Happy new year

Home visits me

In October my parents visited China. They are around 70 and have never travelled outside of Europe, apart from a trip to Canada to visit relatives. So, this is a big thing. I put a best-of-Yunnan programme together and get to experience China through the eyes of first-timers.

They had many preconceptions, some of them undoubtedly quite negative. Because they are old enough to remember Mao’s Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution and the Cold War. This combined with current news about China being half and half about either human rights activists disappearing or serious environmental issues. Imagine their surprise at finding a hospitable and mostly quite cheerful people who are more than happy to show them around and help them during their journey through Yunnan. After three weeks of backpacking from Kunming to Dali, Xizhou, Jianshuan, Shaxi, Lijiang, Shangri-la and Beijing they go home with lots of stories but alas still not able to eat with chopsticks. I travel with them for a few days and enjoy the Autumn festival moon watching at Linden Centre. We even see a comet crashing to earth, surely an auspicious sign for the year ahead.

Another highlight is staying in Jianshuan. The owner is a friend who I met during a previous trip. She runs a boutique hotel in a beautifully restored historical Bai mansion. She makes my parents feel extra welcome by taking them along to a sky lantern event. Furthermore she surprises us by landing us in the middle of a huge dinner party at a woodcarving masters house and finally by inviting all of her family over to the hotel for beers. It is great to see my parents again after a year and a half away.

I visit home

In December I went to The Netherlands, a year and nine months after I left. I was excited but also a bit apprehensive about going home. Would it be very emotional? Would it be super cold? Would the Amsterdammers be extremely rude to me in traffic? All of my worries evaporate as soon as I am on the plane. I spend a week and a half catching up with friends in Amsterdam. Nothing much has changed, only my friends’ and siblings’ fast-growing children show that time doesn’t stand still. Everybody is busy with work, kids, projects.

In China I like looking at the West with Chinese binoculars. While I am in Amsterdam I enjoy the distance to reflect on China, and on my life in China. As happy as I am to be in Amsterdam I am just as happy to return ‘home’, to go back to China. I missed the excellent food and weather, I missed the friendly and curious smiles, I missed the social life on the street, I missed how cheap everything is, I missed the challenge and the daily discoveries of an exotic language and culture, I missed my emerging friendships with like-minded people. I liked talking about China to friends and family, and especially Yunnan and Kunming, which I am proud to call my home now.

Happy new year

I leave 2017 and enter the new year feeling grateful and optimistic. I am glad I decided to take this year-long time-out in China, instead of going straight home to my old life in Amsterdam. Today I feel a lot more positive about returning to Amsterdam than I did half a year ago when I was in deep emotional turmoil. The dust has settled, I am happy and focused and I see a lot of professional and personal possibilities, in The Netherlands and in China. I don’t know where ‘home’ will be a year from now, but whether it is in Kunming or in Amsterdam, it will be a good place for me.

Happy new year everybody, 新年快乐.

Amsterdam fireworks
Amsterdam fireworks

 

It’s not you China, it’s me

Like many laowai I have come to China to work. I have also come here to have a closer look at this fascinating country of natural wonders, ancient traditions, ultramodern technology and rapid economic rise. China is exhilarating and never boring. I could stay here and study forever and not know everything there is to know about it, and not see everything there is to see. It is too big to ever fully grasp. The sheer size is just one of the many aspects that I find fascinating. China can never be painted with a broad brush.

Yet, this is exactly what many of my fellow laowai do. I hear a lot of foreigners complaining. About the hacking and spitting, about letting small children pee in the street, and even about curious Chinese people who approach them for a friendly chat. I don’t understand how this can ever be offensive? This is just people going about their everyday business. I never feel as if someone is deliberately trying to be annoying. If anything people go out of their way to be helpful and friendly. The sociability is actually one of the things I will miss when I leave.

Pee pee
Pee pee

There are of course some things I also find deeply annoying. For one I will never get used to the traffic. Big SUV’s have the right of way over smaller fry. They will cut me off on my bicycle when they turn a corner, without indicating and while talking on their phone. This is infuriating. Another thing I find hard to swallow is the lack of strategy and management in my company, which I suspect is common in other Chinese businesses as well. This means I receive different orders every week and they don’t always make sense. It is hard to have a conversation about this with the management. But even in these cases, where it is definitely inconvenient for me, I do try to understand this is not because China is out to get me. My Chinese colleagues and fellow road users suffer from this as much as me.

China is challenging at times. However I never feel the need to blame China for my struggles to understand the language, the people and their customs. If I have a difficult time it’s not because China is wrong, it’s because I don’t understand enough. It’s not you China, it’s me.

Planning ahead

As it is I understand so little it is hard to build meaningful friendships outside of the usual expat circle (which I am not really interested in, see the previous mention of moaning). So, I have made a tentative plan. The idea is I will keep studying Chinese until the end of my contract June next year. Then I will cycle home in about 3 or 4 months, visiting friends in Georgia, the Balkans and the rest of Europe on the way. I will settle back in Amsterdam, to reconnect with friends, family, and work. I will keep up my study of the Chinese language, and later hopefully return. By that time I should be able to connect better and have better job prospects, for instance with the wonderful Linden Centre. Because despite our differences, I do love you China.

The last few weeks I have reconnected with friends and family. This has also made me long for home more than ever before. My parents came to visit which was great, and I am glad they got to see how and why I live here. They were happily surprised by the modernity and friendliness of contemporary China. I am pulled between my home in Amsterdam and my new life here. Time will tell how this will balance out. For now it is back to my Chinese study and my books about Chinese culture. The best company any occasionally lonely laowai could ever wish for.

Recommended reading

This is my current reading and study list:

Please feel free to leave your suggestions for Chinese language and culture books, websites and apps in the comments. 谢谢!