"Wish You Happy Every Day": An Expat's Life in China

“Massacre” by Liao Yiwu
June 10, 2015, 8:32 am
Filed under: 6/4, arts & literature, Chinese history | Tags: , ,

Last week was the 26th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which as many as 300-1,000 pro-democracy protesters were gunned down by the Chinese government. Many of them were students.

Because one does not talk about 6/4 in China, attempts to heal are stifled. In fact, many young people don’t even know about it, including about half of my students from last semester.

I’d like to share this spoken word poem, “Massacre”, a commemoration of the lives lost on 6-4 that got its author, Liao Yiwu, a cell in prison for four years. I first discovered it at Ai Wei Wei’s @Large exhibit, where it was being displayed. This is Liao’s performance at the New York Public Library from 2013.

And here is the English translation, as it appears in Liao’s book For a Song and a Hundred Songs:

Leap! Howl! Fly! Run!
Freedom feels so good!
Snuffing out freedom feels so good!
Power will be triumphant forever.
Will be passed down from generation to generation forever.
Freedom will also come back from the dead.
It will come back to life in generation after generation.
Like that dim light just before the dawn.
No. There’s no light.
At Utopia’s core there can never be light.
Our hearts are pitch black.
Black and scalding.
Like a corpse incinerator.
A trace of the phantoms of the burned dead.
We will exist.
The government that dominates us will exist.
Daylight comes quickly.
It feels so good.
The butchers are still ranting!
Children. Children, your bodies all cold.
Children, your hands grasping stones.
Let’s go home.
Brothers and sisters, your shattered bodies littering the earth.
Let’s go home.
We walk noiselessly.
Walk three feet above the ground.
All the time forward, there must be a place to rest.
There must be a place where sounds of gunfire and explosions cannot
be heard.
We so wish to hide within a stalk of grass.
A leaf.
Uncle. Auntie. Grandpa. Granny. Daddy. Mummy.
How much farther till we’re home?
We have no home.
Everyone knows.
Chinese people have no home.
Home is a comforting desire.
Let us die in this desire.
Let us die in freedom.
Righteousness. Equality. Universal love.
Peace, in these vague desires.
Stand on the horizon.
Attract more of the living to death!
It rains.
Don’t know if it is rain or transparent ashes.
Run quickly, Mummy!
Run quickly, son!
Run quickly, elder brother!
Run quickly, little brother!
The butchers will not let up.
An even more terrifying day is approaching.
GOOD! . . .
Cry cry cry crycrycrycrycrycrycry

We stand in the midst of brilliance but all people are blind.
We stand on a great road but no one is able to walk.
We stand in the midst of a cacophony but all are mute.
We stand in the midst of heat and thirst but all refuse to drink.

In this historically unprecedented massacre only the spawn of dogs
can survive.


When people act like your career is a joke (and why it isn’t)
May 9, 2015, 1:25 pm
Filed under: efl world, teaching, the expat life | Tags: ,

Oh, if I had a kuai for every time a fellow expat said to me, “Teaching English isn’t a real job…” And indeed, it’s easy to fall victim to the “my job is an illusion” mentality–that’s the guiding principle of your co-workers, perhaps, and it’s an unspoken truth that your manager knows as well.  So what’s to stop you from going down the same dragonhole?

Let’s add another kuai to every time people said, “Teaching is easy,” and I think I’d be a millionaire in RMB. During my first year I thought that there must have been something wrong with me. Why were all of my painstakingly wrought lessons coming apart at the seams? How do you get your “little friends” to stop throwing tantrums like little hysterical hyenas?

I realize that not all English teachers here are in it for the career development. They’re here to travel or to learn Chinese. Some are even here because jobs are scarce in their home countries. And some just simply are not the 9-5 types.  Some are artists, looking for a way to make a living while making art.  Of course, these are all legitimate reasons.

Really, not matter why you’re here at the front of the class, it can be hard to summon the motivation to keep going. There are so many things that can bring a teacher down, like:

  • demanding work, possibly long hours and weekend work
  • disinterested management (I experienced that a lot in China)
  • lack of resources or support from school
  • abysmally low pay (in the U.S., at least; in other countries, including China, teaching English can be lucrative)

Add it all up, plus or minus other factors like culture shock, a faulty curriculum, an unrealistic schedule, difficult or confrontational students, etc, and suddenly you’re looking at grad school programs in anything other than teaching.

So if you tell me that teaching is an easy job, I will charge you a kuai and point out that you just insulted every language teacher. Good job.

