Friday, September 7, 2012
The lost art of planning ahead:
Living in a world where people tend to hold things off until the last moment and hope that things will work out in the end tends to leave me with a sense of fatalism and ambivalence. I do not like that fact that I can plan things out and then have everything changed at a moment because an important official came into town and I need to go out to dinner with him. The other facet of this attitude towards fatalism is that it leaves a person with a sense of defeat for putting in all the time and effort to plan things when they realize that at any moment things could change and cause their plans to change. The other caveat of leaving things until the last moment is that it becomes exceedingly more difficult to get everything ready at the last minute without making mistakes, forgetting things behind, making necessary arrangements for travel, etc. I do not know how many times that a student, colleague, or Chinese friend asked me if I wanted to go on an extended journey only the morning before travel was to begin.
My theory on why some of my Chinese friends tend to not emphasis planning into the future as much as Americans do derives from differences in culture and education. In my mind, traditional Chinese culture dictates that people need to be ready at all times of day to help a friend, colleague, or family member. This comes from a deeply engrained sense of responsibility to maintain and build strong relationships (guanxi). In some circumstances people are able to avoid commitments in China but it is necessary for them to find a way of avoiding blame for not being able to assist that person. For example, it is necessary for them to establish a viable reason which would keep them previously engaged indefinitely. Of course, in situations where a person of high importance asks you to do something it becomes even more difficult to avoid not helping them.
In my mind, another reason for a lack of planning skills comes from the Chinese education system itself. I feel the education system in China promotes an analytical thought process and values reasoning skills greater than creative thinking. Chinese children leave their formative years of education with strong analytical reasoning skills and a vast amount of information learned through rote memorization. Throughout these years respecting leaders in society, civic duties, and the importance of competition and nationalism are all reinforced. To be far, our two cultures and systems value things quite differently leaving some things to be desired in both respects.
The total institution approach to education in China also leads to problems in problem solving and planning. From elementary school to high school many students will spend eight hours a day in school. After school, they will have homework to do which will take several hours to finish in time for dinner followed by night classes. In high school, many students will live on campus and get less than seven hours of sleep a day due to studying, homework, and outside of the classroom responsibilities.
The problem solving and lack of planning issue are also reinforced by the manner in which Chinese children are raised. Furthermore, the effect of the one child policy in China has worked to exacerbate the lack of planning problem in youth today. Parents feel strongly that it is their responsibility to manage every part of their children’s lives in order to help them achieve success in a competitive society. This along with the importance of helping others (guanxi) and the “total institution” approach to formative education in China has created a generation of youth who have difficulty thinking on their own. It is important to remember that Chinese parents and teachers believe that they are doing the right thing for their children as they educate them on how to be successful in Chinese society today.
Another result of the Chinese education system is that Chinese students rarely find themselves in an environment which promotes creativity and usually have under developed problem solving skills. The influence of the Chinese educational system on Chinese students compounded with Chinese cultural norms both contributes to a lack of planning and ability to anticipate problems ahead of time. Both of these tendencies are troubling to me since I value planning ahead, my schedule, and creativity. The long term results have created several generations of Chinese who do not have the ability to plan ahead effectively nor evaluate topics through multiple perspectives.
Cultural relativism’s influence on foreign travelers:
Feelings of this nature are true for anyone who has lived in a different culture as long as I did. As the world around us continues to change I feel that people are going to have more and more understanding of what life is like in different cultures around the world today. Knowing more about different cultures is a good thing in my opinion; however, it is important to always remember in the back of your mind that as foreign observer it is never wise to criticize different cultures. One thing that I have noticed is that most foreigners who think they know a lot about another culture are usually extremely misinformed or arrogant.
Remember traveling to another country and living there are two completely different things. I remember what it was like for me traveling in Europe and other places before living in China. I thought that somehow I was now a resident expert on Greece, Italy, and France when in actuality I knew only as much as I saw on the particular days I was traveling there. Even if you know someone from that different culture you are traveling in and they were open enough to discuss their mother country they are only speaking for one person.
As far as cultural understanding goes I believe that I know only a very little of what it means to be an American today. Our culture is extremely diverse and vibrant which are both good things but also make it exceedingly hard to understand at any one time in my opinion. I cannot imagine a foreigner coming to the United States and telling me they understand American culture in only a matter of day(s) or week(s).
I have some first-hand experience seeing this phenomenon play out with foreigners traveling in China. The type of comment that triggers the most frustration for me are those which are said to either demean or satirize that other culture. Travelling is a great passion to have in life and something that I feel is a great way for people to visit far off places, meet interesting people, and learn about different cultures. Unfortunately, people who spend a few weeks in a different country can also sometimes make the mistake of returning home and pretending like they are now an expert on that culture. In both cases people are mistaken and can hurt their credibility when they are called out for being wrong as well as people from that other culture.
A difference in processing information:
While back home in the United States I often was asked questions about differences between China and the United States. The one thing I always tried to convey to others was that whether looking at similarities or differences it was always important to remember that both cultures emphasis similar results. In my opinion, the greatest differences between our cultures come from the manner in which people look at problems. The analytical processing of information itself is looked through different lenses depending on what culture you are in.
One clear manifestation of this phenomenon can be seen when looking at the wording of both the silver and golden rule. Both authors of these famous phrases have had extremely important roles in the course of western / eastern philosophy and have left undeniable marks on the planet. Many people would argue that both Jesus Christ and Confucius had the best of others in their mind when they made their ethical statements. First, the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and the silver rule, “Do not do unto others as you would not have them do unto you” both establish that love for one’s neighbor is of paramount importance. Both phrases clearly have the best in mind for the welfare of others but go about saying it in exactly the opposite manner.
Seeing the world through a new lense:
I made it a mission of mine to try and analyze as many things as possible while back home in the United States last summer. After two months living back home I noticed many different things that I never noticed as much during my previous life in the United States. Some things were small such as the beauty of Minnesota’s blue sky, the emotion of holding an embrace with family members, and the quit efficiency of life in the United States. Other things that I noticed were not always so pleasant and certainly left room for thought in my opinion.
