The first time I met Z we were at this big gala where everyone gets together to sing kumbaya and revel in how great things really aren’t. I remember walking into this massive ballroom feeling unimpressed because I hadn’t been here two weeks and already I felt disingenuous. The night was going to be one of those situations I would have to be social to appease convention.
My new friends and I walked over to a table where everyone was drinking that beer with the white label wrapped a green bottle. One person was sitting alone at the front taking in the performances on stage. It was Z. He looked vaguely familiar from a group chat and when our eyes met I couldn’t sense if he was keen on me approaching. So I just went for it.
“How’s it going, bro?” I asked over the deafening cultural tune.
“Pretty good,” were the only words to emit from his mouth.
A few awkward moments later I grabbed my friends and dipped, but not before a dude with red hair unsolicitedly tried to fix my collar. Z and I didn’t talk much over the following months. He was a nice guy that many people were drawn to. I was much better at sitting in a corner reading a book and occasionally piping in to conversations.
“You have an opening next month?” Z asked one afternoon.
He wanted to be interviewed and I was initially reticent because I didn’t know what we’d talk about.
“I actually have two people lined up,” I truthfully stated, leaving out that if I really wanted his interview I’d make the time.
But that’s not on account of Z. I’m selfish and introverted, and it takes me a couple mistakes to realize that I need to be more open to expanding my comfort zone. I typically am a guy that sticks to what works, and what I do works okay, but I’ve found that when I compromise and take the high road, the universe has an interesting way of throwing me a bone. And that’s what I got with Z, a guy that everyone likes for his charming and comical demeanor, but when forced to introspect is a guy with so much more to offer.
“There’s some things in my life I don’t want people to know,” Z begins our interview. I think he tells me this to imply that he isn’t very candid. After months spent in his presence I know as much. Many times I have tried to make him pick sides, whether that be with people or things that happen in China. I like opinions and transparency because social correctness has never been my staple. But Z is more anti-conflict than leader of the next social movement. Peace and tranquility better serve his happiness.
“When I first came to China everyone in my intake group, even my roommate, they’re like`you’ve never been out of the country before, you’ve never lived by yourself. You’re going to leave straight away.’” But their preconceived notions weren’t accurate, as you’ll soon find out. “It took me three months to get properly climatized. But then throwing myself into it helped break some shells.”
Z is a smart guy. He tells too many corny jokes for my taste, but then again my idea of a good time is ruthless banter until someone’s feelings get hurt. Perhaps lost in his words is an underlying sense of humor we can’t all see.
“Z, you learn so fast.” he recalls being told by peers, to which he had to do a double-take. “Most of this is common sense,” he says, referring to praise he felt wasn’t genuine. “You’d have to be really stupid to mess this up.” And I can’t stop laughing because he’s right. It’s funny what people will say to motivate others.
The beginning of his time in Beijing was whirlwind, a feeling most new people experience. Yet we all handle it differently. “I didn’t really lesson plan. Just went to class and looked at what vocab I needed to teach. Because I knew how I wanted to teach.”
And he’s not shortchanging anyone. “I worked with children before when I was in Malta,” a small island off southern Italy that’s smaller than Z’s hometown of Birmingham, England.
Malta is a part of the Mediterranean Sea and used to be a British colony before getting bombed in World War II and receiving independence in 1964. Like England, they drive on the left side of the road. Unlike his country, it’s still developing, albeit an ascension that is not lacking in pace. Z assures that the younger generation speaks great English, which smoothly coexists with Maltese, the native language preferred by the older generation. Malta is also a city many older expats are going to as it gains more recognition for its festivals and seclusion, although Malta’s privacy and originality is losing steam with the rise of social media and people wanting to visit the beautiful island. But to Z it remains unchanged.
“2015 I was in Malta for six months. That was the first time I had ever been out, living by myself.” Z was part of a program that placed expats in places around the world. “I wanted to go to Prague but there were no spaces open. Then a spot opened in Malta. I said yes, let’s just go,” recalling a conversation with the guy that facilitated this move.
The experience was everything he could have hoped it to be. “Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Best six months of my life there.” He made countless friends while he worked at a summer school. Admittedly, he barely taught, spending more time playing sports and taking kids on trips to various places. “I worked from 8-11 A.M., so I was getting paid to be on holiday.”
“Since China I have not been able to keep in touch with my friends because of all the VPN crap. You get so swamped working. The bonds I’ve made here are different from the bonds in Malta. It’s kind of sad because I really liked the ones I made in Malta. I miss them a lot.” There are some differences. There it was six months of having fun. Here it’s “a job, and you get to know who people really are,” in describing the more individualized community in Beijing.
