Today on the GoAbroad Blog, we feature of a guest post from Walt F.J. Goodridge, author of The Jamaican in China blog. During his time living abroad in China, Walt learned a great many things about himself and Chinese culture. We are pleased to share some of these experiences with GoAbroad readers. Have you had a similar experience after living abroad? Share your own story with us in the comments!
Many years ago, I learned that the most painful emotion to have to live with is regret. It’s been said you usually regret the things you DIDN’T do, and rarely regret the things you DID do. So, in my ongoing effort to create the life of my dreams and live true to my self, I resolved early on to dig deep, and find the courage to do the things I’ve always wanted to do, so that I’d never have to live with regret and wonder what might have been.
With that in mind, the three decisions that occupy the top spots in “the best decisions I ever made,” in the pursuit of a life without regret, are
- Quitting my soul-draining engineering job to pursue my passion
- “Escaping” from the rat race in America to live on the Pacific island of Saipan, and
- Setting sail for China and being “nomadpreneur” for six months!
I’ve always had a fascination with things Chinese, and I had in fact, visited once before in 2009 accompanied by my co-author of Chicken Feathers and Garlic Skin: Diary of a Chinese Garment Factory Girl on Saipan, that was for a very short two weeks. However, while living on Saipan, I met a visiting husband and wife who, having met by chance on an airplane 27 years earlier, fell in love, and spent the next 27 years visiting a total of 129 different countries at that time. It was then that I resolved to go back to China again on my own, on my own terms, with only the rudiments of language skills picked up from Chinesepod.com, to live and do the nomad thing for six months. It changed my life!
To many of us in “the west,” China is a place of mystery, fascination and even fear. I’ve found that people have misconceptions of and are fearful about what the world is really like beyond their borders, both physical and mental. And, as I blogged in response to GoAbroad’s recent “Why Do I Go Abroad?” contest, with no such fears limiting my sense of adventure, I did this to show people alternative ways of thinking, being and acting. Furthermore, if we’re to succeed in bringing about the individual and collective change the world needs to survive and prosper then, to quote Mark Gerzon, author of Leaders without Borders:
“To create a just, sustainable world, nothing is more important than being able to think and act across borders. Whether our passion is protecting the biosphere or preventing war, we will succeed only if we have the passion and courage to cross the national, ideological, ethnic, and religious borders of our time.”
That’s what my Jamaican in China adventure represents–it’s a metaphor to challenge existing stereotypes, limitations and preconceptions, and get people thinking outside the proverbial box of limitations. Here, then, are five things I learned in China that surprised me, changed my perspective, broadened my world view, and changed my life!
1. Speaking “Spandarish”
As I mentioned, I jetted off to China with just the most basic of grasp of Mandarin. Fortunately, there are a lot of people in China who are eager to learn and practice their English. My friend and “guide” for most of my stay in Beijing and beyond, a young lady named Cong, whom I met on Couchsurfing, was not one of these people. While she knew a bit of English, she was actually in the process of learning Spanish! Fortunately, I too, had learned Spanish while in high school, and for whatever reason, it stuck with me.
So, as we hung out with her showing me Beijing’s best, while I explained life in America, we conversed, and any word Cong didn’t immediately recall in English, she would say it in Spanish so I could understand, and I did the same. So, here I was, this English/Spanish/Mandarin speaking Jamaican boy in China, hanging out with a Mandarin-English-Spanish speaking Chinese girl from Beijing, and our conversation is an interesting mix of Spanish, Mandarin and English…um, let’s see…Ok, give me a minute…Spanglarin!? No. Spandarish!?? Yeah, that’s it! Speaking Spandarish!
I met others of Cong’s friends at her language school who spoke only Spanish, and found myself conversing with them entirely in Spanish on the streets of Beijing, China!
LESSON LEARNED: Everything you will ever be, do or have in life will be the sum total of all that you know and experience. Therefore, the way to be, do or have more is to learn more. Many people shy away from certain types of education believing that it won’t ever be relevant to their future. However, everything from your formal education to basic skills like driving a car, cooking, etc., all combine to maximize your future potential. They give you more options, and more points of contact with the wider world.
So, as a student, whether you are in elementary, high school or college, keep an open mind as you plan and execute your education. You never know how the things you’re learning now will figure into your future life. Everything builds upon what comes before. Every bit of knowledge and information has the potential to improve your life.
2. Coffeepot Cooking!
Now, this is not something that being in China taught me, per se, but simply inspired in out of necessity. Let me explain by asking you a question. What would you do if you were vegan like me, found yourself a foreigner in a foreign land, in search of a meal, but didn’t speak the language well enough to order your food without meat, without MSG, chemicals, or prepared according to your personal preferences? Well, perhaps you’d get creative, employ a little courage, creativity and chutzpa and use, for instance, the only available appliance in your hotel room–the hotel coffeepot–to make “gourmet” meals in your hotel room. Well, being more sane than I, you probably may not have, but that’s exactly what I did.
You see, I was traveling around China staying in hotels and hostels, and the restaurants there were not catering to health fanatic vegans like me. So I had to devise a strategy for survival that didn’t compromise my ethics and dietary guidelines. So, I used a little Jamaican ingenuity and, having nothing but a hotel coffeepot at my disposal, set about cooking what turned out to be healthy, delicious meals…at least by my standards!
And, being the resourceful writer always in search of a good topic to write about, I documented and compiled my culinary adventures with photos and put them all into a little guide called The Coffepot Cookbook: A Fun, yet Functional and Feasible Traveler’s Guide to Preparing Healthy, Happy Meals on the Go Using Nothing but a Hotel Coffeepot…. and a Little Ingenuity! Did I mention I’m a bit um, eccentric?
