On Juggling Work, Passion and Happiness

Passionate about something other than the thing you toss 40 hours down the drain for every week? It’s possible to balance them and be happy. 

I’m one of 60 foreigners in a Chinese city of 3 million people. I’m a tall, white male with blonde hair and blue eyes (some say I have deep pools). You could say it’s not hard for me to get noticed here. There’s a word for what I am. Laowai. I hear it all the time, sometimes even daily, in hushed tones spoken to friends who are elbowing each other in the ribs and alerting each other to my presence. Some are less inconspicuous and just decide to shout, “LaoWAI!” I’ve gotten used to it. My newbie self would turn around every time I heard this interjection, something that would be considered highly rude back home, but now it’s just water off a duck’s back. I ignore it like I would the drone of plane passing overhead.

This behavior is usually no less than annoying (unless it’s a kid, then it’s kinda cute), especially after the realization that it’s not going to stop a month into your stay in China. You feel like everyone should eventually know of the big, white man-beast that emerges from time to time, but 3 million is a lot of people. There are several entertaining ways that my foreign-ness dawns on Chinese people, many of which would get your ass kicked back home in America. But I realize it’s a pretty homogenous country, and Daqing is especially as far as Chinese cities go. It’s probably a complete mystery to many people why I’ve decided to come and live in what many would consider a frozen hellhole. Here are the most common reactions to my simple existence as I go about mundane activities.

The Classic “Laowai!”

Imagine if you saw a hispanic, a Middle Eastern or, hey, even a Chinese person walking down the street in America. Would you point and shout “Foreigner!”? Would you say “Hey, look! There’s a foreigner” to your friend without even bothering to lower your voice at all within earshot of this person (which, I know, is beside the point)? Well, that’s exactly what happens here. As a foreigner in China, it will be one of the first words you learn, the first you will understand. Good thing, too, as it will be directed at you quite a bit. After five months, it’s just white noise to me.

The “Hellooo!?”

A random Chinese person shouting “Hellooo!?” at you is not that dissimilar from making monkey noises at the chimpanzee exhibit or tapping on the glass to get a response. The zoo analogy sounds pretty harsh, but it is almost dead on. It is very easy to separate who is actually trying to practice their English from someone who is just being obnoxious and openly mocking you. The latter will be smiling and alerting their friend of your presence as you approach, and only after have you passed them will one venture that feeble, goofy hello. Those guys are having a day at the zoo, and I barely hear them anymore I’ve gotten so good at ignoring them.

The 360° Pivot Stare

This is one of my personal favorites. You know someone has to be a special kind of sheltered when they are so shocked at your very presence that they slowly turn in a complete circle, blatantly staring at you the entire 360 degrees. Sure, you can try making eye-contact with them, hoping in vain that they’ll just look away and mind their own business. Good luck. I’m just glad the little old lady didn’t drop her bag of eggs. This is also probably one of the most annoying reactions. I guess, even in North Carolina, I’ve been so exposed to multiculturalism that this type of reaction would be completely out of the question in any situation. Oh well, keep looking while it’s free.

The Not So Inconspicuous Photo Op

Another favorite, because it’s so incredulous. What would you do if some random-ass stranger took a photo of you for no particular reason other than your skin is a different color? Yeah, wouldn’t go over so well back home… Hmm, you’re holding your phone at a very strange angle in the middle of the supermarket. *Whoosh, to the other side of the amateur photographer.* Busted. Her camera is up and I see a thumbnail of myself. I know I’m sexy, but please restrain yourself. I’d love to know how this conversation with friends actually goes down. “Yep, so here’s a nice sunset from yesterday evening, there’s the good noodles I was telling you about, and oh, some white guy I’ve never met before carrying his groceries.”