The effects of complaining and sarcasm in American culture:
One of the things that I really noticed that I both enjoyed and was revolted by was just how sarcastic people are back in the United States. I too enjoy once and a while be a little sarcastic but at what point does a person need to draw a line? I think that in any situation where the comment could be misconstrued as being actually true sarcasm can actually be worse than telling someone your true feelings however hurtful they may be.
Are we that sick as a culture that we feel a need to be sarcastically downgraded someone or something else all of the time? This trait makes American culture look extremely disingenuous. Unfortunately, one of sarcasms latent effects is to create in people an aversion to telling the truth. Instead of telling the truth which might be painful and reveal someone’s true feelings people would rather deflect the real problem by sarcastically labeling something as ridiculous, funny, stupid, etc.
I know that sarcasm is not something that effects the older generation of Americans as much as my own generation which makes me questions when did sarcasm become the accepted modus operendi in popular culture?
Likewise, I noticed that complaining is also a rampant phenomenon in American culture. At a certain point complaining becomes so ridiculous and rampant in everyday life that I become apathetic to a person even if their claims are valid. As all people know at no point in time does complaining solve problems. I would hate to see what would happen to American students in China when they were told that they would not have free-time to play, would have two real hours of homework every night, and be forced to go to night classes in order to pass their upcoming classes.
Some of sarcasms and complaining latent effects hurt America’s image abroad. For example, a person who is spoiled enough to make fun of others and complain about waiting in a long for gas tend to seem out of touch with the problems of most of the world’s population. Most people would just be happy with living in a place where they were safe from war, famine, and disease. As America’s influence continues to reach the globe it is important to remember that people have a connection with that world around us. If we get too far out of touch with the world around us it is going to be to our own detriment and will have disastrous effects for Americans. America has stood long enough to start transitioning from the hero to the villain in certain areas of the world. Look no further than the Middle East to see the reality of their love for American culture and Americans. With so much riding on our image abroad (remember how much we count of labor abroad to help fuel our consumerism) it is extremely important to keep helping people out abroad in my opinion unless Americans want to start buying less things.
The evolution of my world views: Idealism to realism:
My own political views have changed with my experience in China as some readers might be able to see by reading through the lines. I now look at the world in a much more practical manner and tend to try and find ways of avoiding political problems instead of hoping for the best through treaties, foreign aid, investment, the U.N. etc. All of these tools are the necessary evolution of international politics; however, they rarely seem to deliver lasting results in situations which need special considerations (every situation has a need for special considerations when dealing with international politics).
I think that in a lot of ways my life back in the United States can be likened to that of a fairy tale where the most crucial problems are whether to eat at Pizza Hut or Dominos and most people cannot even tell something more about another country than it is a friend or enemy of the United States. In my mind, there is no better time to get abroad than now if people in America are going to wake up to the reality that the world cannot sustain itself if everyone where to live like we do in America.
I think that people need to wake up to the realities that the outside world is not as idyllic as life in the United States. If the United States is going to remain in a position of dominance and continue to consume the world to death the world will respond. Therefore, is of critical importance for people across the world to start a working dialogue on the best ways of avoiding such a crisis over resources which is will be an impending doom for all people in the world. Such a crisis would make the Great Depression seem tame in comparison as war, shortages, famine, and disease would inevitably wreak havoc across the world.
Fortunately, I believe in the power of dialogue amongst individuals and cultures to help break down some of physical and political barriers that separate us. Let us work together to start a better future which can promote growth without destruction of the world around us.
The power of fear in American culture:
I find that many of my friends and family are intensely afraid of things that I find both interesting and unavoidable at the same time. In Chinese culture there is a great sense of letting certain things go without showing that they frustrate you. I think that in many ways people back home could really use this lesson to help them deal with everything that goes on in their everyday lives in the United States.
I feel that people should instead focus on promoting self-confidence and a realization that even if you do lose your job, promotion, friend, family member, or possession things will work out in the end because you trust yourself. I feel that too many people back home have so little self-confidence and are too exposed to fear on the news that they feel paralyzed to act. Life is going to through bad situations to all of us during our life-times. It is those of us who have a will to survive and the self-confidence to trust themselves which will in the end break free from the fear inside of us.
Putting yourself in experiences which will test you is one such way in which you can find the self-confidence you are looking for and also help you break the fear machine. The reality is that the answers never come easy in this life and at first you will actually fail trying to do what you so desire. Through the process of learning how to fail you will inevitably do your best to next time make sure that you will not fail; therefore, achieving success and self-confidence in one fell stroke.
I think that partially our fear paralysis steams from the fact that many of our lives are so perfect back in the United States that we actually find ourselves creating fear in our lives in order to feel we are doing are best to avoid whatever it is we created. For example, not getting accepted into a prestigious college will somehow hurt your chances of being able to live a happy life. In fact I have heard many stories of people not getting into Harvard and being happier than the ones who did get accepted.
Tuesday, September 4, 2012
Leading up to my journey back to the United States:
My anticipation was growing the date for my return trip to the United States grew nearer. Knowing that some things would be different at home and that I my experience in China had changed me in ways did not in any way diminish my excitement to finally see family and friends again. However, I also had developed ambivalence towards traveling in China since finally realizing that nothing in China ever goes according to plan. Nonetheless, I was pleased with my flight schedule and called left the actualization of things go to the gods of fate and the inconsistencies of traveling in central China.
On the day before my departure, Mr. Tian called to tell me that he was going to pick me up early so he could go and get some business done the morning of my flight. Normally, I would have been extremely laissez-faire with this slight change in plans after becoming accustomed to a myriad of last minutes planning while traveling in China. However, on this occasion I was a little more overt in my objections to this arrangement since I needed to make sure I arrived at the airport in time for my flight.
