I’m one week into the new term, though the experiences of this last month are still lingering in my mind. This is the kind of experience in which I thrive, feel alive, find meaning and adventure: visiting new places, meeting people, figuring out how to navigate my way around with a loose plan. I feel my understanding of China broadened, as I got to see a bit more of the diversity of life in China, from the multi-era, multi-cultural, vibrant feel of the big cities to the fishing village life of some of the small towns I visited.
People I met were often surprised to discover I lived in Xiaogan. And while if I had been more educated about Chinese life and done more research and gone with a separate organization I might have chosen a big city, I can say my ignorance is bliss. Xiaogan feels right and good and exactly where I’ve needed to be, and that belief makes me realize I’d rather be here than anywhere else. And, it makes me cringe to try and imagine my life without all of the relationships I’ve formed here, all which would be sacrificed if I’d gone elsewhere. This is why I don’t tend to have major regrets; any choice to “re-do” part of my life means giving up too many other precious things.
So what will I most remember from this holiday? The people.
There was Kenny, an American-born Chinese young man who shared with me his belief that the younger generations in China generally feel that the forced learning of the PRC’s traditional values and politics are hogwash, irrelevant to life now. Because of the way students at my school obediently accept what they’re taught and are often discouraged from offering their personal critiques and opinions, it hasn’t been all that evident to me that these philosophies are more like relics of a dying worldview than a perspective they intend to actually embrace as their own. China is certainly changing.
There was Dave from Australia, who found it incredulous that I had a girlfriend back home to whom I’ve been faithful to while in China, when I could be out sleeping with dozens of Chinese girls. He’s got a point, I suppose, though not compelling enough to win me over.
There was Craig, who dialogued with me about his Buddhist faith and reassured me that there are young people actively seeking to satisfy their spiritual hunger here, something maybe more evident in the big cities. The young people I’ve encountered seem to see spirituality as something important to their grandparents, or else don’t see the relevance of it to their life and see it instead more as unneeded ritual. Though, I think my fellow Christians and I often give others this impression about Jesus’ spirituality as well—that it’s not something necessarily meant to be interwoven into all facets of daily life but is something more like an escape, or a nice add-on to life, much like taking up a new hobby would be in how it just rounds out our life rather than transforming all facets of it.
Related, there was the Dali Lama. Okay, so I didn’t actually meet him, but encountered him in a book in Hong Kong (would have to be Hong Kong…he’s not really admired these days in mainland China in light of issues with Tibet). I was really touched and challenged by his wisdom and the relevance of his teachings, despite the ways I find the Buddhist worldview lacking. I’d imagine some of the young people I encounter, who I believe are at risk for letting greed dictate their choices in life, might benefit from more exposure to Buddhism, which seems to suggest greed and ignorance as primary causes of the world’s suffering...a seemingly collectivist way of looking at our broken human condition that really resonates with me.
There was Anna’s Dad, whose hospitality was unending (as were his attempts to make sure my wine glass stayed full). It was a great honor for him to host a foreigner (let alone his daughter’s teacher) as not many foreigners visit his smaller city. One night over dinner he asked me (through his daughter’s translating) what the most important things in life were to me. I said something about giving and receiving love, feeling a sense of purpose and call in what I do, growing in my understanding of the world, just off the top of my head. He said health and money, and wondered why money wasn’t more important to me. I said that one “never has enough money” and that money can’t make me happy. He insisted that money can make you happy, because you can get more things you want when you have money. I said that money can’t buy me the things I desire. He said that I was young, and that more life experience might change my perspective. I smiled and went back to eating shellfish.
There was Wayne, an American businessman I talked to at the hotel bar in Guangzhou who has been living at the hotel for three months and has had previous such stints in the past. It was in some way profound to hear him talk of his “community”—the hotel staff, with whom he has shared many a drink and dart game. Amidst his dining recommendations I could sense this strange mix of discontentment and contentment—a man who seems a bit rootless and unsettled but nonetheless accepts the life he lives, finding community where he can.
There was Ruby’s (student) mom, a reminder of how eager many Chinese are to make sure I and my fellow foreigners are comfortable and taken care of. At a restaurant one night, I pointed out a dish that I really liked, a combination of tofu, sprouts, and some other vegetables with a really great seasoning. For the rest of my stay in Tiancu, she made me that same dish at home for every meal...because, if I liked it once, I would want it at every meal, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, right? That was her conclusion, which showed her attentiveness to my needs…even if she misunderstood my “needs.” It wasn’t THAT good of dish.
There was the family of seven from New Zealand who stayed with us at the retreat center on the island of Cheung Chau, with the boy who liked to show me how flexible he was by bending his arms and legs in odd ways (“I’m kind of a freak,” he’d say), the little girl with the gorgeous, slightly large eyes that made me want to be a daddy every time she looked at me, and the politically conservative father who pushed back on all my slightly left-leaning opinions about everything from the free market to the environment. His opinions somehow sounded more credible with that New Zealand accent.
There were the kids running around the cruise ship on the Pearl River in Guangzhou, going wherever they felt like going, saying hello and smiling every time they ran past me out on the deck, going into the control room and pretending to steer the boat...limitless energy, friendly and sincere, disinterested in being “proper.” I got a bit nostalgic for childhood watching them.
Nice to have my experience of China deepened and to encounter such a diversity of people. But it’s also nice to be back teaching, as I’m with people who I’ve come to treasure very deeply, and who I hope to both give to and receive from even more profoundly this term.