As my wife, whom I love very much, reminds me from time to time, I assume too often that the readers of the blog actually know me. I hope this post helps you better understand where I am coming from as you read about the China that I know.
From time to time readers of the blog ask whether or not I even like living in China. They say things like, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you just go home?” In no time the comment section fills up with reasons why I should stay in China to continue my work, whatever that might be.
The truth is though, I love China.
Since high school I’ve been fascinated by everything about the country, and as surprising as this may be to regular readers, it was an interest in communism that first pulled me to learn about it (one teacher called me “that commie” in front of his other students). In my classes I would rush through my homework so that I could use the gained time to read Chinese history books I had borrowed from the library and scribble interesting bits into my dedicated China notebook.
When I started college, I signed up for East Asian Studies and filled my schedule so full of China related classes that by my second year I had already fulfilled most of the requirements for the degree. I added Anthropology as an excuse to take even more China related classes, and it gave me the foundation to organize my thoughts about Chinese culture.
Finally, in 2007, I had the chance to visit the country I had already dedicated so much time to studying. I had the opportunity to see dozens of historical sites as well as get glimpses of Chinese family life as I traveled through 9 major cities.
It was very shortly after that trip that I signed up to be a volunteer in rural China. I arrived with a one year contract and a salary lower than what I had received working part-time as a butcher in college. After just 3 months of teaching, I had begun the paper work to add another year to my contract.
After that second year, I was given the option to extend for another three years, and I agreed to it without any discussion of salary. I can say in complete honesty that I didn’t care how much I was going to be paid. I have a job that gives me a sense of purpose, my work is appreciated by my colleagues, and I am challenged in someway everyday.
I’ve spent my last 5 birthdays in China. My wife and I met in Guangxi, were engaged in Chengdu, and started our married life together in Nanjing. This country has shaped who I am.
When people think I dislike China they don’t realize that the things that make China such a great place are very hard to put into writing.
How do you accurately capture students’ enthusiasm? How do you describe the warmth and smell that comes from a bowl of dumplings you just spent the last hour folding with friends? Sharing stories from different worlds, and still finding similarities; walking through temples that have been frequented by pilgrims for thousands of years and being enveloped by a cloud of incense meant to carry prayers to the Buddha; enjoying a glass of jasmine tea in a park in Chengdu on a sunny winter day while struggling to learn yet another version of mahjong; these are the simple joys that have sustained me during my 5 years in China (roughly 20% of my life).
When I look back at those years, I don’t regret a second of my time spent serving others. I’m pulled back, again and again, to the classrooms of rural Guangxi full of wonderful students, and hope that in some small way, I can shed light on their concerns and their hopes for China.