But if you ask me how I stay motivated, I will show you this card:

samantha note

This is from a current student of mine who has encountered a lot of difficulty in her classes. She particularly likes to fight with me about English grammar.  I, along with other teachers, poured a lot of time into her studies.  It’s been hard for her, and sometimes she’s not the easiest student to work with, but she’s been making small strides!

I also think about former students who have enjoyed greater success because of their English skills–a student who got a promotion in a bank, another one who is now finishing up her MBA in the States (with mostly A’s), and of course Lipeng, who is pursuing his ambition of becoming a director (and recently got offered a job as Assistant Director! Whoo hoo! Go Lipeng!).

I’m not saying I’m responsible for their achievements. It just feels good to know that I did something to help them forge their own futures.

I’ve sat in on classes, though, with foreign teachers who make it very clear they have better things to do. It’s really embarrassing to watch a “teacher” scrap the lesson entirely just to rant about things they find annoying about China.  They even make fun of the students sometimes!  Or they just go on about their own petty problems.  Basically, anything unprofessional thing a teacher can do, I’ve seen–and it’s always been a foreign teacher in China. 

Why settle for being just another foreign face when you could be, well, an inspiration? Or at least a positive representation of your country? In China, people have such limited resources to learn about the world beyond their borders, so they look to foreign teachers for a something more intimate and informative than a Friends rerun.  

How to become a better teacher is perhaps not the sexiest of topics at the expat bars, but it’s worth talking about. At the very least, I hope all of you teachers out there, expat or not, career-driven or in it for the experience, will remember your worth, and that your job is as real as any other job. It is not a joke unless you think it is, and if that’s the case then that’s how your students will treat your class. And you.


Baseball, Chinese-style
April 22, 2015, 11:37 pm
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture, efl world, teaching | Tags: , ,

Ah, spring time in San Francisco: mornings of cloudy, cold, constipated sky, trying so hard to rain.  Oh wait, it’s like this all year.  Living in the Bay Area, I often lose track of the time. How does one tell that spring has sprung?

From the Giants fans.

It’s more like baseball season has sprung.  In the evenings and on weekends, hordes of people decked in black and orange Giants merchandise cram onto the BART and on the T Line.  In North Beach, every bar lining the streets is imploding with cheers from the fans.

Baseball season is the kind of thing so cultural that its energy seeps into the most curmudgeonly of us–even I get excited by it, and I’m about as sports savvy as Millhouse from The Simpsons.  So it seemed like something I should teach my Chinese students.

Last year, infected with baseball fever myself, I led my students on an expedition to a nearby park, where we would play a game of baseball.  Beforehand, I had explained the game in detail, showed them clips from different Giants games and taught some essential vocabulary.  Some of the boys were eager get onto the field and go, while the rest just sort of blankly looked at my diagram.  “It’s OK,” I said. “Let’s just go play. You’ll pick it up!”

Once at the park, they sorted themselves into teams. They eager boys got to bat first. Unfortunately, they hadn’t watched the video I’d showed them closely enough in class, because they had no idea how to throw the ball or swing the bat. 

My dear students standing around, waiting for somebody to do something.

My dear students standing around, waiting for somebody to do something.

The thing is, in China, baseball is an unplayed game with mysterious rules. Racket sports, however, are all the rage.  Go to any park in the evenings and you’ll see friends, couples and semi-professionals playing badminton, and pretty much everyone is reasonably good. (Further proof that I am sports-challenged: in China, after I played badminton with some students, one of them told me that I looked like a cartoon character. So that’s why a couple of them kept giggling…) 

It should come as no surprise, then, that every ball that got pitched followed a vertical path over everyone’s heads, and the batter kept waving the bat around like it was tennis racket.  Miss after miss after miss, the basewomen (they were all girls who didn’t want to play) slumped, hopped and daydreamed on their respective bases.  Good thing this wasn’t real baseball, otherwise we’d be sleeping in the park.

I showed them again how to pitch and how to bat, and they kind of got it, enough for the batter to actually make contact with the ball, which went rolling along the grass.  The batter looked around. “Run!” I shouted. “Run to first base!” The batter ran to first base, looked around and kept running.  Pretty soon the basewomen were running too.  The ball lay forgotten in the grass.

“Why are we running?” one girl asked.

Can you believe that, at the end, the boys wanted to know where to buy a metal bat and a hard baseball? Don’t worry, they came back to class on Monday with a full set of teeth.

