It’s been two months since I left Asia and began a new journey in Florida. At times I miss the grind of a bustling city like Beijing, and then there are moments I remember the feelings brought on by food poisoning and am content with the double cheeseburger and milkshake fare that runs rampant in this part of the country.
It wasn’t until recently that I met a guy, John King, that spent time in Asia; twelve years to be exact. I have thoughts of returning in the coming months, but slowly doubt creeps in and that likelihood seems less and less.
My main incentive to go back is a suitcase that contains most of my summer clothes. It’s hard living in the south with attire geared for the north. A more social person might be motivated to reconnect with old friends, but I don’t have that. It’s not like I burned bridges in Beijing; I just never built any to begin with.
Every time I leave a city, it feels like I’m running from something, that what was there didn’t contain enough incentives for me to want to set roots. We all return home someday, but the idea of going back to Minnesota winters does not sound appealing. Summers up north are amazing, but it usually takes eight months to get there, nine if the precipitation doesn’t cooperate. It’s mid-May and the folks back home still haven’t delivered positive news on the state of the climate.
Really though, you can throw sunshine or money at unfulfillment, but more often than not the solution resides internally. I don’t think I’m going to find what I’m looking for in Florida, but it’s what finds me that makes life ever so interesting.
John King stands 5-11 but his Bumble profile claims he’s 6-1. I haven’t got my tape measure out but there seems to be a discrepancy here. The dude’s vernacular blows me away, words coming out of his mouth that I’ve only ever read in books. I didn’t think people not employed by universities could speak with as much grace as King can. He’s got a knack for words, which is why after a dozen years in Asia, his fluency in Mandarin is immaculate.
He didn’t get there overnight. Years ago, while studying at the University of Georgia, King met Dr. Dezso Benedek, a professor with a predilection for language. The professor speaks twelve of them fluently, something King discovered when taking his East Asian Studies class. He caught the bug and then sought more, becoming Dr. Benedek’s assistant for his final two years of college.
“I want to learn a language, ideally Chinese,” King told his professor.
“You should go to Taiwan,” Dr. Benedek advised.
“Why not China?”
Dr. Benedek annually frequented Taiwan and took students with him to share in the experience.
“Out of his own pocket and kindness he gave me the money to take classes,” King explains, which jumpstarted his journey to Taiwan. “I felt it would be a disservice not to follow that path.”
King began taking classes and teaching English in Taipei, thinking he could simultaneously learn Chinese “on the street.” Progression in the language wasn’t fast enough, so he moved out of Taipei and into Tainan, a smaller city in southern Taiwan where he was better able to immerse himself in learning Mandarin, the official designation for China’s native tongue.
For context, nearly all of China speaks Mandarin, with varying degrees of dialects, much like you might find in America (i.e. the way people speak in the north versus language patterns in the south). But in southern China, and in the British-controlled Hong Kong, Cantonese is the primary language.
King invested 20-30 hours a week into learning Mandarin, which helped him get up to speed and was the motivating force that led to his eventual decade-plus long tenure in Asia.
After three years in Taiwan, King sought employment back in the United States, applying to various universities in hopes of fast tracking his career in academia. After numerous interviews and no job offers, he went back to Asia, landing in Hong Kong for graduate school.
“I studied cultural anthropology at a Chinese university in Hong Kong. Made the best of it and met some really cool people along the way.”
This included doing videography projects, exploring underground music scenes, and most impressively, starting a shoe company. “Did that for three and a half years and tried to move back to the States and reintegrate, had some interviews, but nothing came to fruition,” he says, describing another period back home that did not offer the employment he was seeking.
At the same time, King’s long-term romantic relationship was unfortunately coming to a close, the matter of visas and job opportunities levying too large a strain on the partnership. He had been back in the States five months before the itch to leave returned. So he went back to Asia, this time to Beijing.
“You like China and Chinese, you gotta come to the capital,” his friends already living in the cultural and political hub of China encouraged.
Six tumultuous years in Beijing followed. “Like a wet stone, it’ll take a layer off everyday. Sometimes you get down to the bone and realize you’ve had enough.”
Beijing will do that to you. Once the first few months of euphoria fizzle away, the question remains: why am I here? If it’s solely for a good time, very quickly priorities need to be assessed.
