don’t visit the brothel. I’m approached by curious people, by people who tell me they’ve never spoken English with a native English speaker. I’m approached by people because they want to show me that they work for Amway, an American Company, and to ask if I know the CEO. (The answer is obviously, “Yes, of course. Peng You!”) I get to watch the fire works go off just because someone loves explosions. I get to smile at EVERY SINGLE PERSON I see on the street in order to elicit a smile back. I get to remember I’m in China! about once every 2 minutes. I go to lunch and eat noodles, again, and it’s great! I get to exchange QQ numbers with strangers and offer them help with any of their homework, call me anytime. I get invited to their home. I get to forget about every stranger I offered to help because they never ask. I get to go swimming for eight kuai and then play ping pong for five kuai. I get to live in China.

The difference is in the park I get to take all the BEST parts of China and set them in front of me in the grass next to the lake while watching swan boats and the ferris-wheel and I listen and look and touch and smell and smile. And at the end of the day, when I get home, I’ve forgotten about all the worst parts of the world and I only know the best parts… and that’s why I travel.

Finally two knobs in the shower!

10 hours of travel and three buses over, we´re off the farm (the farthest south we shall go on this journey) and in the third largest city in Ecuador, Cuenca. After almost three weeks of lying about, gardening, hiking, and building a bridge, we´re ready for some new sites and sounds and panama hats!

Back in time …..

* Fell a tree – stuck myself in the head with a 4 inch spine – head ache. Milked the cows – roped the cows – grabbed the bull by the horns – drew a diagram – made butter, buttermilk, sour cream, and cheese. Rode the horse – walked the horse – on the school bus – went to school – taught some English – drank with the local ´on duty´ police officer – taught more English – explained a Beatles song to 40 Ecuadorians – said the alphabet over and over again – Dos Jhons make a presence. Remembered my Boy Scout lashings – strained my back – finished the bridge. Ran out of gas – started cooking on open flame – rain – made more bread – salty bread – it´s hard tack – ´it IS nice to have a fire in the morning!**´. Packed up – cleaned up – enjoyed some cane wine with Hans – said good bye – off the farm.

To Cuenca!

The ride from Loja took us up into the southern highlands of Ecuador through rolling hills and had it not been for my ears consistent whining, the increase in altitude would have gone unnoticed. The countryside is an amalgamation of sights, smells, and sounds… I suppose such is any experience… just go with me on this one… For a bus ride it was remarkable. We passed pristine pastures, sheep, pine trees, adobe buildings next to wood sided ones next to piles of block, next to the beginnings of a new structure next to a pile of muck, workers roping cows and children chasing sheep. Every new valley had new sights and every climb out had new turns and exciting swerves and curves. ¨Gracias!¨ signaled the stop where we make a passenger drop. After 6 hours of travel we dipped into our last valley and saw only the lights of the large sprawling city. A cab ride from the bus depot to ´downtown´ via one ways, through narrow streets, and over cobblestone roads helped to make the city seem smaller than it really is. Consulting our Lonely Planet we identified a number of hostels and concluded we would do our own reviews. We soon dropped our things and went in search of some milk and Oreo cookies to accompany our television, separate mattress covered beds and quiet quarters, our reward for the long day of travel. With the church bells in the morning we woke up to the joy of the first left knobbed*** shower since leaving the states.

Nescafe and Jugo has got us ready for the day. The city is alive this morning.


* In the style of the writing of Kon Tiki – a book I´ve recently begun to read and finish (you should pick up a copy from your local library)

** Jon spent the better part of 2 frustrated hours trying to get a decent fire going… we needed hot water for coffee! As soon as fire was indeed produced (and what a fire it was!) Tina (freshly arisen from bed) strolls up casually behind us and says “It IS nice to have a fire in the morning, isn´t it?” Like King Edward IV telling his lovely maid, Lucy, “It is nice to have serfs, isn´t it!” as he enjoyes his fresh cheese and turkey.

***look at your shower at home and tell me what the left one does.