As I voiced my concerns to Mr. Tian I found his response to assuage my fears absolutely quintessentially Chinese, “It does not matter.” (Mr. Tian) An outward observer might think his response to be very cold at first glance; however, the reality is that Chinese people will always do their best to save face in all situations and never want to be told that they are the one out of line. In my everyday life in China I often see this type of obsequious face-saving whenever a person gets upset with someone else. Likewise, social-events in China can become much ritualized affairs which focus on flattery and praise for work done well. Now that I am back home writing about this I find it both illuminating and entertaining to see how little I was able to prompt my supervisor into action just by trying to explain to him the situation. This is an area where I will need to improve my understanding of Chinese culture if I am going to have more luck working with Chinese people in the future.
I have found in China that in most cases communication difficulties arise from cultural differences even more so than by language translation errors. For example, if Mr. Tian would have just told me that all he had to do was pickup and drop off envelopes on the way to the airport I would never have been nervous the day before my traveling began. This is I feel is a direct result from the idea in Chinese culture that a person who has an elevated level of in society does not feel they have to explain themselves to prodding questions of a youth. The other important factor is that most foreigners are a lot more direct in the manner in which they ask questions compared to Chinese people. This up-front manner of asking questions throws off a lot of Chinese people who are used to having to interpret meaning out of words in order to find a person’s true feelings.
Overall, my last few weeks in China were a time of great confusion for me. I literally could not put myself in the mindset of what it would be like to be home again after being away for so long. As I tried to picture myself in my normal routine I consistently found that I had trouble seeing myself living my daily life back home. I knew that I had changed a lot while living in China and was having trouble seeing how my life could ever go back to normal after living in China. The problem was not that I had trouble remembering events in my life. The reality was that I had finally become used to my life in China and after sixteen months was not sure what life in America would feel like again. I also felt alien in the fact that I was starting to lose my ability to relate with friends at home as I had a sixteen month gap of time between us. Also, I think I felt a greater disconnect since trends in American culture change so fast as to what is fashionable that I knew I would really be out of the loop when I got back home.
The one unanswered question that was haunting me was how were people going to react to me being gone for so long when I returned to the States? Would my family treat me like I was still in college or an adult? Were people going to understand why I decided to take a leap of faith and go to China? All of these questions and more filled my mind with a sort of malaise.
Feeling stuck between two completely different cultures and not knowing where you fit is never a comforting feeling. It created in me a sense of being lost in the world, and it kept me very frustrated since I felt there was nothing I could do to prepare myself for the culture shock which was ahead for me. My struggle was compounded by the fact that I had recently lost my best friend and pet of thirteen years, Trey. Trey was always a great companion and losing him right at the end of my first year and a half in China really hurt. Knowing that the home I was to return would be much different from the one I had left was something that I knew would take me some time to adjusting to.
The flight home:
In hindsight, missing my international flight was actually a blessing in disguise as it helped me to learn how to relax better when something went wrong while traveling internationally. Mr. Tian’s last minute schedule change was not reason behind me missing my international flight. He actually got me to the airport exactly on time; however, my flight from Chongqing to Beijing ended up having an hour and a half maintenance problem that caused me to miss my connecting flight to San Francisco. That day I was put in a hotel with free room, board, and transportation back to the airport for my flight the following day. Overall, it was not a terrible situation to be in and probably something that will happen to me in my life again sometime.
Being a nervous person who feels a sense of impending doom both add to my dislike of flying. Nonetheless, by the next day I was so excited to be traveling that I took little notice of these things as I entered the International jet set to bring me home.
I tried to focus on only the most important things that I knew I was looking forward to back home. One of the many things which I knew I was going to look forward to was having my freedom of speech back. Not that I felt that a great expectation for telling people back home a bunch of things about China that I could not have said while I lived there. Actually, I just wanted the knowledge that I would no longer need to have to filter my thoughts in order to make sure that they were not disrupting the Party’s policies and my responsibilities as a teacher in China.
While waiting in line to board the plan I meet a nice Chinese graduate student from Taixing, Jiangsu. While chatting together, I realized that I had finally met my first goal of being able to speak fluently in Chinese with an educated Chinese person who also was fluent in English. This was a great moment for me in retrospect and something that I can attribute only to hard work and a will to succeed.
The entire length of the flight I was unable to sleep as I was extremely excited to get home again. On the flight I sat next to a really nice American who was coming back after visiting Tibet. I was really excited to share stories with him regarding my experiences in China and learn more about his wonderful trip to Tibet. I really enjoyed looking over his pictures and hearing about the heightened security in Tibet in response to the upcoming 18th Party Congress. His trip to Tibet itself was extremely interesting as well as illuminating for me as someone who has never yet made it to Xizang.
Landing back in the United States was something that still seems surreal to me today. We arrived in San Francisco on schedule; 11:30 am Pacific time. Due to a runway change and being on the right side of the plan I was able to see the Golden Gate Bridge as our plane landed. The extra treat of being able to identify with a national landmark while landing was definitely appreciated as I returned home.
The long line of people in front of me waiting to get throw customs seemed a daunting obstacle until I realized that I was actually in foreign traveler’s line. I had traveled so long as a foreigner that I actually forgot that I did not need to be in that line as I was a citizen of the United States. As I sat in the customs line and subsequent security check points at San Francisco International Airport; I can remember thinking I had forgotten how serious United States security examined citizens and travelers alike. This was in far contrast with my experiences being able to go through security in China without having to take my shoes, belt, or watch off. Often, I was able to get through security in a matter of only minutes.
Still, I marveled at U.S. efficiency as I was able to do an online check-in in a matter of minutes, get my luggage re-checked in at the Delta desk, and even have some special considerations made for on-board travel with the giant present fan Southwest University gave me.
While in line going through security I was meet with some malcontent travelers making remarks about how slow security was taking to get through. I found there annoyance amusing as I had become so use to people waiting in much longer lines for hours without complaining much. Latter, I was shocked to sit down at a restaurant between flights and hear two women openly swearing in a conversation about Swedish language dialects and traveling abroad. I quickly became extremely embarrassed for their actions and took to putting my earphones on in order to help drown out their voices.
