What would laowai life in China be like if it wasn’t for the plethora of fantastic blogs out there sharing knowledge, experience, humour and advice with us? Probably a whole lot more productive, but certainly a lot less entertaining and informed.
It is with this in mind that we kick off a new series here on Lost Laowai whereby we’ve picked the brains of some of the sinosphere’s most prolific English-language bloggers and new media embracers.
Our first interview features a name most of you will undoubtedly recognize. John Pasden has been living in China for more than eight years and has been writing about it, via his blog Sinosplice, for the majority of that time.
Lost Laowai: I believe before coming to China you were an expat in Japan. Was it while living there that you decided to move to China? Can you paint a picture for us of the day you decided to move to China?
John Pasden: I don’t think I was ever an “expat” in Japan, but I did study there as an exchange student for one year. I did the homestay thing and learned a ton of Japanese in a short time. It was that experience that made me realize how much I loved acquiring a foreign language in a foreign land. So it got me to thinking about how to do it again after graduation.
I was originally a microbio major, and I was planning to return to University of Florida and jump right into physics and organic chemistry. But the more I thought about the experience I was having, the surer I was that it was truly significant. I wanted to pursue languages and make a career out of it, somehow.
Maybe it was China’s influence on Japan, maybe it was a group of Taiwanese students I met in Japan, or maybe it was the the challenge of tones beckoning me… but I was drawn to China. While still in Japan, I changed all my plans, and when I returned to UF I changed my major to Japanese and started studying Chinese (and Spanish again).
LLW: With 6.5 years in the archives, you have the distinction of having the second oldest China expat blog that I know of (The Peking Duck has you beat by about 2 weeks). Did you ever expect your blog to be running this long? Have you ever considered packing it in?
I think readers can tell when I’m feeling less inspired. But I keep at it, not just out of habit but because I know the inspiration comes and goes, and if I’m patient it always comes back. It would be a real shame to quit in a moment of weakness. I’ve met lots of amazing people through my blog and website, and it even got me my current job at Praxis Language!
LLW: It’s always impressed me that you seem to find an endless array of relevant topics to discuss. How do you keep things fresh, topical and non-redundant?
John: I guess I’m just a guy that likes to think about things. During my daily life here, somewhere in the back of my mind I’m always keeping an eye out for things I might like to write about. Since I’m interested in language and we’re forever immersed in Chinese here, the topics are infinite.
That said, I’ve gone through topic phases as well. Once upon a time I used to write a lot of “China is so weird” posts like a lot of new expats. Then for a while I would write more tolerant posts, trying to provide more cultural insight. These days I’m most interested in linguistic topics. I have a big long list of linguistic topics to write about. But I’ll write about whatever interests me.
LLW: With your extensive interest in second-language acquisition, a job with ChinesePod seems like a kismetic match. Can you tell us about how you came to be a host and academic director for the company?
John: ChinesePod contacted me in early 2006. I was aware of the podcast, but hadn’t paid it a whole lot of attention yet. They knew about me because of my blog, and knew I was working on my masters in applied linguistics.
I went to meet the founders with an open mind, and was blown away by their progressive ideas about language learning and technology. The potential was staggering. I signed up as a part-time linguistic consultant, and loved the work. I’m kind of a shy guy in some ways, so I was actually never eager to be an on-air personality, but Jenny is great, and Ken’s charisma overwhelmed me. I got into hosting and from there moved into the ChinesePod academic position, and later senior product manager. It all just happened naturally.
LLW: If you could only give one piece of advice to a new learner of Mandarin, what would you tell them?
John: Keep at it. This is a language that mercilessly weeds out the easily discouraged.
LLW: You’ve stated that you’re staying in China “indefinitely”, was there a specific time or moment that you realized that China was the place you wanted to be long-term? Do you think that expats that decide to make China their long-term home need to mentally make a commitment to the country to avoid getting stuck between worlds?
John: More specific than what I wrote about in this blog post? Not really. It was a slow, gradual decision for me. Once you’re here for a while, you start to approach a critical point, after which you realize that (1) it’s going to be really, really hard to ever go home, and (2) if I’m really going to stay here long-term than I need more of a long-term career plan.
I’m not sure about the need to make a commitment… I don’t think it’s really that complicated. I think it’s just as simple as wanting to and being able to stay here long-term. I never really worry about “getting stuck.”
LLW: As you’re now married to a Chinese national, has that changed how you view and interact with China? Has it made things easier or more difficult in any way?
John: Yeah, I think having a Chinese spouse gives you more insight into Chinese culture simply because you will get to know your spouse way better than you will get to know any other Chinese person (I would hope), so you know them in and out as a person, and you’re able to see more clearly where culture exerts its influence. It becomes harder to dismiss certain things when your spouse, someone you really understand and respect, believes them.
So yeah, it makes things both easier and harder. (How’s that for a slippery answer?)
LLW: What lays ahead for John Pasden and the Sinosplice blog?
John: Well, I expect I’ll be at ChinesePod for a while yet, but I will save some Chinese language learning linguistic love for Sinosplice as well. While in Orlando for ACTFL I met a lot of Chinese teachers that knew ChinesePod, but also several who knew Sinosplice (!) and wanted to personally thank me for maintaining such a resource, because their students found it really helpful. I found that surprising and humbling, but really gratifying. Partly because of that experience, I’m planning on expanding the language sections of my site, and evolving the blog section a bit to complement it.
I hope I can keep Sinosplice worth a regular read. As always, my only guide will be to write about things I personally find interesting, and to draw inspiration from my own experiences and observations.