Archive | Life RSS feed for this section

New Reflections on Life in America

14 Nov

Self Portrait in Shanghai

When you go on a journey, something magical happens—and it’s not just the trip itself. I’m talking about something that lasts a little longer than the present—a feeling that lingers like the scent of a roasted chicken or pie long after you’ve eaten. Every single day I spent in Asia was full of fantastic challenges and new experiences, but I didn’t discover the real fruits of the voyage until I’d been back in the United States for many weeks.

When I first returned, people asked me how I was handling the readjustment to American life. Did I suffer from culture shock? I was so happy to be back with friends and family after twelve months that I couldn’t imagine being unhappy. At first, being home felt like riding a bike–autopilot. Living in a spacious house with a full kitchen felt familiar and easy, drinking water from the tap was both completely normal and slightly thrilling, a soft, double-padded mattress was a welcomed addition to my nightly routine.

But, behind these welcomed comforts, a strange new sensation that I hadn’t had before began to creep ever so subtly into my being. It was a feeling I had rarely, if ever, felt at home: apathy, a quiet disconnection. Minnesota was my home, and yet I felt without a place there to call my own—no social routines or apartment or work or community with which I could fall into place. I was blissfully and terrifyingly dislodged.

Yes, there’s the shock of appropriating a foreign culture, but what about the decision to take or leave a past life?

I realized that stepping outside have given me a gift: the opportunity to break away from the deeply engrained habits and routines that had embodied my daily life before. The distance created by my time overseas offered me the clarity necessary to see my previous habits and routines for what they were. And once I could really see them, I was more than happy to cut some of them loose.

Turn that Racket Off
After spending time under the diligent eye of the Great Firewall of China, I found the constant political mudslinging of democrats and republicans much harder to swallow. On the one hand, living in a country with a heavy censor was frustrating and limiting, but oh the sheer joy of being released from the pointless, alliterative coverage of politics in America! I’m afraid that I’ve completely lost my taste for the constant wailing and doom of the national news.

Food for Thought
When it comes to China, the headlines about food safety are infamously attention-grabbing:

16,000 Pigs found Dead in Chinese River
H7N9 Bird Flu and Swine Flu May Combine and Mutate in China
Chinese Officials Find Rat, Mink, Fox in Meat Marketed as Lamb

But you know what doesn’t get as much coverage?

Majority of Chinese Population NOT Obese
Chinese Eat WAY LESS Processed Foods
Chinese Ride Bikes, Walk Daily
Chinese DO NOT SNACK all the Time
Chinese Eat HALF AS MUCH Meat during Meals

I think you get the picture. Our food culture in America sucks. Big time. I went to China expecting to be appalled by the food, but it’s the situation here in America that’s actually scary. It’s all the processed junk, people!

To Drive, or Not to Drive
Before I left for China, I sold my car. The act was liberating and distressing. I couldn’t imagine living in Minnesota without it. But since I’ve been back, I have in many ways enjoyed life without a car. There’s no stress from searching for parking, no insurance and repair costs, no liability of an accident, and it forces you to slow down, be more thoughtful and less go, go, go, hurry, hurry, hurry. But it’s not always easy to try and walk, bike, or take public transportation in Minnesota. The winters are harsh and the Twin Cities’ bus system is time consuming when travelling anywhere outside of Minneapolis or St. Paul. I’ve now lived in two different cities with killer metro systems: Paris and Shanghai. If only we could have such a system here in the Cities.

I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity to spend so much time abroad because I know that these experiences will continue to inform my thoughts and actions throughout the rest of my life. I’ve learned that in order to see yourself and your home, it is necessary to first live elsewhere, and as others live.

Goodbye Shanghai (Why I decided to leave China)

26 Aug
Shanghai from above

Shanghai from above

My heart raced as I stood in front of the visa processing counter at the Chinese consulate in Hong Kong. I hoped what I’d just heard was a mistake. “I’m sorry, what?” I asked, desperately smiling at the young woman behind the glass-protected counter.

“You already stay in China so long—I can only give you 30-day visa,” she repeated in the familiar, cranky tone of government employees. I turned to my boyfriend, G, with a look of defeat—this was nearly the worst-case scenario—the only thing worse would have been a rejection.

We’d traveled all the way from Shanghai to Hong Kong to renew our visas, only to be told that the best they would give us was 30 days back in China. This meant that we’d have to fly out of the country again in 30 days to reapply for another visa.

Because Beijing Said So

the dragon guarding the Chinese consulate in Hong Kong

the dragon guarding the Chinese consulate in Hong Kong

It wasn’t until we were back in Shanghai that I began to understand our experience as it related to a recent shift in regulations coming out of Beijing. The Communist Party, headed by its new top leader Xi Jinping, had announced its intention to weed out the number of unqualified foreigners working in China and make changes to its visa policies.

