The goodbye (but not farewell) China post

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Distraction Free

I’ve been resisting the idea of doing a “goodbye China” post for awhile now, just as I resisted the idea that I was leaving China.

I remember clearly what it was like the summer before I left America. Those initial emails, the excitement, the trepidation. The realization that my options were a) go to grad school, do the same thing I’d been doing for the past four years, or b) go to China. Do something new. I circled B.

It was the best decision I ever made.

The weekend before I left, in the midst of heavy partying (most of which I don’t remember); time spent with friends, some of whom I still talk to, a few of whom have not spoken to me since; it did dawn on me: I’m really doing it.

I’m really going to China.

When I was leaving China, it dawned on me, but not in the same way. I made the decision to leave, and then actually left in two different mind states, at two vastly different universities.

In late 2009, I was waking up five mornings a week at five am or so, grabbing bowls of re gan mian, catching the bus and then sitting in traffic an hour or so to take Chinese classes at Wuhan University. After this, I got to teach twenty hours a week at an … average Wuhan university. Perhaps that’s being too nice, a bit of “face-giving”, but what can I say? While I did enjoy walking five minutes on a Friday afternoon only to find that three students out of thirty-six had shown up, chatting for about ten minutes and then going back to my apartment with a crate of beer and/or rice wine, the whole schedule was really ripping me apart.

So I took the first step: at the United States Embassy in Beijing I took my oath, got my certificate to marry. We later went to the Hubei marriage bureau, and by the time we mailed off our visa application, it was the end of the semester.

I guess if I’d really wanted to, I could’ve stayed at that university despite my ranking among teachers.

“You are thirteen,” my boss told me.

“Oh?”

“We have fourteen teachers,” she added, with great distress.

To this day, I’m not sure how they ranked us. Whatever it was, I sucked at it.

I asked my Chinese teacher if she knew of any jobs, she directed me to a former teacher at Wu Da, then to someone else, and then I interviewed for the job at Wuhan University.

I believe my old school gave me a bit of face. My FAO sure didn’t want to. His exact words to me were “you were late to class”, and he thought this necessary to not only tell Wuhan University, but also to put on my reference letter.

He didn’t, and thus the head honchos at Wu Da never knew that their new acquisition had been late a couple times for a Friday afternoon class. I guess every foreign teacher in China does have a skeleton in the closet. That’s mine.

It was in doubt that my wife would receive a visa. We just didn’t know. Some sources said it was easy, others said near impossible. One blogger in fact said that when his wife got her visa there were a lot of Chinese women outside crying. It’s funny now, given how smoothly everything went, but at the time it’s not hard to see how something like this can make you worry, especially coming from someone who’d been there, done that and probably had the t-shirt in the wash cycle.

At Wuhan University, I had wonderful students and even better working conditions. I had a great apartment by the East Lake, where aside from some nosy housekeepers, no one bothered me. I had free time to pursue anything I wanted, and had access to all the re gan mian I wanted, plus beer, scotch and of course, rice wine. When they say rice wine is an acquired taste, they’re not lying, but if you’re able to acquire it, you’re in for a treat.

This is part of the reason that I signed a new contract. Unsure of my wife’s visa, I renewed for a full year. This was in June.

My wife’s interview was in July.

We did not sleep the night before her interview. I could go in with her, but only to a point; I had to sit in a cafe with my fifty RMB cup of instant coffee while she stood in line, shaking. Then, if at no other time, I was thankful I had renewed for a full year. I told myself, as I had told her repeatedly, that no matter what happened, we would be okay.

The women were coming around the corner. I knew her reaction would tell the tale, and her smile and bouncing step said it all.

I’d be lying if I said my heart did not sink a little bit at this news. I was happy for her, but at the same time…

It took me awhile to accept that I was leaving. Awhile, as in up until the morning of.

A lot of things happened during this time. I began writing for Lost Laowai; I finished a novel about a foreign teacher who falls in love with a Chinese woman; and most importantly, I finally felt that I could say something about China, actually say something other than a banal observation or some poorly worded kindergarten temper tantrum on how such-and-such annoyed me. I guess what I’m really trying to say is, I finally felt at home.