A curious phenomenon occurred throughout my first few days back in the United States. I noticed right away that I thought I could hear people speaking in Chinese all around me. I quickly became very confused and felt I must have been hallucinating. In reality, I was just experience the first part of what would become my experience with culture shock. I can also remember thinking that I was stunned by how many over-weight foreigners were in the airport, and that I was a little afraid to talk to people since I was not sure of what to say.
The last leg of my flight from San Francisco to Minneapolis found me exhausted enough to at least sleep for an hour and a half. During my flight I was happy to be engaged by a pair of women who were interested in hearing more about my fan. Both of them commented that I held it tight as if it were my own child. I told them that after traveling with it for over two and half days that it felt like it might be my own child at this point. Truthfully, I was lucky to still have the fan after almost leaving it a couple times in the Beijing airport while traveling.
Getting home and two months in the United States:
First seeing my Mom at the Minneapolis airport was a memory which will be latched in my memory forever. We were both so happy to see each other and enjoyed our short chat while waiting for Dad to come pick us up with the car. As a small family of three being reunited once again was a very awesome moment for everyone. Having to finally realize the finality of Trey (our golden retrievers) death while in China was a bitter pill to swallow; Nonetheless, we were all overjoyed to be able to finally see each other face-to-face again that nothing seemed like it could spoil our reunion.
My first week back in the U.S. was extremely frustrating as I had multiple friends try and get in touch with me only to find that my old cell-phone was out of service and that I was having trouble shaking off my jet leg. Being that I had lived in China for so long did not help to get me feeling comfortable with the time change for nearly two weeks. Sleeping for hours during the afternoon and being awake at night only exacerbated my feeling of loneliness as I was unable to be awake during the day for my family and friends to be with me.
I quickly realized that I was not going to be able to relate to people who had no idea of what my experiences had been like while in China. It was also exceedingly hard for my family to understand how difficult it was to get used to life in the United States my first few weeks back home. I was often told that it should not take that long to get off the jet leg and kind of expected to jump right back into the American culture. I know all of these things were probable outcomes of my time in China but it was still kind of difficult to go through the first few weeks.
The first Friday home I was feeling up to it I went over to see some of my good friends back home. This experience was extremely interesting for me as I can vividly remember my heart pounding from the excitement of seeing so many of my friends in person at once. I noticed that while being home I often experience a similar sensation whenever I found myself in a group of a lot of my friends. It seems quite strange since I am use to being surrounded by millions of more people in China; nonetheless, I have found myself feeling more isolated and not so far removed from my old self while being back in the United States.
As time wore on, I found that is felt more and more natural being home. At first, I felt as confident speaking Chinese as I did using English. I even sometimes would forget a word in English and think of what it was in Chinese to remember what I wanted to say. This actually happened once during an interview which was extremely nerve racking situation. I even resulted in jumping into Chinese conversations at my local community center once only because I really wanted to speak in the language which I had used primarily for the last six months.
As many people around me know I did not at first embrace speaking Chinese. It would take about a year to really get my desire for learning Chinese to reach a critical mass. Once I had dedicated myself to learning Chinese I knew that it would not take me too long until I got the hang of it. Unfortunately, as a lifelong perfectionist, I found that I constantly felt insufficient in my Chinese whenever I did not completely understand someone or was not perfectly able to express myself the first time. As time wore on and my Chinese began to improve I still ran into moments when I did not feel adequate in my oral or listening skills; however, I realized that I was just going to have to except that learning another language was going to take some time and effort. Therefore, signing up for classes at the University of Minnesota’s Confucius center seemed like a good idea.
After two weeks of being back in the United States I found myself in my first Chinese class at the Confucius center. I waited until the class had started to explain to the instructor that I was a new student and I needed the classroom materials in order to do the assignment. The whole class and instructors were both stunned as I spoke fluently in Putonghua. I made quick friends with the instructors as they discovered that I was a Chinese enthusiast and we shared different experiences living in China.
By about this time I had come to accept the fact that some people were just not going to understand my passion and interest in China as others. One of the most surprising things for me while being home this summer was hearing some of my friend’s intellectual curiosity while discussing my experiences in China; whereas, others did not really care much about China itself. In either case, I was just happy to be back home and wanted to learn about my friend’s lives as much as taking about my experiences abroad.
China part II: A New Beginning:
By the end of the summer I became extremely excited to be returning to China and start speaking Chinese again. Being able to meet with some of my Chinese American friends and sharing my experiences with them also made the transition smother. The last few days saying goodbye to friends and family were difficult but not as hard this time for me. Ironically I felt like I was returning to a second home in China and looked forward to being reunited with some of my good friends.
I also was really looking forward to some of my traveling this year while in China and around the hemisphere. Looking over maps, contacting friends in foreign lands, and exchanging travel ideas all obsessed me my final days in the United States. Knowing that this might be my last time in China piqued my attention in relation to trying to travel in as many countries as possible.
The weekend of my flight to China was spent in the loving company of family and friends. I truly would not have had it any other way as I felt exceptionally happy to be able to spend a great deal of time with my parents my last weekend in the United States.
What I would meet on the other side of the world was still a mystery to me as I had plenty of things different about my next experience in China. For starters I would be living in a new city, be teaching at a different university, and trying to accomplish different goals the next ten months. I also was going to be without my longtime friend and China partner: Cory Quirk-Becker. Knowing that all of these changes would all greatly influence my experience in China I was doing my best to not try and look too far into the future.
At least that was one lesson that I knew I had already learned while living in China my first sixteen months.
Tuesday, June 5, 2012
Losing a friend hurts. It does not matter if that friend is a human or a pet. This reality is true because friendship is an idea, and all ideas have an individual concept to them which reflect that person’s specific beliefs. Friendship to me is an interesting idea since I feel that it has really no basis for primitive creatures besides in creating a competitive advantage when hunting and gathering for food. Overtime, the pre-frontal lobe of the brain has once or twice helped humanity to develop positive and innovative solutions to problems which in-turn has allowed societies to modernize to where the world is today. This brings me back to my original point of why friendship in the modern sense is an interesting concept to me.
