From 6 Months to 6 Years and Counting
After taking several assignments as part of the international faculty with the United States Sports Academy, and after having a tough start to 2015, I decided it was time to try life abroad if I could find a good opportunity. I had already been to Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Korea, and Russia, but those were short term assignments, so I had never really considered them as living abroad. (Sorry Canada … although I spent three years playing ice hockey, I don’t consider that living abroad, because I can get the same things in Canada that I can get in the US. China is coming dangerously close, too, now that Chengdu has Taco Bell, and you can find most anything on Jing Dong or Tao Bao.)
I didn’t imagine I would find many opportunities, so, when an international training center from Shenyang responded to my uploaded CV, I jumped at the opportunity to come to China.
I mentioned a tough start to 2015 as a motivating reason for wanting to leave the US and here is that story: Starting the new year, I was pretty psyched. I was finally a head softball coach at a small college in the northwest, and our second season leading the program was about to begin. But that all came crashing down rather quickly. I was dismissed from my coaching job before the first pitch ever hit the catcher’s mitt, and that same night, while coming home from meeting a high school friend I hadn’t seen in decades, my car was side swiped by a drunk driver. In less than 24 hours, my life was turned upside down rather quickly. No job and my car, a newer Ford Focus, was a mess. On top of that, I was splitting a house with a married couple, two friends; they often drank until they were drunk, argued non-stop, and once I lost my job, their attitude towards me turned rather negative. I hung on for a while, but work was elusive at best, especially around the Seattle area, and I soon found myself back home in Phoenix.
The job market there wasn’t any better for a coach and teacher, and I had all but given up when, one evening, I stumbled across an employment listing on Craigslist that simply said, “Come teach in China.” There were not a lot of job details, other than possible salary markers and an email address to send my CV to. After thinking about it for a day or two — you always want to be careful with so much widespread identity theft issues — I decided to try and see what would happen. They immediately responded with an invite to an interview that evening, and I quickly agreed. We talked about 30 minutes that night, about the school, the teaching position — I couldn’t believe my ears when they said they wanted an American PE teacher who could teach baseball to Chinese children in Shenyang, (I knew absolutely nothing about China outside Beijing and Shanghai) and even took the time to interrupt the music teacher and a few others to introduce me too. I went to bed that night wondering what I would say if they offered me a position. After all, because of the rough start to 2015, I had other issues looming as well, a car loan and student loans had fallen into arrears, and even Wal-Mart and McDonalds turned me down — can you imagine? Life was pretty chaotic at that time; I wasn’t even on talking terms with my children.
I didn’t have long to wait for an offer from the school. The following morning when I awoke, I checked my email and there it was, an offer to teach in China. I couldn’t speak Chinese, heck I didn’t even know what Ni Hao or Xie Xie meant when I got off the plane, but I wasted no time in applying for a visa through Visa Rite. And two weeks later, I was on a plane to Las Vegas, for a connecting flight to Shanghai, then on to Shenyang. It was the eve of Halloween, and back home, two days before Dia De Los Muertos, an even bigger celebration in Phoenix when I landed in Shanghai. I was at least familiar with the Pu Dong airport having taught a seminar there two years before, but the strangeness of China and life abroad struck me as I wandered the airport waiting for a late-night flight to Shenyang. That flight was delayed, again and again, until finally they took us to a nearby hotel, I was one of three people that spoke English, and the last to get a room that morning, a room I’d occupy less than two hours before we were ushered back to the airport for a flight that wasn’t due to depart until later that afternoon. I remember thinking, why even take us to a hotel if we weren’t going to stay there any amount of time? I managed to find an earlier flight with one available seat left, and by 10:00, I was bound for Shenyang.
During the final descent, I remember looking out the window of the plane and seeing the ground covered in white. I grew up in Alaska, so I quickly recognized the snow blanketing the land around the airport, and having lived in Canada for three years, I vaguely remembered how much I hated the cold chill of winter. When I left Phoenix, it was early in the morning, but the sun was already high, and the temperature had already soared into the high 70s on the way to 90 as a forecasted temperature, and here I was now, caroming out of the clouds to a frigid looking place below. I was aptly dressed in khaki shorts, a t-shirt, tennis shoes, and a light jacket.
That afternoon, I toured the campus, met some of the faculty, then it was off to lunch at Pizza Hut before they would take me to Wal-Mart (I thought Wal-Mart is in China too?) for a winter jacket and some winter clothes, and then to my new home.
A week passed without internet. Luckily, I had a DVD player, very little food, and each morning I was met at the gate of my community and whisked off to training for my new job. Little did I know, that new job was going to change drastically before the middle of December.