A Chinese Wedding in America
April 18, 2015, 11:46 pm
Filed under: Asia abroad, Chinese culture | Tags: ,

A Chinese wedding in America is really nothing like a Chinese wedding in China.  Having made such a sweeping generalization, I should probably note that I have only been to one Chinese wedding in America and one Chinese wedding in China. 

I had been mightily impressed by the Chinese wedding in China.  We sat at one of many dinner tables in a large dance hall, squinting under the purple LED lights to watch the bride and groom walk down the “aisle.”  After the Emcee had elicited enough applause for the newlyweds, we enjoyed a slideshow of the couple’s wedding pictures, ornamented with computer generated hearts and set to the background of a sappy piano piece.  True love, indeed.

On the other hand, the wedding that I went to just a few weeks ago outside San Jose was very Chinese; absent were the wacky emcees, nightclub lights and hearts.  And because Lipeng was there as a photographer, we both got to see every stage of this auspicious day.

In fact, we were the first to arrive, and were greeted by the bride in her PJ’s and hair rollers.  To distract us, I think, her mother served us each a bowl of tangyuan, a glutinous dumpling dessert traditionally served on Chinese New Year and, apparently, on the morning of weddings. (By the way, YUM!)

Slowly more people filled the apartment, close friends and bridesmaids and groomsmen, and, SURPRISE, some of my former students!  (The bride was also a student at our school. But I did not expect that . . . ) Not one, not two, but five!  At least none of them had failed my class. That would have been awkward!

Once the bride had been properly pampered, it was time for the first phase of the wedding.  Out she came, decked in a traditional red dress and headpiece, with matching tassel earrings.  (The groom, who had been busy collecting all the necessary people, hastily changed into his matching ensemble in the living room.) Everyone cleared to the edges of the living room, and Lipeng began positioning the cameras.  The bride’s parents sat together on the couch as the bride and groom stood before them.

It was time to begin the serving of the tea.

The bride gets ready. Photo by Lipeng Chi.

The bride gets ready. Photo by Lipeng Chi.

First, the bride and groom knelt down to the set of parents.  Someone counted, “one — two — three,” and at each interval the couple bowed, head to the floor.  Then the best man and the maid of honor each handed the couple a small cup of green tea.  The couple served it to their parents, saying, “Ba, ma, please drink the tea.”  After their parents accepted the cups and took a sip, they returned them to the couple, who then passed them to their respective counterparts.  Then their parents each produced a large red envelope of money and presented it to the bride and groom.  To conclude the ceremony, their parents helped the couple to their feet and wished them luck and happiness in their future together.

After the tea came the dumplings.  Two dumplings were served to the bride and groom on a small plate. They then both fed each other and kissed.  It’s really very sweet.  Then, the bridesmaids and groomsmen lined up facing each other and followed suit.

The serving of the dumplings. Photo by Lipeng Chi.

The serving of the dumplings. Photo by Lipeng Chi.

These two ceremonies were performed in the apartment of the bride.  At their conclusion, we were all whisked away to the church, where the formal Western-style wedding took place.  Nothing much there to report; you all know how that one goes.  All the same, it was lovely (and outside, so no crazy nightclub lights).

Political Prisoners @Large
April 3, 2015, 5:45 pm
Filed under: arts & literature, Asia abroad | Tags: ,

For those of you in or planning to visit the San Francisco Bay Area, be sure to check out @Large, Ai Wei Wei’s exhibit on Alcatraz. It closes on April 26th, so there are only a couple of weekends left to catch it!

We went a few months ago, on a characteristically misty day; with San Francisco beyond visibility, the claustrophobic sense of imprisonment loomed upon us. Within the drab, colorless prisons, you can walk among the vibrant Lego portraits and a beautifully intricate kite dragon.  There is something miraculous about the existence of this art. @Large is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

Yet, as viewers, we are constantly aware of the presence of absence. In the peeling paint and water damage we sense the ghosts of the prisoners and the missing artist himself. The trick is not to rush through the exhibits. Time slows down in prison; put yourself in the shoes of political prisoners and surrender to the solitude of memory and desperation.

The best exhibit by far is Stay Tuned, a block of solitary cells big enough for just a stool, each containing a recording of a poem, song of speech about human rights from all over the world–the U.S. (MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech), South Africa, Nigeria, Iran, Russia and, of course, China. It’s chilling, yet inspiring.