Over the last few thousand years, people have decided that having a plutonic friend based on mere similarities, common interests, and personality is a healthy and rewarding experience to have. Yes, humans are pack creatures and have always functioned in a society, but that does not directly correlate that the environments in which humans lived promoted real and lasting friendship based on mutually beneficial terms. I would argue that society has not always functioned with the best in mind for everyone. An example that I think would demonstrate what I am talking about is slavery as slavery was meant to benefit everyone except the slaves themselves. Likewise, I feel that primitive societies fostered environments of deception as friendships were used primarily as a means to raise your social status, wealth, or survival. Today, I feel that humanity has realized that having friendships does not always have to be about gauging how to best use people to help your own competitive advantage. Instead, people have started to realize that friendship is more about finding similarities between two people and enjoying spending time with that person simply because they are an enjoyable companion.
This brings me back to my second point which is the most relevant one in my life right now as I am dealing with the loss of my first dog, Trey. I feel looking at this situation from an external view removed from my personal relationship with Trey makes it hard to realize why losing a pet would hurt a person. The facts are that a pet is nothing more than a domesticated wild animal which humanity has coined a “pet”. Now, I first prefaced this paragraph with the previous couple for one reason. I believe that humanity has moved forward since the “cave man” days and found that even animal-human relationships can bring great joy in the lives of both creatures. Now, I think is as good a time as ever to talk about why human beings are attracted to pets in the first place.
I remember the first day we took little Trey home from the dog-farm, and I realized that this puppy was going to actually be our families. I was struck at how small and vulnerable he was than; small enough to almost that he was no bigger than one of my shoes. He was a small and fluffy little beast back than with enough energy to go on fifty walks a day. I contrast that with how old and fragile he seemed in the end of his life with his hips faltering and his constant whimpering whenever he heard thunder clouds nearby. Even if I wanted to get him to go on a walk the last year I was home before coming to China he seemed almost afraid to leave the house as Minnesota’s previous winter was extremely harsh in comparison to the one I was told we had this year. Since humans and animals both live within the confines of a biologically changing chemistry from birth to death; changes which the body cannot avoid inevitably bring upon the end of life.
Thinking about Trey in the spring of his life is always my favorite thing to do as he had so much vigor for everything as a puppy. I could always count on throwing him twenty or thirty baseballs the entire length of a field each day after school and him racing back and forth trying to catch the balls as soon as they hit the ground. Trey always had the best personality with people and dogs as he was extremely friendly to meet. I was always happy that Trey did not have that annoying tendency of some dogs to bark at strangers or dogs in the distance. Trey would often ignore dogs which is something that I have learned to admire since being in China and being constantly sought-after by Chinese people. Sometimes, it is best to just learn to ignore things that cannot be changed and learn to live within the realities of your environment.
One of my favorite experiences with Trey as a young dog was trying to train him to follow commands. I have to say that Trey was not the best listener in the world and needed to be reprimanded for a poor performance at least once or twice maybe. These experiences looking back are always funny to recount. They are also good examples of times when people are forced to be humbled by their pet’s bad behavior. I think that training a pet is one of the most genuine experiences which teaches people that in order to gain respect from anyone or anything in life you need to demonstrate that you yourself are worthy of that respect first. Only after that person or Trey, realizes that you are worthy of respect will they themselves head your caution / command.
The next moment in Trey’s lifetime again is extremely happy as I recount the summer of Trey’s life. He enjoyed trips to the cabin so much during this time in his life as he found Trout Lake to be the best place for him on this earth. The family cabin was a heaven for Trey as he took to swimming in Trout Lake instantly. Trey’s endurance while swimming as a young dog was hard to imagine as my Dad and I would both sit in the lake throwing him tennis balls for at least thirty minutes without him needing to take a break. As Trey got older he would deploy devious tactics to rest while in the water like trying to come to you while you were swimming. These moments could get tricky because he was not afraid to use his claws to “stick” you once in a while leaving a person with some bad scratch marks. Trey also enjoyed going on walks across the Point of Trout Lake. Trey enjoyed walking in groups of people or as an individual up North as near the road there was always a chance to see a deer or two, or three. When Trey was younger he might try and chase the deer as they fled from the scene like lightning in a storm. This time for Trey was always happy as he could always count on me slipping him an ice cream cone here and there after one of my frequent stops at the Cones and Kraft’s ice cream store. Trey’s happiness was palpable as he often could be seen with his long tong lolling from his mouth in the warmth of Minnesota summers.
At meal times on these merry occasions at the cabin you could always count on Trey plopping underneath the dinner table hoping for the smallest crumb of food to fall. Trey could easily become very annoying as he would persist in his attempts to get some food from someone at the table. Eventually, someone would tell Trey to leave the dinner table in order to stop his pestering. After a day’s worth of activities Trey would finally start relaxing around eight or eight-thirty. He would eventually find a place to sit around in the cabin before tucking himself in for the night in his kennel.
As Trey got a little older we decided that he could handle sleeping in my bedroom. This was always a funny experience as Trey was an extremely large dog and I a large person sleeping in the same bedroom together. I just remember thinking that if one of us rolled over in the middle of the night it might spell trouble for the both of us. Fortunately, Trey found the bottom of the bed the best suited for his personal sleeping habits which seemed fine by me as well. As I got into high school I decided that it was time to kick Trey out of my bedroom in order to gain my autonomy once again. The few years that Trey slept in my bedroom were very memorable and funny too now that I think about it.