The Point and Laugh

This one probably pisses me off the most. Really, you’re just going to wear that shit-eating grin while elbowing your friend and laughing? Seriously. As with virtually every one of these, I can’t imagine any universe in which this would go down well back home. I understand I’m clearly different. You may not have even seen a foreigner in person before. But how can you think this is the best reaction? Maybe I’m just too complacent in my whiteness. It’s become old hat until now. Okay, you can laugh it up. Just don’t ever go to the Bronx. Especially don’t go anywhere in the South. They won’t ‘preciate that there.

The…Wow, you’re actually scared of me

I thought I had seen it all. I was wrong. One day I was in H&M (I know, the whole minimalism thing but there was a great sale) just purusing, minding my own business. I pay for my new shirt and walk out the door just as a couple enters. The girl gasps and makes a noise in surprise when she notices my foreign face, and shrinks up against here boyfriend in fear, clutching on to him for dear life. I don’t know if you, the reader, have ever seen a photo of me, but I’m about as far away from intimidating as it gets. What the fuck have people been telling you about 150-pounds-when-soaking-wet white guys? Okay, to be fair my beard was in full force that day.

The Passing Glance

Thank you, person, for being an actual human being. Thank you for just briefly acknowledging that I may be a bit different and continuing about your business. I don’t know why it’s so difficult for other people to go about their day without trying to inconspicuously (yeah, you’re not fooling anyone) take a photo of me, but you’re a saint.

The Kids

This one does not bother me at all because kids are innocent no matter where you go in the world. If they haven’t had a foreign teacher before, then of course they might be a bit taken aback by their first foreigner sighting. And when I say taken aback, I mean some of their jaws literally drop. Others will smile at you and try to practice their English, which I always indulge. English is very much in demand throughout Asia and I’m hopeful that this increasing early exposure to someone of a different culture will condition a new generation of people to be more culturally aware, even as members of a very homogenous population. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if this will be the case unless the parents help out. Maybe telling their children that it is actually not okay to point and laugh at someone different from them would be a good start. But I think there is probably a better chance of the children teaching their parents this stuff.

IMPORTANT UPDATE FOR TUMBLRS

Okay, I’m not deleting my tumblog. It wouldn’t be fair to the best audience, like, ever. BUT. After this month I will no longer be posting to tumblr. Instead, I’ll be using it the same way most people use it, by sharing content related to my interests - travel and minimalism - rather than using it as my primary blogging platform. I will post a link from the new Wordpress blog every time a post is up, but you’ll have to go there to get all the goodness! Part of this change is making things more automated so I can focus on my ebook and freelance writing a bit more. Heading over to Wordpress now would be a huge help towards succeeding in that goal. Thanks guys, see you around!

Edit: Maybe I should add a link to the new blog if I’m begging you to go there… Mwuahhahaha, is it big enough?

What can I say about the driving here? Well. Cracks knuckles. AHHHHRRRGGGGARGHHH!1!!1one. Sorry, that was my pent-up inner monologue from the past 5 months escaping. The driving in China is something that – on any given day – never fails to infuriate me on a small level, even after generally enjoying myself here for the past 5 months. I wouldn’t blame this entirely on China, however. I’m a pretty scrupulous driver back in the States. If you’re going too fast you’re a douchebag; too slow, an idiot. I guess, ironically, that would make me an asshole. Equipped with that knowledge of my vehicular hubris, any laowai reading this can imagine how quick I am to anger here.

Pedestrians have the right to get out of the way.

As a walker – that’s a person without a two-ton machine with wheels, not a zombie – you have no sacred ground here. Don’t even look at your feet (a necessity during the winter) lest you look back up to find you have roughly 0.3 seconds to get out of the way of some tool driving his SUV on the sidewalk. I’m not sure, but I think the way it works is that if your car is big enough, then you have an unwritten amendment to your license that allows you to go anywhere the fuck you want.

Pedestrian lights are just decorations here. While waiting for your (nonexistent) window to cross the street, you’ll notice vehicles going right, left and sometimes straight on red. Basically you’re your best judge. Wading through traffic is an art form and you’ll just have to use the elderly Chinese woman beside you, walking through the rush-hour, zero fucks given, as your shield until you perfect it yourself.