But King was about more than just a good time. He was a part of Beijing, even though he is frustrated by the fact a foreigner will never be considered a citizen of China, no matter how long they stay. This differs from the U.S., where people from all over the world can eventually become citizens.
By 2016, King was spearheading the craft beer movement in Beijing, becoming a top account executive for one of the most popular breweries in Beijing. He describes summer 2016 as the peak of his career, managing several accounts for the company and feeling that life outside of work was coming together nicely.
But less than two years later, he had a falling out with the company and his life was going to change. He could have easily found work elsewhere in Beijing, but with his parents getting older, it seemed an ideal time to go home and begin anew.
This gave him plenty of time to reflect, specifically as he and I drive back from another day of rock climbing. The windows are closed, the music is off, and now I’m giving him twenty minutes of uninhibited airspace. Any more and creating this piece becomes a laborious affair.
“What was your worst moment in Beijing?” I ask.
His shoulders lean back, like there are so many to choose from. He then describes the time his roommate’s girlfriend went crazy and trashed their apartment. Glass was thrown, items were smashed, and this wasn’t your run-of-the-mill hissy fit. This woman was angry, apparently over the fact she thought her boyfriend would eventually be unfaithful.
“My roommate had to get six stitches in his skull,” King describes. During the fracas, the woman also attacked King, forcing him to restrain her until help arrived.
“Any public dispute is free TV in China,” so neighbors came to peer in on the drama. “It’s a very dangerous place for foreigners because with the rising nationalism in China, people will act first and ask questions later. Mob justice is a very real thing there. And you can’t always count on the support of law enforcement to be impartial.”
“We thought surely that day, that not only besides licking our wounds from attacks from her, but we’re probably going to jail,” noting how the optics would not have favored him and his friend. “Police showed up, but we were able to get her out before they arrived.”
“If you could probe into her psychology,” I ask King, because the hysteria on display that day is worth examining.
“He had tried to leave her, and she wouldn’t accept that. Through convenient positioning of leaving stuff in our house, plus the weakness of my roommate’s backbone to really push it through, it invited chaos to come back there.”
There are other elements to this particular conflict, making the woman’s actions, while clearly wrong, perhaps understandable.
“A lot of Chinese people, in general, are very polite people, but they don’t express discontent as openly as Americans. I would liken it to a pressure cooker. If you have a teapot, the steam is going to come out and it will release that pressure. In Chinese people’s minds, you bury that anger deep, and eventually it builds to a certain pressure where it explodes, sometimes quite unpredictably. It can be a scary thing.”
In the case of his roommate’s girlfriend, she was under a lot of pressure from her family to be married. Many westerners experience that, but in China it’s different. Not being married by a certain age is considered abject failure, and there are consequences, such as alienation from the family.
While this doesn’t condone the woman’s actions, it does show the kind of pressure she was under to appease someone beyond just herself. The unfortunate victims of this “pressure cooker” King references just so happened to be him and his roommate.
“If you look at the five stars on the Chinese flag, peasant class is one of them. Peasantry is a kind of antiquated and dirty word in America, but there are still peasants in China. You can go from nineteenth century living to Ferraris and Chanel bags in 30 or 40 miles. Rough circumstances produce some rough products.”
“Do you think it adds strain to a relationship if you’re from different cultures?” I ask.
“Absolutely. Miscommunication is very real if you’re talking across languages. That can be mitigated if both people speak at a very high level of the same [language], but that’s an ideal scenario. If you’re unable to intensely and adequately communicate, obviously stuff is going to be lost in the breeze, and that can lead to a chuckle and benign incident, or to catastrophic emotional duress.”
One thing I gleaned from living in China is that even though two people speak the same language, it doesn’t mean they are communicating. For example, I can walk into a shoe store and talk to a sales associate, but our modes of communication might be so different that I end up feeling alienated and walking out without purchasing any shoes. Now put that dissonance into the context of a relationship. The results likely won’t be ideal. Going even a step further, try doing all that in a second language. There are simply too many ways that intent can be misconstrued.
In the last year, I have tried to be more empathetic, conscious of the distinction between my intentions and people’s reactions.
I had a falling out with a close friend of mine because months ago I threw her under the bus to impress a woman I was pursuing. My intention was not to put my friend in harm’s way, but when months later she discovered my slight, she was understandably angry.
