Friday, July 31, 2009

Notes from a Very Busy Summer

Greetings fellow nomads,

It certainly has been a while since I have been able to type anything of substance anywhere. Things have been rather busy for me the month or so since my last post. In an effort to get caught up here is a rough list of what I've been up to.

July 5: Fly from Shanghai to Toronto. I slept maybe 2 hours on the 14 hour flight, it left at around 5pm in Shanghai and landed at around 7pm in Toronto on the same day. Time zones are a killer. Last year I did a journal post on a 14 hour flight, if you are interested in understanding the joy of that experience give err a read.

July 6 - 12: Slept at very odd times throughout the days. Visited family and friends. Good times had by all.

July 13: Flew to New York City to visit Elvina. It is simply an astonishing place. I honestly can't recommend New York City enough to anyone out there. I thought that I would be indifferent to it as I have been to other major modern cities, but I noticed something special about it. After some reflection I realized that New York is special because it is the big modern city that all others try to emulate and pay tribute to, with varying degrees of success. Highlights of the trip included The Ellis Island Immigration Museum, Central Park, Times Square, and The Statue of Liberty. I thought that the latter would be cheesy, but it was simply breathtaking. Here are a few sample pics which will get uploaded to The Book and Flickr soon enough.

July 17: Return home with Elvina for a few days. Family related business ensued.

July 28: After saying goodbye to many of my family members and friends (including a jaunt up to my camp for a few day visit) I head back to the Orient. While three weeks sounded like a long time in the planning, it certainly was not in practice. I feel like I hardly saw anyone at all in my travels. My utmost apologies to the many of my friends that I missed.

July 29: Land in Shanghai after yet another 14 hour flight where I slept very little. Spend the evening in Shanghai and try to sleep on a couch, fail drastically.

July 30: Hop on a plan headed towards Xining, in Qinghai province. As the plan begins to board the rain begins to fall with a great deal of vigour. An announcement comes on that says that the plan is delayed for two hours on the runway. I eventually fall asleep despite all of the very loud chatter. Four hours later we take off.

Now I am spending the next few weeks traveling around a bit more of China. I am going to be in Qinghai, Gansu, and Sichuan provinces over the next few weeks spending my time at monastaries, pand reserves, and eating some very spicey food. Needless to say, I am excited for it.

My first full day in Xining was yesterday and I went to Ta'er Si, a nearby Tibetan Monastery. While it was full of loud, obnoxious tour groups who routinely took pictures in areas they were not supposed to, and were very loud in quiet parts, it was still very beautiful. I could not help but think that they were there to test my resolve as I struggled for enlightenment. Here are a few snaps.

Expect more to come in the near(ish) future.

Safe journeys,


Friday, July 3, 2009

The Seven Habits of Highly Ineffective Expats

Here we have another post that I put on Lost Lao Wai a little while ago, it has generated a rather lengthy debate which should be worth checking out if you are interested in.


We’ve all seen them, and chances are we’ve all been them at one point or another. A quick walk to the nearest Starbucks or Metro in China, and you will notice that expats come in all shapes, sizes, and dispositions. In general, most of the laowais living here in the Middle Kingdom are fantastic people trying to make the most of their experiences. However, we all have our down points.

I have noticed in strangers, friends, and yes, even myself, seven habits that I think make you a very ineffective expat. My rookie year in China is nearing a close, so I plan on making a New Year’s resolution of sorts to break these bad habits that I know I have, and I sure to not be alone in them.

Habit #1

“It’s not like this back home”
“In [insert home country back home] it’s like….”

If you’ve never heard this whine then you must not be talking to many foreigners, and if you’ve never said this then you must not talk to anyone period. For a number of people nothing here can ever be as good as it is back home, wherever that may be.

Obviously, the coffee here is not going to be as good as it is in the West. Clearly the Chinese are not experts at making hamburgers and french fries. The public transport is very clearly going to be much, much more crowded here than back home. Yes, the streets are probably dirtier here than a street in the suburbs.

These are the charms that keep China interesting, and very different from home. You will not be able to get a cup of tea back home like you can here, no Western chain will be able to satisfy your fried rice cravings, and just where are you going to spit when you have to back home?

I will never claim to be innocent of this ugly habit, but there has to be a time and place where you need to accept China for what it is, a wildly different place. While some things are better at home, there are definitely things that are better here. It is important to try to keep that in context, especially when you are experiencing the worst this nation has to offer.

Habit #2
Counting Down

“Thank God, only six more months until I go home!”
“What’s the point in learning the language if I’ll only be here for two years?”

It’s very natural to be excited to get home (only thirteen days for me!!!!), but that excitement should really not consume you. Being obsessed with going home is a logical extension of Habit #1.

There are always going to be great things to look forward to in the future, but if you take a look around there are probably some pretty great things to look forward to right now.

Rarely is it ever healthy to live for the future, as it often lets your present fly by.