When you do decide to start throwing caution to the wind and just adopt the Chinese method for crossing the street whenever the hell you can, take a look at the oncoming traffic. Just briefly; don’t die. You’ll notice that instead of slowing down, or even just getting into the next lane to avoid you, they start heading toward you. It’s almost as if they’re trying to beat you to it, until the last possible second when there just isn’t enough space between you and the other side of the street to make it through without hitting you.

Take a look at this excerpt from the Wikipedia article on China’s convoluted right-of-way. You can’t make this shit up.

Compared to the western understanding of right-of-way, which refers to the legal right to proceed forward in a vehicle without fear of being found at fault for causing a collision, right-of-way in China means, for all intents and purposes, that the person who is in the way (first) has the right. In practice, this translates into motorists and cyclists turning or merging straight into the path of other traffic believing that the onus is on the other person to avoid a collision.

That’s almost akin to me blindly merging into peak traffic because it’s the unlucky soul in the other lane’s problem. Oh wait…that’s exactly what it is. So, this is the “system” that some apologetic expats will tell you “kind of works”. A free-for-all. A battle royale of aluminum, steel and meat-bags. Who will win?

The Data

Metal wins. This data from the World Health Organization bears it out. I do actually like to back up my vitriolic rants with facts here at Spartan Wanderer so I don’t seem like the drunkest, oldest guy at the expat bar. The most impassioned cultural relativist argument can’t stand up to the numbers that declare that even India has safer roads than China – a fact my girlfriend couldn’t believe after having travelled their for 6 months.

This isn’t because Chinese people are inherently bad drivers. All developing nations in the thrust of rapid industrialization are responsible for a high amount of traffic fatalities due to poor infrastructure that can’t keep up with the purchasing power of a new middle class desiring vehicular status symbols with little to no knowledge of how to actually use them. The US and Europe have had years and years to develop good traffic laws and niceties on the road while the Chinese middle class has only just arrived. Road manners haven’t had time to develop.

But what about the police?

Hahahahaha, that’s so cute! Three months in, I was flabbergasted (don’t get to use that word very often) to see a police officer directing traffic. Toilet paper and oranges were on sale at the local mall, so naturally, chaos ensued. It was the first time I had seen the police actually doing something. I even did a double-take. There are large arrays of traffic cameras at every light, designed to photograph and automatically fine traffic-violations, but in several cities these “cameras” are no more than a flash attached to a motion sensor. Even if the police were motivated to do more, China is a communist country in name only. For all practical purposes, the government is a plutocratic/kleptocratic oligarchy, meaning anyone with the money or connections can run red-lights at 100 mph all day long without fear of retribution.

The most dangerous people on the road are…

Women driving luxury vehicles. No, really. Daqing is an oil city, and one of the most affluent in China despite it having only been around since 1959. I’ve never seen such a high concentration of beamers, mercs and jags in my life. I saw my first Bentley here. And of course there are plenty of douche-mobile Hummers. If you have the money to put yourself in one of those, then you also have the funds to put your wife in a matching one. No license? No problem. This is China; if you have the money and the guanxi (friends in high places), then your wife has an Audi and a license to terrorize everyone else on the road.

About the photo…

I’ve seen maybe four or five accidents, just bump-ups, from our apartment window. We’ll be going about our business, planning lessons, writing, being a lazy slob on a Netflix binge after a night at Kingsley’s thenSCREEECH CRASH! Then they get out and stand beside their cars for 2+ hours and wait for police/insurance company. This taxi driver in particular decided to try and avoid a busy intersection beside our place and cut through the hospital parking lot. Fair enough; even I do that at home sometimes. But the trick is to not continue going at 50 mph, which he didn’t do (obviously) and now he will pretty much certainly lose his livelihood for hitting a BMW, likely owned by someone important. Or rich. Doesn’t matter. It’s harsh, but yeah…slow the fuck down.