I entered the fall 2010 semester knowing that I might be leaving China. Might. I say ‘might’ because I still was not sure. People I’d talked to had warned me about the condition of the American economy; most fearful, though a few (read: disgruntled, divorced expats) gleeful that finally the great tanker labeled ‘unsinkable’ had hit a financial iceberg. I don’t know if it will sink, but there’s one thing we can agree on: they’ve locked the poor down in the bottoms and are going to let them drown in their sleep. What else is new?

It wasn’t until early December that we bought our plane ticket, leaving at the end of December. My wife was the voice of reason in all this. She convinced that we had little to lose by trying. After all, she had gone through all that to get the damn visa. We couldn’t just throw it all away based on others’ opinions.

Along the way, someone contacted me from America and I ended up gaining a wonderful new friend, a cool guy and a talented writer. I met many people during my time in China, many of them wonderful, all of them interesting.

I said at the start that going to China was the best decision I ever made. Why is that? It could be my own growth; it could be the people, the culture I got to know; or it could be a beautiful young woman, working in the foreign affairs office. Standing there by the window, asking me on a 35 degree Celsius day if I wanted tea or warm water. It could be her, and the extended family I am now a part of. :)

I’ll end this with a write-up I did my second day in China. These are my very first impressions:

  • Driving here is insane. On the way from the airport, our driver nearly hit several people, pedestrians included.
  • Drivers here are not hesitant to honk their horns at you. Even if you’re a pedestrian crossing at a designated crosswalk. But I have the right away! No, you do not.
  • The dollar is worth more than the yuan (RMB). It will carry you far.
  • My apartment is brand-new, furnishings included.
  • The internet is of course filtered, so I cannot officially access wordpress. Right now, I’m using a web-based anonymous proxy.
  • At our welcome dinner last night, the food packed quite a punch. The Wuhan delicacies tend to be on the VERY spicy side.
  • There is a street close by, I don’t know the name, full of street vendors selling an assortment of items.
  • Try to learn some Chinese before coming here. That way, when you order noodles from a street vendor, you know the price they are quoting and are not stuck with handing them a 10 and hoping for the best.
  • However, now that I have internet access, that should change. There are lots of online tools that assist language learning.

That’s it for now. I’ll be back later with clearer, more in-depth posts.

August 29, 2008

I’ll never be able to relive those first days. So I’ll just have to make do with great friends, a wife and memories I’ll carry until the day I die.

The title is a little misleading. It’s not goodbye, or farewell. More of an attempt to summarize in 1500 words what would take 100,000.

Talk on The goodbye (but not farewell) China post


11 Comments
  1. It’s a bit English schoolteacherish on this site and the “Lost Laowai” name is lame (no self respecting expat would refer to himself as such), but I guess as a forum for 20-something American college kids it doesn’t do any harm. Lost Laowai is best when it doesn’t take itself or China too seriously but when it does it becomes trite and holier-than-thou. Travis one of your better contributors, but the real China hands are elsewhere to be honest.

    • Profile photo of

      I had considered calling the site “Not China Ren”, but thought it sounded lamer.

      You’re welcome to contribute and improve the quality. I’m neither 20-something, American, in college nor an English school teacher; so quite happy to have a variety of opinions.

      You do see the irony of saying the blog comes off as “trite and holier-than-thou” in a comment like yours, right?

      • For what it’s worth, I really like the name of the site. No matter how long we live here, no matter what our fluency, no matter if we marry and have kids, I feel like we are all, at times, going to be a lost laowai.

        But maybe my opinion doesn’t count because I am indeed an American, but at least I’m not a 20-something! :p

  2. Took a lot of courage & foresight to pull up roots & settle in a strange country – especially China – so demonized by the American press. But your wife seems logical, brave & entreperenial. Won’t supprise me you both land up owning a couple of busineses/shops in the States given both your guanxi in China. Good luck & God bless.

  3. you do know that China is like the mafia : “just when you thought you were out, it sucks you back in” it aint good-bye , but see you later

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