Habit #3
Getting Stuck in a Rut

“Let’s meet at the usual Starbucks”
“It’s [Insert Day of the week] are you going to [Insert usual location for said day of the week]“

Ready to go out for dinner? Well be sure to go to the same place you went to last week since you know the food is “safe”. Of course, the fact that the staff speak English helps since you are in the mood for an “easy” dinner experience. Afterward be sure to go to the nearby Starbucks for the taste of home. Oh, and don’t forget to pick up some groceries from the nearby market to pick up some peanut butter and Western cereal.

Sounds familiar? Lord knows it has for me on many, many nights.

Humans are by our very nature creatures of habit. However, it is really, really easy to go too far on that one, especially when you live in a foreign country. While there is certainly no harm in a little routine and structure, there is certainly a line to be drawn. If you’re not careful you’ll end up in the same habits that you were trying to escape from back home.

Habit #4
Obsessive Traveling

“I have three days off, I think I’ll head to Thailand”
“I’ve seen all of China, time to explore a new country”

Oh lord am I ever guilty of this one.

Part of the joy of living in China is the proximity to such dream destinations as Thailand and Cambodia. This coupled with the frequent holidays often afforded to expats seems to lead to a mass exodus of the country whenever there is any sort of break.

I was very, very guilty of this one during my first six months in the country. I was lucky enough to have a week off in October, two weeks off at Christmas, and two weeks off for the Lunar New Year (I’m a teacher what can I say?) during those five total weeks I went to Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, with a brief stop-over in Hong Kong for one of those trips. That’s right, with five weeks off I spent no time in Mainland China. Granted, I had previously visited the “main sites” such as Beijing, Xi’an, and Guilin, but clearly it is not right to say that I have done China.

This is definitely the attitude of several people who have been here, even for a short amount of time. However, upon even an ounce of reflection, you should realize that of all countries in the world China is probably the most difficult to fully do. China has the largest population in the world, the third or fourth largest land area (depending on who you ask), and the longest uninterrupted history (depending on who you ask) making it a very hard place to fully see, and an even harder place to understand. If someone has only been to New York and Washington, they would never be able to rightly claim to say that they have seen all of the United States, so why is it ok to make that claim after you have seen Beijing and Xi’an?

By all means use your time to travel, and makes those trips to some of the fantastic places Asia has to offer, but don’t forget the one that you live in. It’s certainly worth looking at.

In case you are curious, I spent my most recent holiday in Xinjiang and plan to go to Sichuan and Yunnan during the summer, lessons learned.

Habit #5
Increased Alcohol Consumption

“A litre of beer costs less than a dollar!”
“Liange pijiu”

Clearly the most dangerous of the seven habits listed here. Given the incredibly low prices on alcohol, coupled with the equally low existence of liquor laws can lead to an increased consumption of alcohol.

To make matters worse is the problem of boredom. In a recent edition of Business Week, they ranked the 20 Worst Places to Work, and 5 cities in China were on the list, including my current location. On all five Chinese cities one of the concerns listed was a lack of cultural and recreational facilities. Regardless of whether you feel that the report was accurate or not, this shows that there is at least the perception that there is nothing to do as an expat in China. If people have nothing to do, or feel that they have nothing to do, then alcohol becomes an obvious source of recreation.

The consequences of this can be too vast to mention on a site like this, if you know anyone who is abusing alcohol please, please seek help from someone more qualified as anyone on this blog.

On a lighter side, I personally have not come anywhere close to having to make 12 difficult steps, but having additional beers with dinner has certainly increased my waist line far more than would be ideal.

Habit #6

“Don’t worry about spilling anything, the ayi will clean it”
“I don’t cook anymore, eating out is so cheap”

It’s pretty easy to see just how cheap China is.

It’s also easy to see that so many expat packages include accommodation, annual airfare, and health care. This leaves your money to be, well your money.

It’s also pretty easy to see that there are so many inexpensive luxuries ranging from ayis to cheap DVDs to delivery on anything to spend some of your disposable income.

What’s difficult is knowing when and where to stop. Life here can get very infantile if you have someone clean up for you, deliver your food for you, and you can get whatever you want by pointing at it. In many ways living in China can be like being five years old all over again.

While this is part of the attraction for a lot of people, I hope that you ask yourself what you think of the people who have that sort of a lifestyle back home.

Habit #7
Know it All

“I understand China”

Compared to some of your family and friends back home you may be an expert on all things Chinese. However, the reality of it is that at the end of the day you are not.

China has a very ancient and idiosyncratic culture, history, and language. These three things and intricately connected, and I think that it is difficult if not impossible to fully understand one of the three without understanding all of them.

So how do you get to understand any of these things? The only idea I can really come up with is trial and error, with a heavy emphasis on the error side of things. It is not very realistic to be able to think that you will be able to fully “get” this country, especially in as short of a time frame as one or two years.

A simple look through the comments and yes even some of the posts (including me, I fully admit) and it is not hard to see the Know-it-Alls out in full force. It is so easy to get caught up in the knowledge of the world that you do earn, but very difficult to know when to put a cap on it. But when it doubt, realize that you probably don’t get it and may never will.

So that just about does it for me, anyone have any ideas for any more habits? Lord knows there are more…


Again, it is well worth looking at the comment section on this one. There has been a lot of intelligent, and a lot of very unintelligent debate posted there. I'll leave it to you to sort through that yourself.

Safe journeys,