My initial reaction was then to be angry at her because she didn’t understand why I did what I did. It took time to realize I could have handled the situation better. The worst part is that I sacrificed my values of honesty and transparency in the pursuit of a woman. Indeed, a lesson learned.
Many people share values, like not committing murder, stealing, etc. Those are pretty basic. As humans, nearly everyone agrees with those. But there are more subtle values that when magnified in personal interactions, or perceptions of others, can have enormous repercussions.
Take China, for example. “There is a different value set,” King explains. “Many of it overlaps with what Americans would consider important, but the Chinese emphasize some more than others, and deemphasize others.”
“An example would be family. Family is important to Americans, but in China it is the most important thing. That revolves around taking care of the elderly people, to having good connections and harmony.”
Hexie (heh see-ay). I’m probably missing a few key tones, but the word in italics you just read is the Chinese word for harmony. “This word harmony is often used in Chinese. They do strive for it,” King says, but they don’t always achieve it.
“With the rising economy of China, people are really still learning what full-blown capitalism looks like, and that can create its own booms and busts for people and their lives.”
China’s growth has helped families evolve into the more modern world, but this hasn’t been without its struggles.
King says, “Chinese people in the modern world want to be held in consideration as the greatest country in the world, as they have been. At the same time, I think what many Chinese struggle with is this glass heart, which is if you want to be the greatest country in the world, people are going to take pot shots at you, and you can’t crumble and wilt at criticism.”
China is a Communist nation, and as a consequence information is not as free-flowing. To access many popular American websites or apps like Netflix and Instagram requires a VPN, which is essentially a portal to circumvent the internet blockage China has implemented on various sites. “There is a lot of restriction on information. It’s not like you can just hop on the net and get a wide array of answers. The answer you get is `page does not exist.’”
“The most powerful weapon that America has is not the Abrams A-1 tanks, the AC-130 gunships. It’s the media, the soft power, and all around the world, from Mumbai to Beijing, and anywhere in between, there is media, advertising, movies, content across the board. A lot of people look up to that, and imitate and learn from it. Part of it is this fictionalized ideal of American culture, and that’s a powerful tool. People are excited to be in America, largely based upon that content.”
It should be noted that China is a beautiful place to live. My twelve months there offered an experience I will forever appreciate.
“Most Chinese are very curious people and generally very hospitable to Americans because a lot of people envy the success America has had, the wealth, the natural beauty that’s been preserved as a result of good planning. A lot of people want a piece of that.”
And China specifically doesn’t have to be the vessel for an immersion into something new.
“Do you think it’s good for someone to live abroad?” I ask.
“Absolutely,” King says. “I think that a lot of Americans, like many countries, are pretty insulated because of the wealth and popularity of America. A lot of people want to be here. The people that are born here and are Americans, I think sometimes take that for granted and devalue the lessons that can be learned from other languages and cultures.”
“When you go abroad, as an American, there are certain expectations, but a lot of people like Americans for what they used to be, which is empathetic, supportive of the underdog, whether that be an immigrant or a country trying to find its feet. I think Americans should get back to that and share that with the rest of the world.”
There is a strange phenomenon in China. It’s common to see western men with Chinese women, yet when the roles are reversed, the odds of seeing a western woman with a Chinese man are slim. It begs the question, do Chinese men like western women?
As a man with twelve years of experience living in various Asian cultures, I expected King to have a solid understanding on the matter.
“American women are way pickier and have such higher standards that Chinese men don’t meet. Given the reciprocal, many foreign men find Chinese ladies attractive, exotic, and there seems to be a reciprocal of that as well from the Chinese ladies,” he explains.
Other factors contribute to this imbalance. “There isn’t really gender equality in China. If you look at the Chinese Communist Party’s Constitution, there is. But the problem is, rights not exercised are not really rights at all, particularly if they’re not protected,” King stresses, meaning gender equality is only present in principle, not in practice.
“There a lot of professional ladies in China, but a lot of guys have a little bit of misogyny. For a lot of educated western women, that’s not okay. They don’t see that as an equal relationship, so they’re not very interested.”
Part of being 26 means the future is unpredictable. Wants and needs clash every day, an equilibrium of satisfaction difficult to attain. I don’t know what the next few months, or even weeks will look like. Maybe I’ll still be in Florida clacking away on my computer until I catch my big break. Maybe I’ll go back to Beijing and try again. Something is going to happen, and that alone makes life interesting. QS
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