Warhol introduced the question: “Is it art?” But Ai Wei Wei’s work extends that question to: “Is it art or is it activism, and what’s the difference?” We all know Ai Wei Wei has serious beef with the Chinese government, but what I like about @Large is that it looks at human rights and the human spirit beyond China. Political oppression is a force wielded by individual nations but not bound to them; where there is power to be had there will be those who seek to abuse it, and there will also be those who will seek justice.

After finishing the exhibits, viewers are invited to write a postcard to one or more of a selection of political prisoners around the world.  Supposedly, the postcards would be sent to the facility in which they’re held; whether or not the postcards actually make it there, we’ll never know. Lipeng didn’t see much point in that, but I believe that slim possibilities are possibilities nonetheless, so we made a postcard anyway.  

We chose to write to Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner who was imprisoned for drafting Charter 08, a petition demanding gradual political change in China. He was detained in 2008 and isn’t expected to be released until at least 2019, if ever.

Postcard to Liu Xiaobo. It reads: "Thank you for your service. Don't give up!"

Postcard to Liu Xiaobo. It reads: “Your service is very important. Thank you. Don’t give up!”

Front of the postcard

Front of the postcard.

But after dropping Mr. Liu’s postcard in a bin filled with dozens of others, I found myself asking: Who will win the day? Ai Wei Wei’s life embodies the shifting, see-saw exchange of power between governments and people. He hasn’t given up–so that’s all I need to keep believing!

If you’re not in the Bay Area, or you just don’t have time to make it, I encourage you to go to the official website, where you can contemplate each exhibit from the comfort of your home.  Remote access lacks the experiential dimension of @Large, but that doesn’t make the work any less important.

When you eat chocolate, how do you know when to stop?
April 1, 2015, 12:57 am
Filed under: Chinese culture, racism, the expat life, TIC | Tags: , , ,

A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend of mine–a fellow former China expat–posted a video of a comedy sketch about being black in China and the bewildering ignorance that black people experience. I thought it was hilarious–because, sadly, it’s true. Racism does exist in China. Here’s the proof:

“When you eat chocolate, how do you know when to stop?” AI YA WO DE MA YA!!!

All foreigners, regardless of race, should expect be asked some off the wall questions, ranging from the benign to the offensive. It’s understandable: a cocktail of a one-party system that limits free speech, a guarded Internet and travel restrictions has created a culture that really doesn’t understand the outside world. Even the language demonstrates China’s isolation: you may here Chinese people refer to China as guonei (within the country) and the rest of the world as guowai (outside the country), as well as to themselves as Zhongguoren (Chinese) and the rest of the world as waiguoren (foreigner). Yes, you could find a similar way to express these ideas in English (your country/abroad, your nationality/immigrants or foreigners or what have you), but these concepts are different when Chinese people speak. You will hear people say things like, “Chinese people are like this, but foreigners are like that”–as though the entire world is diametrically opposed to China in a massive monoculture. I do not say this as a criticism of China, a country that was previously very poor and more isolated than today, and does not have the same history of immigration and diversity as many other countries. 

And that historical void has been filled with the next best thing: Western media. Do you see where I’m going with this? There’s a certain demonization of black people in our media, and developing countries like China pick up on that. The difference is that while they hear things about black people being dangerous, homeless, unemployed and drug addicts, most of them have never met a single black person. I think my students–most of whom are Chinese, studying in San Francisco–are afraid of black people. They will casually say things that I think are racist, like, they see a fast driver on the street and say, “Oh, he’s black.” Meaning: that’s why he’s a reckless driver. That’s just one, tiny example; nevertheless, I find it disturbing. We have to contend with racism as a force so vicious, so pervasive, that it can spill onto foreign soil and grow.  Slavery has long been abolished, and yet the world is still reeling from its repercussions.

Well, regardless of how or why racism reared its ugly head in China, the fact is it’s very hurtful. I’d like to share with you all the first time I ever encountered racism in China. I’m white so I didn’t experience it first-hand; in fact, it was several months into my first year until I really noticed it.

It was Christmas Day, and I was sick as a dog with some kind of gastrointestinal infection. My friend and roommate was at work, but her boyfriend was around. One look at me and he knew I needed a doctor, and luckily, he happened to speak fluent Chinese (he was doing his M.A. in Dalian). So he took me to see a doctor.

On the walk to the hospital, I noticed that people often paused to look at us. OK, this was not unusual, we were foreigners after all, but it seemed like . . . more?  And less friendly? The stares I attracted were partnered with smiles; but these stares were quite unwelcome.