Ahhhh…

The takeaway: the driving pisses me off here, it’s objectively worse than back home, but it’s because of rapid industrialization, not because Asian-driver jokes are true.

That felt good.

Ta-da! If you are reading this on tumblr, then you probably have no idea what I’m talking about. Did I do a magic trick? Nope. Did I do a flip? Mosey over to this link and you will be enlightened. Now that you’re here…reading the same post… Over the past couple of months, I’ve been working on a massive overhaul of the good ole blog. Between teaching kids colors and various fruits in English and correcting horrible, glaring errors in textbooks – “May I play your ball?” – I’ve been slowly preparing what you see here.

Why?

Because I can. And tumblr is done-zo. I’m getting new followers everyday, and I love you guys for taking a second to click that button. Comparatively, I’m still a rinky-dink blogger, a drop in the ocean, and still I never thought I’d have this big of an audience. More followers create a problem that tumblr does not address so well: communication. I’m getting a few questions each week ranging from general comments on what I’m doing (which make me blush and keep me writing) to very specific questions regarding visas (thanks to China’s bitchy process).

Sometimes these are in the Disqus comments at the bottom of each post. I usually always reply to those. Often they are in tumblr’s own “reply” thingy. If I reply to those, it creates a separate post and sort of screws up the appearance that I’m going for, which sucks for me and isn’t fair to you guys if I don’t respond simply for that reason. Basically, it’s a headache to have any substantive dialogue with tumblr’s system that was so clearly designed for shorter attention spans. We’re better than that, right?

What’s new?

As I just mentioned, it will be much easier to comment, for me to see your comment, respond and get a nice discussion going. This month is going to be full of the things I dislike about China, so I’m sure I’ll get a lot of flak for that and it will be a great opportunity to put WordPress through its paces. I tried to keep the design as zen as possible to reflect my minimalist values and make it easily navigable now that there’s a few pages. Feel free to look through the archives and subscribe in the sidebar!

What’s next?

Okay, some of you may remember me shooting my mouth off about a future ebook. That’s still coming, even if by this point it sounds like I’m talking out of my ass. This upgrade to Spartan Wanderer 2.0 was quite impromptu and began with me just fucking around with WordPress during a break from lesson planning. I liked what I saw. Everything was put on the back-burner until this was finished.

Moving to WordPress means a new audience and I want to make it easy for them to get caught up with us tumblr veterans. They, too, should be able to see my early, mediocre ramblings. While there is an archive on WordPress, I will be making a downloadable, offline version. New followers will be able to download every post from the beginning in 2011 to the end of 2013 from the Kindle Store.

After the archive is easily digestible for the masses, I will resume going full steam on the ebook. That’s all I’ll say about it until I’m closer to getting it up on the web. I haven’t thrown up a T-shirt design in a while, so more of those will be coming to Skreened soon. As far as material goes…well, hehe…don’t you worry. I’ll be going to Harbin’s famous ice festival soon, and shortly after that, partying in Hong Kong for the Chinese New Year.

Welcome!

This is where I write about longterm travel and the minimalist lifestyle that makes it easier to pursue and enjoy. I write anything from personal travelogues, to articles on interesting cultural stufftravel advicerants and reviews for helpful things in my pack. If I get a lot of questions or comments about a particular issue, I’ll write about that. Minimalism is a huge thing here, but I am not part of the establishment that is going to tell you to throw out everything but 100, or 50, or 25 things – with many stipulations excluding cookware and underwear and whatever other mental gymnastics they need to do to sleep at night – in order to be happy.

My only goal is to show as many people as possible how positive a force for good travel can be, and how that lifestyle can be achieved by anyone who wishes to pursue it. Anything beyond that is just gravy. So kick back, open a beer and join the journey. I assure you, it’s still quite young.