So, I survived the first few weeks, experiencing my first ever hot pot, where I saw someone eat pig brains, my first induction into the Chinese culture with traditional dances and songs, and Christmas was quickly approaching. But I didn’t feel comfortable at all in this strange but exciting place, and when I finally got the opportunity to speak with my daughters, I told them both, just six months, that’s all its going to be, six months. I’d save a little money, then I could go back home.
I told you my job would change drastically, and by 20 December, the news was out, I was no longer teaching PE or baseball, noooo, I was now an English teacher! Say what? I hated English in school. Now I knew for sure that six months would pass, and I’d be back home just in time to thaw out under the hot desert sun, watching a little baseball, and kickin’ by the pool, an ice-cold IPA being the closest I’d ever get to winter again.
Six months soon passed, and I was laid up in my Chengdu house with a broken ankle. Yes, I said Chengdu. After six months in Shenyang, I still hadn’t saved any money, so leaving wasn’t an option, so instead of finding something new in Shenyang, I was introduced to a job agent, who connected me to a school in Chengdu. I was actually liking it in Sichuan province now, had even found a second part-time job, and finally, I was beginning to save money, and I still keep up that good habit today, something I didn’t do so much back home. So that was change one I experienced and having been a thrifty but un-saving person I was before, I liked being thrifty but also a money saver now.
My one-year anniversary in China passed the following November and surprisingly to me, I had survived and grown to like China, especially Chengdu. I had good friends, was often busy between two jobs, and now I was remarried to a Filipino woman I had met while there in 2013. That was change number two. Following a messy divorce back in the states in 2001, had anyone ever told me I’d get married again, I would’ve laughed at them. Little did I know this marriage wouldn’t stand the test of time either.
Following my second divorce, I met my first Chinese girlfriend, and although we are no longer together, we remain good friends. I traveled a bit as well, to Chongqing, Nanning, back to Shanghai, Beijing, Harbin, but Chengdu remains my home away from home. I’ve made some really good friends and even flirted on and off with a serious romance or two, and finally, I started to learn the language. I can still only say words and not many at a time, language wasn’t big when I was in school, so I find it difficult to retain what I learned, but that hasn’t stopped me from trying.
I have survived a lot — another divorce, a car accident that nearly cost me my life, and if I were to view China in only that way, I’d have a very dim view of this place, but so much more has happened to me and it changed me immensely. Today, my sixth anniversary has just passed, I’ve been here so long my daughters have stopped asking me when I will come home, and if I bring it up, they both just sigh, and mutter “yeah, right dad.”
So, how has living and working abroad changed me? Well, for starters, a lot has happened since I first stepped onto Chinese soil six years ago. We’ve had a president in the US that turned a lot of foreign peoples and governments against the US, and in many ways, America has become an unrecognizable country to me now. When I think of the US, I no longer think of it as home anymore because it just doesn’t feel that way now. I suppose you could say the United States has become the “Hotel California,” such a lovely place … what a nice surprise, bring your alibis.
I think living abroad has opened my eyes a lot to notice that the US isn’t exactly what its hyped up to be. And then there is COVID-19. Welcome to the disease of the week. As the first cases were coming to light, I was in the US and rushed to get back to China despite living just downriver from Wuhan at the time (or is it upriver?). COVID-19 has become the new normal for us all, and someday soon we’ll have to learn how to just accept that and learn to deal with it, but it’s changed how and why we travel now, and more importantly, where we travel to.
Of course, I will return home someday, but I don’t plan to stay or live in the US, and in fact, thinking ahead, I am looking at opportunities in other places now, such as Singapore or Dubai.
I have also learned that as a Laoshi (teacher), I am capable of teaching just about anything now. Back home, I was licensed as a PE teacher and softball coach but coming to China allowed me to discover teaching talents in English, history, American literature, and more (except for math or science).
I’ve learned to value those around me too. I think Americans in large part don’t understand how to value another person fully, and throughout my time in China, where I started out only depending on myself or my western friends, I have now learned to value my Chinese friends, including the lady that I live with now, who shows great care and concern for me each day, but alas, she is Sichuanese and sometimes prone, like I am, to not thinking as well as bouts of uncontrolled rage. Okay for the sake of saying that, let me quantify my rage: I used most of that up on various hockey rinks scattered around the US and Canada, but I am still prone to tripping over my own words a time or ten. And finally, as I get closer to ending my story, I have learned that in life, what we possess isn’t as important as the people we have in our lives every day and the opportunities we have to change a life, one person at a time.
Living abroad in China has changed me tremendously. Gone are the freedoms we take for granted in America, but really, they haven’t been taken away from us at all. Some daily activities we had have been altered to some degree, while others remain, sometimes hidden from direct view, and I think what we all can learn from living abroad, or let’s be specific, living in China, is that the world may have changed before our eyes.