When Trey reached maturity he discovered that he enjoyed taking walks more than catching tennis balls or going on runs. The one consummate thing during the fall of Trey’s life was his love of swimming. I was always amazed at watching a mature golden-retriever jump face first off the dock into the water to pursue a tennis ball that was cast off from the shore. It was an extremely heart-warming feeling and a lasting memory that I will cherish forever when thinking about Trey. As a mature dog Trey realized he enjoyed relaxing during quiet evenings with Mom and Dad reading books in the living room. Trey was always a people-friendly dog and really felt most at home sitting around next to friends and family members. Ever-so-often Trey would get a wild spell and try his best to sneak some food off the table, jump on a couch, or put one of our possessions into his mouth in order to show that he wanted to play. I know that I often was mad when Trey would pester me to take him out on walks when I felt I had something more important to do. Learning to work with anyone is a life skill and I guess my immaturity at times makes me embarrassed to recount now. I realize that learning how to live with Trey was something that truly helped me grow as an individual.
In college, I lost some connection with Trey as I was often training for football, studying, or having fun with friends on the weekends. Trey did not seem to mind that I was not around as much as when I was younger; instead, Trey greeted me with a wagging of his tail each time I visited home. I realize now that his life was so much about brining joy to other people now. I truly felt happy when we would be going on a walk together towards the end of his life. The one constant thing that you could count on Trey throughout his life is that he loved getting pets. When I say he loved getting pets I really cannot understate how much he loved this sensation. If you would stay and pet Trey for an hour he would sit there being very happy and content with this situation. He was also very excited whenever he got a new little chew toy around Christmas time and always seemed to find a way to destroy it in about 2.5 seconds. His love for socks was also something that you could count on his entire life. If Trey ever wanted to play with you he would come over to you with a pair of socks in his mouth and approach a person with his tail wagging a million miles per hour.
If Trey had a philosophical ideal it definitely would have been pacifism. He amazed me at how much he would let other dogs and people do to him before he would start to get upset. Trey really loved life and I guess it is fitting that he lived as long as he did. Most dogs are lucky to hit ten and Trey made it to thirteen which is amazing for a big dog. Thinking back on my life, it is hard to imagine it now without having Trey in it which is why I am going to miss him so much. I pre-empted my year and a half stay going to China by letting Trey know in my own way that I thought this would be the last time I would see him in this life. I know now that I am quite fortunate to have had such a wonderful pet that has impacted our family in such a positive way. While writing this blog I really enjoyed going back in my mind and thinking about both the good and bad of Trey. Just like a human being animals too have their bad aspects which in-turn people learn to live with and except.
Some last thoughts on Trey are all funny and I will keep them brief. Trey was partner to Ryan Wittman breaking his finger in fifth grade during a wrestling match in our living room. Trey once ate an entire steak when we were not looking before dinner at the cabin. Once I returned home from high school to discover that Trey had had an accident in his kennel which both surprised and angered me as I too became covered in Trey’s accident soon after he started shaking himself off. A last note on Trey that is something very funny is that Trey often liked to try and exert his male dominance on people he would meet by attacking their leg. This was known as the “red rocket” phase of Trey’s life and one that I will always laugh about to myself when remembering Trey’s life.
Back in China, the last few weeks have been pretty frustrating for me knowing that I did not really make that great of an impact on people in the grand scheme of things. Fortunately, realizing that I was going to be going back home in less than a month has reinvigorated me to continue working hard to pursue my original goals of positively impacted people in Rongchang. Lately, I have been able to have much more in-depth conversations with people since my Chinese continues to improve each week. It is always unbelievable for me to think about how much my Chinese has improved in the last few months only. In these conversations I have learned a lot more about the people in rural China and their general mind set on the outside world. It is interesting to hear people commenting on Joseph Stalin as a good leader, all Koreans being pretentious, and all Japanese being foreign-devils. I find that I am a little appalled at how close-minded many of the people our in this little town are in comparison to the educated people I have talked to in China. Realizing that people all have different experiences aside I and knowing that probably only twenty-five percent of Rongchang’s population have even been outside of Chongqing’s border provinces I find it extremely remarkable that people can make such claims about the outside world with so much certainty.
The past few weeks I have been for the first time since being in China thinking about what it is going to feel like to be back living in the U.S. this summer before returning to China for one more year of teaching in Beibei, Chongqing. Knowing that I will be heading back to a country and a home which has gone through changes that I personally did not have any part in is going to be interesting to say the least. I look forward to seeing old friends and family members as well as being able to visit the places that I love most in life. I also look forward to being able to recount all of my interesting, funny, strange, frustrating, and remarkable experiences of living in China. I am looking forward to learning from people back home whose lives have changed recently as I have obviously been out-of-touch with a lot of people while living in China. I can only imagine that some things will have changed while others are similar and that most of my friends will be eerily similar as they were before I left for China last February. I think that I will not mind any of that though since I am ready for a different experience and am excited to be re-introduced into western culture again.
Looking forward I will start my preliminary packing for my summer vacation this weekend which will be interesting. It is going to be strange to go through all of my things and recount all of the memories in my first home after college. I have had a lot of great, interesting, and frustrating experiences while living in China which I am sure to think about while I start my packing process.
Unfortunately, as has been the case each semester teaching in Rongchang students have stopped showing up to class as they prepare for their final examinations. This has given me a lot of free time which I have used to exercise, study Chinese, and talking with Chinese people in an attempt to better understand Chinese people. Interestingly enough I have discovered a tendency for Chinese people of all ages to continuously offer advice to me about how to do things. From small things such as, “you should wear more clothes”, and “it is best to take a nap or go on a walk after a meal”, to “you need to start studying how to be a father since you are of age now” and “you should eat more rice at meals”. I find this again an incredibly interesting phenomenon that has recently become very tiresome indeed since people will tell you these types of things each and every day no matter if you ask their opinion or not. Some of the more funny ones I have heard are; “you seem lonely so you should find a Chinese wife” and “your Chinese is so good that you can bring your family to live with you in China”. These types of communiqués would not be possible if I could not speak Chinese and appreciate the cultural differences within our two cultures.