LESSON LEARNED: “Necessity is the mother of invention. Hunger is the father of ingenuity. The Coffeepot Cookbook is their bastard stepchild.”
3. The Instant, Unavoidable and Potentially Overwhelming Celebrity of Simply Being Jamaican in China
Years ago in college, I did a radio show. As a writer, I’ve been interviewed on radio and television. However, absolutely nothing could have prepared me for the overwhelmingly positive reception of being Jamaican in China! Wherever I go, heads turn, jaws drop, eyes widen, gasps are uttered (yes, I actually heard a gasp while at the Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou; I thought those only happened in comic books!) Cameras click, people stop what they are doing, look, ogle, point, and then move on, smiling and talking, having had a little distraction from years of seeing only Chinese features and flesh day after day.
Yes, being Jamaican (euphemism for “Black”) was an adventure all to itself!
There is no way for me to adequately convey to you how constant the attention is. If you’re Black and accustomed to disappearing into the anonymous crowd in whatever city you happen to be, you can just forget about doing that in China! Want to pick your nose? Be careful, somebody’s watching. Struggling to eat with chopsticks? You’ve just entertained the ENTIRE restaurant, staff, as well as the people outside walking by who’ve now stopped and gathered simply to stare. Practically every single person turns to look. From Shanghai to Suzhou to Hangzhou to Wu Xi to Beijing, to Kunming to Xishuangbanna to Hainan….”It don’t matter!”
Some will say “Hallo” and engage in small talk to practice their English. Some will reach out and actually touch you as they walk by. Others will ask where you are from. Some will want to take photos. It simply does not stop.
Oh, and speaking of being Jamaican, most people here in China now know about Jamaica’s Usain Bolt and his Olympic accomplishments. So, being Jamaican adds another level to my celebrity and the comfort level of strangers to approach me. From the Immigration counter woman who smiled broadly (almost giggling) while questioning my stay in China, to the store owner at a shoe store who started running in place right in the middle of the mall to mimic Usain Bolt’s performance, there is a bit of a benefit being born a yaad! (“yard” = Jamaican slang for Jamaica; i.e. home)
LESSON LEARNED: Now, being Black in Asia is not for everyone. If you don’t like being the center of attention when you walk into a store; if you get nervous being followed around the streets by ogling families; if you are offended by people coming up to you and asking to touch your skin or your hair; if you would prefer that girls not approach you and ask to be your friend or lover, then this is not for you. The boundaries of “personal space” as westerners define it, are often not recognized in China as an example. If, when you travel, you simply want to disappear into the anonymous crowd, you’ll have quite a difficult time doing that being Black in Asia. It’s almost like being a celebrity. There’s always someone watching. It can get overwhelming. My own opinion, however, is that it’s something everyone should experience at least once in a lifetime! Hey, you never know, you might like it, and actually get used to it!
4. “Mom, I want to date a Jamaican in China…So, guess who’s coming to dim sum?”
So speaking of being a celebrity, the next logical question is “how’s the dating scene in China?”
Well, I’ve found no shortage of foreigner-friendly femininity in China. But, the challenge is, how do you as a foreign male, differentiate the understandably foreign-curious female from those who might be interested in dating? Well, you’ll thank me for this, I went out and got some advice from a Chinese male friend who grew up in China and now lives in the states:
According to my friend, Jian:
- In Chinese culture, bodily touch between opposite sex (except lovers) is considered indecent, while touch between the same sex is normal, which is different in the United States of America. So the first sign of anything beyond a friend is the willingness of light touch, usually very quick, such a snap of your shoulder, or a knock on your arm.
- Find out if she is willing to go out with you alone, but not activities that she does daily, like going to the pub, eating in a restaurant, or shopping. The Chinese girl who gave you that advice was right. These daily activities might give the girl a sense that you are not a “special” friend. Invite her to a hike (only you two), and see how she responds.
- Does she call you with some flimsy pretexts? She wants to see you more, but she does not want to get hurt if you reject her right away if she says so directly. So she might use some pretexts to protect herself.
- Is she comfortable going to a party with you? Showing up with you in front of her circle of friends is a good indication that she is taking you as a special person.
5. “China is a such cosmopolitan place, don’t you think?”
That’s not a statement you hear too often in relation to China. It’s safe to say though, that in my six months there, I met more people from different countries than any place else. I met and befriended people from Taiwan, Norway, Russia, Myanmar, France, Italy, Germany, Nigeria, The Philippines, Ghana, Australia, Singapore, Hong Kong, America and even Guyana! China itself, is like a land of mini-countries. Chinese themselves will tell you: Shanghainese are not like Beijingers and so on. The dialects, world views are all different. In any event, I’ve now got friends in places all over the world whom I can now visit!
The only place, in my limited travels, that comes close to being so cosmopolitan is the island of Saipan, which hosts the most eclectic mix of nationalities one can squeeze onto an island 13 miles long by 5 miles wide.
LESSON LEARNED: In China, you can find and befriend people from all over the world!
CONCLUSION: Well, those are just some of the things that stand out in my mind about my recent trip abroad to China. Some days I reflect on that adventure, and sometimes it seems surreal, but I’ve got the photos, the friends, and blog posts as eternal documentation of the one of the best decisions I ever made…to go abroad to China!
A graduate of Columbia University, and originally from the island of Jamaica, Walt F.J. Goodridge is a former civil engineer who walked away from his career to follow his passion for music, writing, and helping others. He has been an artist manager, record label owner, inventor, poet, network marketer and consultant, and even radio dj. Walt now lives a nomadpreneur’s life somewhere in the world…..and blogs about it in his award-nominated blog, “Jamaican in China!”