And then, once we’d arrived, I finally got it. We found a nurse and approached her to ask for directions for the proper facility.

As we approached, a look of cold fear took over her face.

This guy, my savior on that day, was black, from a small African country, and quite dark-skinned. The nurse was afraid for her life.

Honestly, if everywhere I went I had to deal with fear and contempt, I probably would have quit China long ago. I really don’t know how people do it. I suppose some people just don’t have a choice. You go where the money and opportunities are; that’s what we all have to do, it’s just easier for some of us.

After that experience, I tried to do a lesson on racism in my adult language class. But surprisingly, none of my students believed racism existed in China. They maintained (like in the video) that Chinese people are all the same race, therefore, there is no racism. And if no one believes in racism, how can they talk about it? How can they work through it? How can they begin to see it?

The video above was also posted onto the Youku, the Chinese version of YouTube. Here below is a snapshot of what some Chinese people made of this video, which I’ve translated into English. Some of the opinions are harsh. But at least there’s some kind of platform for people to talk about racism. Is it too generous to believe that this is a start? Read below and decide for yourself.


It’s not that I discriminate against black people, but they do leave me with a bad impression. Black people contribute absolutely nothing to the progress of the civilized world, from ancient times to the not so distant European Industrial Revolution–nothing advantageous came from the work of black people. They completely enjoy the results of progress brought on by people of other races.


Why do black people continue to live in China? Wouldn’t it be better to go back to Africa?


The truth is, Asian people think white is pretty…

还有中国1978年才开始慢慢发展到现的程度。国家很穷,教育也不好,旅游也不可能。 //@(username deleted): 因为中国封闭了几十年 让人坐井观天

And it wasn’t until 1978 that China slowly began to open its doors. China was poor, the education was bad and people couldn’t travel. / @(username deleted): This is because for so many decades China was sealed off. It makes people narrow-minded.


We understand, but that’s not to say that all Chinese people do. Although not all Chinese people are like the ones in this video, most are!


This video says something really profound about Chinese people’s ignorance!

For further reading, please check out A Minority in the Middle Kingdom: My Experience Being Black in China via Tea Leaf Nation.

Dalian and the Children of the Sea
March 27, 2015, 5:58 pm
Filed under: Chinese culture, daily life in china, dalian | Tags: ,

A centerpiece of the Dalian local’s identity is that of being a child of the sea.  That’s true, at least, of my husband, who needs to live near water to feel content. He shared with me a song about growing up by the sea, called “Big Sea, My Home,” (大海啊故乡)which every Chinese person knows. So here’s a bit of Chinese culture:


And for those of you learning Chinese, here are the lyrics and their translation:

When I was young, my mother told me
that the big sea is indeed my home.
海边出生 海里成长
Born by the sea, raised in the sea,
大海 啊大海 是我生长的地方
 oh, big sea, the place where I’ve spent my life.
海风吹 海浪涌 随我飘流四方
 As the sea wind blows, an electrical current drifts in all directions.
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
Oh, big sea, you are like my mother,
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁
walking to the ends of the earth, yet always by my side.
When I was young, my mother told me
that the sea is indeed my home,
海边出生 海里成长
born by the sea, raised in the sea,
大海 啊大海 是我生长的地方
oh, big sea, the place where I’ve spent my life.
海风吹 海浪涌 随我飘流四方
As the sea wind blows, an electrical current drifts in all directions.
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
Oh big sea, you are like my mother,
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁
walking to the ends of the earth, yet always by my side.
大海 啊大海 就像妈妈一样
Oh big sea, you are like my mother,
走遍天涯海角 总在我的身旁
walking to the ends of the earth, yet always by my side.
大海啊故乡 大海啊故乡
Big sea, my home; big sea, my home;
我的故乡 我的故乡
my home, my home.


Dalian, a city on the edge of a peninsula, is ringed with beaches — so it’s no surprise that it’s the place to be during the summer. After the long winter (seriously long — 7 months at least), everyone emerges from their homes and offices to play badminton, dance, play majiang on the street corners or just walk around the beaches.


A misty day at the beach.


Fujiazhuang Beach

After a long week of students crying in my office over grades, paperwork and the general motion of my daily routine, I find myself longing to chill on a rocky beach in Dalian, enjoy a cold beer (yes, you can find them in China) and munch on barbecued seafood.


Me, enjoying a bite-sized abalone.

So excited to be going back for a short visit this summer! See you then, Dalian!