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Everyone comes to China for a ‘selfie’ reason.



"If, money were no object, I’d be on a jet plane to Kathmandu.”

An architect can part with his money before the best fool has had a chance to think about it. Within one year I had spent all the proceeds from the sale of our farm, bought a $300,000 house with a Liar Loan (stated income) from Citibank, whose mortgage payments matched my combined Social Security and pension checks. My timing was superb, I closed on January 9, 2008. What was I thinking? A 64 year old geezer in Eugene, OR with no income - after my direct deposit to Citi Mortgage - trying to go-up against 40,000 ‘barista’ college kids. You can only give blood up to age 65 and my iron level petered out before I got that far.

Now, in Eugene you don’t pray about these things, you meditate and drink locally brewed coffee. If they find you in Starbucks, you must be from out of town. Taking action meant going to the library and scrolling through Craig’s List. Fortunately, my higher power knew that Craig and I were fellow alums from Case Western Reserve University and on the third day there appeared, "Teach ESL in China.” A month later, on the 28th of August 2008, I arrived in Zhengzhou (jung jo). At that time, life for old geezers in China extended to age 65 (since dropped to 60) so, I had to think fast because my birthday was a couple of weeks away.

This August, I began my 7th Mainland China year in Yantai, Shandong, which is akin to Norfolk, Virginia where Zhengzhou is more like St. Louis a big inland prairie city on a river while Yantai is a small touristy seaport city. Changing locales, arguably for a better lifestyle, got me thinking over my original three wishes – or the bullet points of my self-introduction to my ESL students and Toastmasters club audience. Ever the optimist architect, I left out the real reason – I had no place else to go. "I came to China because ....”

  •         I want to make all 950 million Chinese farmers rich


  •         I want to establish 1,000 Toastmasters clubs in Henan Province


  •         I want to find a Chinese lady over 40 who can speak English


In retrospect, I might have been a little overly ambitious: 

  •       The average annual farm income has gone from $150 to $450 but 500 million farmers left their farms for life in the city. Caching, Marx, Groucho Marx that is, "tegory, we farmers are not so sure we want to take financial advice from a homeless guy from Eugene.”


  •         There are three Toastmasters clubs in Henan, albeit, two more than upon my arrival but still 997 shy of my enthusiastic forecast.

  •         I found her at a Toastmasters speech contest in 2011, she was over forty, a native English speaker, but she wasn't Chinese, but, but more importantly she said yes.


As a devoted trailing spouse I followed her to Yantai, thus ending my six year sabbatical in Zhengzhou. The move gifted me with the time to reflect – she goes to work and I reflect – after doing the dishes, making the bed, and posting the day’s ‘iT’s in the Cards’ on

It was in one of these reflective moments, not quite near an epiphany, that I felt the expat "Seven Year Itch.” After my sixth miserable winter in Cleveland, Ohio it didn't take much of a nudge to get me to move to Atlanta. After seven years as an undergraduate, they gave me a diploma based solely on my attendance record. However, even a longsuffering Virgo has limits to goal achievement, especially when I found myself trying to reinvent the Toastmasters wheel in Shandong Province.


 Then there was the Korea thing, the cheapest place to exit the mainland at this latitude – an every 90 day requirement for tourist visa holders – was Seoul; instead of Zhengzhou to Hong Kong. I didn't have the hot’s to live in Korea, like my old ‘wouldn't it be nice to live on Lantau Island in Hong Kong.’ Howsoever, a 36 hour stay in the Itaewon Hostel was in Deng Xiaoping’s word, exhilarating. Africans, French, Italian, Azerbaijani, Afghani, Egyptian, Serbian and a Berber all hanging out in the cheap seats.


I asked this wooly haired guy, "Where are you from?”


"The Netherlands.”


"You don’t look Dutch.”


"Well I’m originally from Morocco.”


"Oh, good I can blather some of my 300 words of Arabic with you.”


"Not really, I’m a Berber and I don’t speak Arabic.”


"Wow, a Berber, I only know Berber carpets are expensive, are Berbers like Bedouins?” I’ll have to Google it later.


My breakfast interview with the Afghani put everything in my expat heart’s perspective. "China is boring,” he said, all knowingly. I thought that was an interesting comment coming from an Afghani, maybe compared to the perpetual war zone of Afghanistan, any place outside of Syria might appear dull. Then I took him to mean, that after you have seen one Chinese temple, you have seen them all. I never wanted to visit the temples in China, after watching Po labor pushing his cart up the temple steps in ‘Kung Fu Panda.” It’s the culture that makes living in China exciting. They didn’t get the "inscrutable” rap for nothing.