This last month in China will be spent saying goodbye to friends and wishing others my best as I am sure I will not many of them again. I guess with all of these changes happening in my life it is only right that my friends are changing as well with the times. I hope that this gives you the impression that things are moving along just nicely and that I am mostly positive over my experience in Rongchang. I know that times are not always easy for me and nor are they for Cory and Ali, but I truly believe that what we have done is good and that our good work touched the lives of many people here in Rongchang. Even if that does not mean that our efforts will scratch the surface of all the bad things going on in the world it does not matter. In the end, a person just needs to be responsible for themselves and their own actions. Trying to save the world is pointless since the world was here before I was born and is still going to be moving along just nicely after I have perished. Life is an eternal circle of new beginnings and endings intermixed together into something humans have coined, “life”. I guess I am still pretty darn excited about life and all the interesting possibilities which surround it!
Sunday, May 6, 2012
The last few weeks have been filled with the wonders of adventure as I have been busy traveling once again. I can safely say that I was in need of an opportunity to remember some of the benefits of living abroad after starting to feel that my passion for being in China waning of late. To me, the greatest intrinsic benefit of living abroad is getting to visit new and interesting places. As my Chinese has been steadily improving the past few months so has my ability to travel in China. My confidence in speaking Chinese and listening comprehension has alleviated a lot of past fears regarding traveling in China. An interesting observation which many of my friends have made lately regarding my increased self-confidence of late I believe definitely reflects the benefits of being able to speak a foreign language. I always have a fear of becoming too confident as over-confidence is a sign of having too much pride; however, in this circumstance I have to agree with my friends on this matter. Being able to travel alone in a foreign country and counting primarily on a foreign language can be a scary thing at first; nonetheless, overtime I certainly have seen my self-confidence improve in a way which has allowed me to feel free to travel. Before, I was almost paralyzed to do so even though I desperately desired to get out and explore China.
Three weeks ago, Cory and I went on a nice trip to Chengdu together as a way to celebrate my birthday and do some traveling. I was extremely excited to be returning to Chengdu as it is one of my favorite cities in China. I always leave Chengdu feeling satisfied as it is a city that seems to have a great assortment of thing to offer from their variety of food, hospitable local-residents, foreign bars, and less congested feeling compared with Chongqing. After two days of exploring Chengdu, eating nice western food, and enjoying the nightlife Cory and I felt rejuvenated once again. On the morning of our third day in Chengdu, our tour to Mt. Emei and Leshan embarked at five forty-five in the morning. If you know me well this was not one of my more favored starting times; however, since being in China I have become accustomed to a variety of things which I would at first been appalled with. Leaving very early in the morning did have its advantages thought as we were able to get into Leshan before other tour groups arrived.
Being challenged with an all Chinese tour was something that at first I would have been extremely hesitant to accept; fortunately, my improved Chinese along with the help of a bright young Chinese student (her English name was apropos: Fluent) helped to make the tour pain-free. I enjoyed being able once again to travel with Cory and overall just being able to spend some time away from Rongchang. The tour began by exploring the monstrous Leshan Buddha which is the world’s largest Buddha stone carving along as being the world’s largest pre-modern statute. Getting down to the bottom of the statue took at least thirty-five minutes as the only way to get down is to pass through a narrow rock path cut into the canyon down to the foot of the Buddha. Furthermore, the sheer number of travelers to the park created an exacerbated our overall wait time. The magnificence of the statue really is hard to explain as it truly does dwarf everything from the valley below.
Afterwards, the group toured a couple of different old Buddhist temples and explained the differences between the Bodhisattvas or Buddhist deities. The one thing I found very interesting about the different Buddhist deities is that there is always a sense of right conduct, importance of relationships, and the effects of your actions relating to your current state in life. I see Buddhism as being a religion which really does preach inner and outer peace along with striving for an understanding the whole person. It is interesting to draw some parallels between Chinese culture and Buddhism since certain things such as the importance of right relationships plays an important part in both.
At the end of our first day we explored some other interesting and large Buddhist structures across from the Giant Buddha in Leshan. The amazing size and scope of the Buddhist statues definitely leaves a mark on the traveler’s memory. That night we enjoyed a relatively nice Chinese hotel service as Cory and I awaited an early tour to up to Mt. Emei’s summit.
That next morning Cory and I awoke bright and early again but extremely rejuvenated from a solid night of sleep. Unfortunately, the weather did not play its part as the fog was so dense it was hard to see twenty-five ft in front of you near the summit of Mt. Emei. As the Chinese tour guide pointed out no one would be able to see anything at the top of the mountain which left the group with no choice but to turn back. Taking the tour guides advice, the group descended from the near summit of Emei expectant regarding the rest of the day’s travels. Luckily, by the time we visited the next stop of on our day’s schedule the weather had improved greatly allowing us to enjoy the rest of the tour sites.
The next stop on the tour was an exciting visit to one of China’s oldest Buddhist temples. The view on the way up to the top was expansive as both Cory and I took in the beauty of the nature around us. Cory and I were definitely in an adventurous mood as we elected to hike to the top of the temple; whereas, the rest of our group decided to take the cable cars up the mountain. Along the way up the top of the mountain, Cory and I found ourselves sharing the road with oncoming horses caring material up and down from the temple. I guess it is just another example of needing to expect the unexpected while living in China.
Walking around the Buddhist temple’s beautiful gardens full was breathtaking to the mind’s eye as special flowering trees were in blossom. Along the way down the mountain our tour group stopped twice to rest, sample tea, and drink some fermented wine. Cory and I both agreed that it would have been much more prudent to have only stopped once as time is always a premium while traveling; nevertheless, taking a rest in the afternoon is another piece of Chinese culture which certainly is widespread throughout the country and imbedded within Chinese DNA.
The last stop on our tour was a beautiful rock canyon hike on the other side of Mt. Emei. During this hike we were able to see a large group of wild monkeys and walk alongside a beautiful river and lake nestled between the mountains. Cory and I both enjoyed this part of the tour since it was a great opportunity to do some hiking and enjoy the company of our close ancestors. I guess that I was a little nervous around the monkeys since Cory had already warned me about his experiences with them last time he had been to Mt. Emei. My fears did not materialize into anything luckily as both Cory and I were not hassled at all by any monkeys.