“Can I ask you a personal question?” I don’t know how Z will take to this inquiry but I want to ask. “Why did you re-sign?” a question precipitated by my desire to move on to something outside what I already know in China.
“My first year I was really liking it,” he begins. “Everyone that was here really made it for me. I thought, let’s see how far I can go because there’s nothing really back home for me. I don’t want to go back into my degree [biomedical science]. I only chose it because it sounded cool.”
My inquiry has found a new course. “Can’t you make a lot of money if you have a biomedical science degree?”
“You can,” Z sighs and assures, and I know there is the inevitable “but” coming next. “But it’s a lot of work to become certified. I would have to get a placement in a hospital, do a year in a hospital working so many different areas, hematology, pathology, genetics. Then specialize into one area.”
“And you don’t want to do that?”
“No, because I’ve been to so many interviews and then the last interview I had, it was like, okay this is not me.”
His decision to walk away was bold, considering the many hours and money he put into a potential future career. “The thing is I liked doing practical work and studying about cells, but then when it came to microbiology, knowing about bacteria and the morphology of bacteria.” He has to stop to take a breath, his eyes exhausted from the trip down memory lane. “I’m going to end up killing somebody if I go back [to that industry],” and then we laugh because we both know if he keeps talking I’m going to get lost somewhere after the second sentence.
I want to know more about his degree not working out. He invested so much time, effort, and talent into it, only to reach a point he decided he wanted something else.
“That has to be frustrating,” I note.
“It’s coming to my final year of university and I was starting to feel that I was enjoying it, but I wasn’t really doing my work. I was reading more, writing more. I was sending screenplays to competitions to become a sitcom or theater writer, and then I signed up to casting calls to try something different. I felt like going back to my creativity rather doing something that was a process. Do this. Do that, and you get this result. If I use my creativity, it can go any direction.”
“Are you more artistic or science based?”
“I like science, but then I started to lose my love for science. I was good at it but I just didn’t love it anymore. What I’m liking now is trying to be more creative in other areas, like doing the comics for the newspaper.”
So Z had a career-altering decision to make. “It came to my final year, I got my degree. I’ve achieved something. Now what?” He went through interviews with select companies, ultimately the results Z sought not coming to fruition.
“I’m a daydreamer. I’m funny, I can make people laugh. I do not take anything seriously, but when I’m repetitive for so long, I’m going to lose focus.”
You won’t find repetition in Z’s lesson plans. Instead he prefers to free children’s minds so they can pursue their own interests.
“I want them to think not just how China teaches them, but to start thinking in their own way so they can grow as people. And I think the only way they can do that is to leave China and study abroad. You can see some of these local teachers that actually did study abroad, they’re more interesting. The little kids, they have the personality, and then you can see that imagination disappear as soon as they get older.”
This in-depth thinking is part of the answer Z needed when he routinely asked himself, “What have I always wanted to be?” a question that began the process of coming here.
His sister taught information technology, got a TEFL and moved to Thailand, which provoked similar thoughts and actions from Z.
“First thought was to go to South America,” a place he soon found out didn’t have many positions nor the salary he was seeking. There was also another thought that made him rethink his destination. “Damn, I might get murdered there.”
So he searched some more and found China, a market with more openings than viable candidates. For his first interview he actually missed the call because of the time difference. This forced him back to his day job.
“I was working part time and traveling more than I am now,” he says of that period.
But Z didn’t want to waste more time searching for employment in England. He wanted to travel, so he went back into the China market.
“You got it,” his recruiter told him on the second go round. “But I had to really fight for you.”
“You missed the last interview.”
“What? When did I miss the last interview?”
“Do you remember…?” citing an earlier date.
“Oh yeah,” with his best fake surprise. “I had, um, family problems.”
“Now that I got you this, don’t let me down,” the recruiter then said.
“Hmm, I don’t really know you,” Z says in explaining his subsequent reaction, drawing more laughs that are more like inside jokes once you understand the way things unfold over here.
“Whatever has happened to me, good or bad, is always meant to be,” in explaining how he got here. “Malta, the people I met, or messing up in college. It’s led me to this.”
His confidence has grown while in China, part of a larger evolution he could not have predicted. Seeing where his search for something better than the status quo has taken him, I’m excited to see what potential Z has yet to tap into.
Quentin Super’s debut book, The Long Road North, is available here
Also check out a podcast from 2017 where he dishes on various topics, here