 Until, Tricky Dick sent me to Vietnam, I knew first-hand absolutely nothing about the outside world. Yes, I could name the seven continents or the capitals of North and South America but before, my all expenses paid tour of the South Pacific, I had no "when I” stories. You know, when I was in… If, I made it back from Vietnam, I planned on touting my ‘Red Badge of Courage’ to anyone who would or would not listen. Fortunately, my higher power protects children, drunks and architects so, he suggested I forgo the badge deal.


I have no complaints, or even room to complain, because Nixon pulled the plug on Vietnam six months before I got to Okinawa. First impressions are good but when you are with a military tour group you don’t stay in any one place long enough to form an opinion. Yes, I had a good time in Hong Kong and the Philippines, a so-so time on Mt. Fuji and Japan, and my behavior in Taiwan was so bad, they asked me to leave. However, not hanging around more than a month or two in any location afforded me nothing but snapshots of what life was like in a foreign country.


Nixon let me go in 1971, they let him go in 1974, he went to San Clemente and I went for an extended stay in Sao Paulo, Brazil. This time I lived in a hi-rise apartment building, took the bus to work and got the inside scoop from my Brazilian, Uruguayan, Argentinian and Bolivian workmates. Linguistic studies show that in every culture at least 65% of societal conversation consists of gossip. The Portuguese speaking Brazilians, surrounded by nine Spanish speaking states were masters offofoca.


Other than Argentinians, I never met anyone who didn't like Brazil or the Brazilians. Maybe it had something to do with their "world’s sexiest women” title but my impression was that their "God is a Brazilian” attitude, gave every individual, regardless of status, a light-hearted nationalist spirit. Compare that with our, "home of the free,” "In God we trust,” or "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Or, what I had always heard about China, "the Chinese are inscrutable” and "pretty clever those Chinese.”


After, six plus years on the Mainland, the Chinese are a lot less inscrutable and way more clever than I ever imagined. China is my third extended expat stay, Sao Paulo, Brazil and Ismalia, Egypt being the other two. Brazil at age 32 was happy hour, every hour, somewhere among the 45,000 expat community.


Egypt at 42 was like starring in a documentary about, seven couples, six European and one American, living on the west bank of the Suez Canal, with no film in the camera.


China, at 64 and 11 months was a very sobering experience because it was after AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) which limited my expat socialization to hit or miss sightings of foreigners on the street, once a month "fellowship' gatherings until I was outed as a non-believer and ‘praise-the-lord’ weekly Middle Kingdom Toastmasters meetings.


Culture is the common denominator of the expat lifestyle and rather than retire in Arizona, Mexico, Florida, Costa Rica, Vietnam, China, New Zealand, Portugal or any place in particular, why not, just not retire. After, the newness wears off, it’s time to find another non-English speaking cultural group. Australia, even Hong Kong and Singapore have been co-opted by the Brits and the cultural commonalities might cause me to relapse.


The reason I’m telling you all this is to encourage you, at any age, to come to China and Zhengzhou especially. If I was under 30, I would get a TOEFL or TESOL certificate online and get an ESL teaching job in the countryside like Gongyi, so I would be forced to learn to speak Mandarin. My twenty word vocabulary is a daily embarrassment, while our eighteen year old daughter can talk your arm off in the most difficult to learn language on the planet. She lives in a spacious 3 bedroom apartment and earns four times as much as a Wal-Mart employee.


If I was in the 30-60 category, even as a PhD brain surgeon, I would get the same certificates and teach ESL at a University in Kaifeng or Zhengzhou. Classes at university level are taught in Chinese, so forgetaboutit sharing all that student loan info you acquired, unless you are fluent in Mandarin. Look at Zuckerberg’s youtube performance to understand why.


If I was over the '60 hill' I would get one of those new ten year tourist visas, contact Kallen (this website) for a place to stay and talk with the folks at Linguaphone (the friendliest training school). ESL tutor gigs are abundant and don’t give you that indentured servant feeling, that comes with a one year school contract.


Above all, whatever your age, join Toastmasters to begin to understand the Chinese culture, and make your stay a pleasant and productive one. The most educational, exciting and rewarding aspect of living in China is getting to know the people. Mainland China is the real, the original parallel universe, isolated for 5,000 years from the west. Henan Province, with its 22 dynasties and 200 emperors is the birthplace, the heart of that universe.


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5 12, 14 00:02

posted by: Bill Walker

Well said Marine. By the way that was my line: China was like living in a parallel universe , you old goat you...ha ha .

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