That night we arrived back in Chengdu happy and content with the tour. I felt that overall it was a great success and something that I would do again. As I continue to strive to improve my Chinese I can only imagine that touring the country will become less of a hassle for me with time. I did feel that I was really starting to make some nice strides though on my listening comprehension which I have always felt is weaker in comparison to my oral Chinese.
The next week in Rongchang was full of activity again for me as I prepared for my trip to Tianjin to meet up with Mr. Jeff Jiang. Mr. Jiang is starting an educational advising consulting firm in Tianjin, China which provides comprehensive assistance to Chinese high schools students interested in studying abroad in the United States. Some of the main areas which Jeff provides counseling include the expectations, challenges, and application process for attending college in the United States. Jeff received a Chinese student visa over a decade ago and knows all about the tedious process, requirements, and differences between Chinese and American culture. After receiving three masters degrees Jeff settled down in Eden Prairie, Minnesota with his family. With his vast knowledge of the American education system and life experiences, I can think of no better candidate to educate future incoming Chinese foreign students than Mr. Jeff Jiang.
My traveling to Tianjin was the most pain-free I have had since being in China. It is unbelievable how nice it feels to be able to know that you can do more than just communicate using your Chinese. I have since noticed some of the important small things that can make a really big difference in communication such as putting emphasis on something, asking follow-up questions, and being able to be forceful when you need to be as all being very useful while communicating. Interestingly, I find that all of these things I would have taken for granted while I was living in the United States. Only by being deprived of using English to do these things I have I since learned how greatly important they are while communicating with others.
Once I arrived in Tianjin I was treated with real first class service by Mr. Jiang’s secretary, Lynne Ni. Lynne picked me up at the airport and helped me get situated before I met Jeff at his office. During my quick (I was only in Tianjin for three days) but productive time in Tianjin I found that I discovered a lot about what it means to be an entrepreneur. Not only did I learn the difficulties that arise from starting one’s own business, but I also learned how persistence, resolve, and a strong will do pay off in the end. I guess my experience in Tianjin taught me more about life lessons than actual work experience.
With that being said, I did learn a lot during the three different presentations Jeff and I gave during the weekend. I felt that working with Jeff was extremely easy as his personality is quite amiable. Beforehand, we meet together and discussed the PowerPoint presentations, his expectations, and even brain stormed some ideas. Overall, I have to say that I am grateful for this learning experience and very appreciative for all of the opportunities that Mr. Jiang provided me.
After the last presentation was finished, Lynee and I went out for four hour’s worth of touring Tianjin together. During this time, we were able to see an old-fashioned market, the cities historical concessions to European nations around the 1850’s, visit a house made primarily of porcelain, and eat a delicious baozi dinner at a famous restaurant in Tianjin. The last stop of the night was to the famous “Emancipation Bridge” across the _____ river. Overall, it was a fantastic end to my first ever-business trip.
The next weekend welcomed the beginning of May with International Labor Day. This short holiday offered me the opportunity to travel to Si Mian Shan, a local provincial park in Chongqing with a friend from Rongchang. As my friend, Maggie was the one who initiated the idea to travel and she was Chinese I felt confident that I could let her handle all of the arrangements on this tour.
Getting to the Si Mian Shan Park was a bit of a long-haul as it took three different bus connections to finally end up at the park. Nonetheless, once we finally did arrive and checked-in to the hostel we enjoyed a nice hike up to the top of the highest peak at the park. Maggie and I both agreed that the view from the top was expansive and worth the effort hiking as you could see as far as the eye could perceive into the distance.
The next day did not start well when the omnipresent omen of rain came to fruition. As the rain increased in intensity Maggie and I were forced to miss out going down to the bottom of a waterfall since the rain had over-flown the walking path. Likewise, we missed out going on a boat tour as the rain had made such an excursion uncomfortable as we were both drenched at this point in time already. Fortunately, the weather did improve enough for us to do some walking around the park which was wonderful. We also made it to a Taoist temple which was very interesting since Taoism has seemingly been forgotten in popular culture next to Buddhism.
Our last day at Si Mian Shan was brief as we were in a need to start early on our voyage back to Rongchang. The best part of the last day was that all of the other tourists had already left which allowed us to enjoy the peaceful natural environment without the frequent sound of people, cars, and motorcycles. This was a nice time for me which allowed me to remember the nice tranquility of our families’ cabin up in North Minnesota.
Finally, I have arrived at the not so distant past of yesterday to explain about one of the most fun times I have had in all my time in China as Cory, Ali, the Tian family, and Feng family enjoyed an unbelievable dinner together at my treat. Following the dinner festivities, Cory treated the whole group out for a fun KTV excursion which had been my first in at least five months. It was worth it though as Mr. Tian and Mrs. Tian, Mr. and Mrs. Feng, Cory and I, all danced and sang the night away. It was really telling how close I have gotten to the Tian family for them to open up and dance as a group. All in all, it was one of the most memorable times I have ever had in China and something that I will never forget.
I know that lately I have truly been neglecting my writing and reading which I can relate to probably one concrete reason: I am studying Chinese a lot. Also, I am really taking advantage of my last two months here in China as I know that nothing is ever guaranteed in life. At the least, I know in my heart without a doubt that I really experienced a lot my last few months in China and made the best of a not always beneficial situation.
As I briefly look back over my time in China I find it hard to pinpoint the exact ways that I have changed. I guess I have improved my self-confidence from felling successful speaking Chinese; however, that is probably one of the only concrete areas that I can say without a fact that I have changed as a person. Nevertheless, I can say without a fact that I have changed as a person. I think that people sometimes have a lot of trouble pinpointing exactness in life; therefore, I find it easier to describe as something that a person just feels inside. I just would say that I feel differently than I did previously in my life and I know that I am glad for it.
I hope and pray that everyone is well and happy back in the United States. As I will be heading home here relatively soon now I am becoming aware of all of the different things that I am going to exciting for having again after such a long hiatus. I am especially looking forward to seeing family and friends as there are both foundation of my personal happiness.