Christmas Eve

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all throughout Kingsley’s

All the laowai were stirring, could I get a neat bourbon please?

Secret Santa was finished; I got 2 bags of coffee!

Now it’s time for tequila shots, while for the third time, someone plays “Get Lucky.”

China is the fourth country I’ve celebrated Festivus in – England, Iceland and America being the other three. My observations over the past three years have revealed that booze plays a major role throughout the season in pretty much any place other than the American South, because it’s of the devil there. Things haven’t changed here. All of us expats met at Kingsley’s to eat pizza, do Secret Santa and consume copious amounts of alcohol. Nearly everyone turns up on holidays because we’re as much of a family as anyone has in this tiny, frozen corner of China.

Aside from Secret Santa, it was just another night at your local expat bar. Barflies at the bar, having groundbreaking discussions on politics or bitching about their school/China and people on the dance floor doing the Electric Slide to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky” as if it’s the biggest innovation to come out of 2013. There was a new guy there who kept buying us tequila shots. He was an oil worker, just visiting, lived with his boyfriend about 3 hours away. I smoked too many cigarettes as we broke common ground over coming from the South and somehow ending up in China, liberal as they come. We all ended the night at KFC after one more shot.

Christmas Day

I awake to a pain in my head and a turmoil in my stomach

Santa seems to have given me a holiday hangover from his sack

Kate cooks a wonderful meal for laowai friends, cheer is had by all

Later I open presents on Skype, thank you Chinese internet, no dropped calls

We both woke up pretty hungover, which sucked because there was a shitload of cooking and cleaning to be done in the next 4 hours. We were originally going to have a quiet Christmas dinner with one other couple, but word gets around…and you’re cooking for twice as many people. I duck out in a rush to the school. My package from home has arrived! The school also gave us gifts – two really nice faux-china tea sets that we have no idea how the fuck we’ll get back to America/England without breaking completely. We enjoy an xmas dinner of all the normal stuff as well as a crispy duck, just like A Christmas Story.

I have to give mad props to my mom. This was my third consecutive xmas abroad and she still sent me a gift. I ring my family with their beaten up package in my lap, expecting shards of whatever used to in it before the careful attention of USPS and China Post got to it. I called at 10pm, just in time for my dad, mom, bro and sis to be around the tree Christmas morning. We opened presents just like we would have if we were at home. Christmas is just another day to me. The only part of it I really celebrate is being together with family, which in some ways made it harder than if it were anything more than that to me.

The Day After

Now today some mandatory fun the school has planned

Unsure of what to expect, I drink a beer on the bus with a friend

Later we find ourselves being eaten by fish, passing around a  jar of wine

Sounds pretty weird but it was actually a good time

The day after Christmas, the school threw quite a good staff party at a (apparently ’7-star’) hotel and spa. Both foreign and Chinese teachers boarded a bus and an hour later we’re sitting in a hot tub surrounded by a fake forest in a biodome-esque structure with what I’m sure is a choral version of “What is Love?” playing in the background. We try to play a drinking game with the Chinese teachers, but truth or dare isn’t that great when it “devolves” from asking what things you’ve put in various holes to “Are you from Heilongjiang Province?” Thankfully, just the right amount of huangjiu makes anything interesting.

There’s a different sort of pool in the spa, the sort where little fishes eat the dead skin off of you. For some new age treatment that would have cost $40/hour in the States we drop $5, hop in and let the weirdness begin. At first, it’s unbearable. I can’t keep my feet still for five seconds without giggling. But then you kinda get used to it, and ease your entire body in (with your hands around your shorts, of course). Ten minutes later we’re kicking back, passing the aforementioned huangjiu (which happens to be in an epic ceramic jar) back and forth while the fish eat their fill, sort of coming to terms with the fact that, yes, we’re in China and this is happening.

Jargon

laowai - colloquial term for a foreigner; will be shouted at you with wild abandon

huangjiu - a tasty yellow wine; better than baijiu

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