Although the Party’s message carried little weight initially (because the Party is known for making vague, mildly threatening avowals to bring an end to this or that type of corruption), our trip to Hong Kong forced me to face the possibility that the announcement may have been more than just an empty threat.

The method behind the message was at first unapparent. By the time we understood what was happening, we were packing our bags, giving away all but the most valuable of our belongings, draining our Chinese bank accounts, and saying goodbye to Shanghai indefinitely.

When Things Come in 3s

a stormy day in Shanghai

a stormy day in Shanghai

For G and me, the timing of the new regulations had created a perfect storm that succeeded in forcing us out. Its effects were threefold:

First, we learned that the length of the tourist visa was now limited to 30 days—no more 2 month or 3 month visas were available to us. This made staying with a tourist visa much more expensive. The second blow was being told that we would not be able to extend our tourist visas once back in Shanghai. This meant that we would have to travel out of the country again next month for a new visa, repeating the process indefinitely.

The third swing was a change in requirements for foreign teachers eligible to teach in Shanghai. Teachers who were previously teaching without certain certifications (ESL teacher training such as TESOL/TEFL/CELTA) were no longer permitted to teach in the city. So, in essence, the land of “you can always teach English” became the land of “do you have TESOL?” overnight.

Although teaching English in Shanghai was never part of my master plan, the option had served as a reassuring safety net, an in-case-of-emergencies solution if my main goal of writing was compromised. It wasn’t until I attempted to take advantage of this fallback option that I realized it was a fantasy.

Tired of Buying Time

a stack of renminbi

a stack of renminbi

When my first job in Shanghai—work as a copywriter for an international brand—turned out to be a less than great fit, I took to the wanted ads again. I hoped to find another writing position, but when faced with the pressure of a 30-day deadline, I started to consider my “safety net” in earnest. Yes, the job market in Shanghai was much better than at home (Minneapolis/St. Paul), but finding a full-time job as a copywriter or editor in 30 days would still be a bit of a long shot.

I decided to cast a wider net and apply to some teaching positions as well. About a week into my search for a teaching job I started to hit a wall (see “the third swing” mentioned above). I didn’t have TESOL/TEFL/CELTA accreditations, which involve 3-4 weeks of school and cost upwards of $1,000, and I had neither the time nor the money to devote to the cause.

By week three I’d heard back positively from a few teaching opportunities, but the work would be evenings and weekends, and most likely off the books. I’d also landed a second interview with a bridal company, where I’d function as managing editor of the in-house staff and freelance contributors.

The opportunities were there, but with less than a week until we needed to pay two month’s rent (rent in Shanghai is often paid in 2- or 3-month increments) and leave the country, was I willing to place a bet on a last-minute position? I’d already moved to Shanghai once with nothing but a new job, and the transition had been a slightly stressful, forced time of do-or-die performance just to make ends meet.

One Mean Boss Too Many

a sculpture from the Shanghai Art Museum

a sculpture from the Shanghai Art Museum

My second interview with the bridal company revealed just what kind of work I’d be relying on to remain in Shanghai. After an hour with HR I learned that my would-be future boss had a notorious “no sugarcoating” communication style–barking orders and judgments without explanation or positive feedback. She also explained that the hours were going to be 45+/week with pay around $20,000/year before tax, because the company is “just your typical startup” and the real benefit the job offered was “great experience”. (Since when is work not deserving of compensation in the form of real PAY?)

I walked away from the interview mulling the ultimate question: Just how much did I want to stay in Shanghai? Was I willing to stay at the cost of forgoing my value as a professional writer? Was I willing to bet it all on another boss who still hadn’t learned how to give balanced feedback to her staff? Or, as another option, would I be willing to take a teaching job that diverged from my long-term goals and waived my ethical preference to keep my work aboveboard?

The fact that G intended to continue studying Mandarin and had managed, at the cost of great time and effort, to line up meaningful work for the fall made the decision all the more difficult.

In the end, I had to face the fact that re-upping for another 30 days in China would not only hurdle us into the red financially but most likely compromise my own value as a writer. In only five days we went from settling down in Shanghai to cutting our losses and saying goodbye.

Know When to Quit

the view from our apartment

At the time, the decision to come home felt like a disappointing diversion from the plan, because up until then the plan had been for G to continue studying, for me to continue progress professionally in Shanghai, and for us to continue making a good life for ourselves in a city that we enjoyed. The options don’t seem as simple anymore.

I now see that the decision to leave was actually a reaffirmation of my commitment to larger goals: To work as a writer with integrity and awareness of my own boundaries, values, and worth. To make smart decisions based on the known risks and to choose a path that extends farther than the next month.

The reasons and sentiments behind leaving a place you’ve called home for a year are complicated, and China will always remain to me a fantastic place—it engulfs the senses and piques your curiosity, it takes on many different faces and voices, and it leaves you always yearning for more—more explanations and tastes, another walk along an unfamiliar street. After a year, I think I can safely say that China is a colorful country that invites you in, but it’s not always easy to stay.

%d bloggers like this: