There was a brief period of time when I thought I might remain in China forever. That occurred during my second year of teaching at Hainan Island’s eponymous provincial key university in Haikou, the capital city and arguably the best place to live in China.
At that time I was engaged to a Chinese girl and, during the early stages of that relationship—despite the occasional miscommunication—we were generally happy with each other and life was good. My students and colleagues were extremely satisfied with me and I with them. Even the University’s foreign affairs office and my department’s administration uncharacteristically (for Chinese) voiced pleasure at how well things were going. Due to the relatively low cost of living in China (back in 2005), I also knew that whatever monies I had saved back home would last me a lifetime in China. How quickly things can change in the PRC.
Less than six months later, I knew that I would leave China as soon as it was advantageous for me to do so (basically, as soon as I could land an appropriate position in another country with conditions I knew would be far superior, i.e., in any developed country where English was spoken).
In March of that spring semester, I was verbally invited to stay on at the University at the same terms, to which I readily and happily agreed. Three months later, once the University officials knew that it was too late for me to find other employment in China, they presented me with a written contract stipulating 20 percent more work for the same salary. I objected adamantly to their dishonesty and refused to agree to anything other than the same terms I had started with two years earlier (the terms we had agreed to verbally just two months prior). I called a cousin in California and made tentative arrangements to move in with him in San Francisco on a temporarily basis if I had to. Just one week prior to the current contract’s expiration date, they dropped their demand for the additional hours and agreed to the same terms as before but with an enormous sense of anger and resentment. Much to my amazement, they acted as if I had held them up instead of the other way around.
As I look back on it now, I realize that that second renewal period at Hainan University was a turning point for me in China. It was at that time that I had no choice but to accept that I would always be an unappreciated and unwelcomed outsider in China. That is not to say that a licensed Western mental health professional with over 30 years of clinical and academic experience isn’t desperately needed in China (we are, far more than the Chinese can and will admit)—but it became obvious to me that I would never be wanted, not by the very people who signed my checks. Trying to stay where you are neither wanted nor appreciated is never a good (or healthy) position to place yourself in. It was at that time that I decided to stop making excuses on behalf of my Chinese hosts for what was terribly inappropriate, even dishonest behaviors. Related, two months later, I ended my year long relationship with my fiancée. In the end, between the tremendous language barrier, the enormous cultural differences between us, and the persistent disapproval of her family, I felt we would both be better off. I knew I could not live out the rest of my life in China and I also knew she could never leave her family behind or adjust to life in the United States.
In 2006, I met and fell in love with a Filipino teacher while vacationing in Hong Kong. We would marry one year later, which turned out to be both a blessing yet also an unforeseen impediment to moving back to the States (or even to another foreign country) on a moment’s notice.
In 2008, after four years there, I left Hainan Island with regret and sadness to accept a position at Jinan University’s International School: a position that had been offered to me a year earlier but at unacceptable terms. In would take an additional two-and-a-half years of making plans and visa arrangements before I could leave China on my terms with both my wife and dog.
Fast-forward to January 2011. Just days before I left China, my boss, the dean of Jinan University’s International School took me and my wife out for a very nice luncheon as a way of expressing his thanks for five semesters of teaching. Towards the end of the lunch, in a very somber tone, Dean Tang asked me to honestly tell him what my “most negative and positive” impressions were of China. He stressed that he wanted me to give him an honest answer. I think we were both surprised by how quickly I answered. My immediate response was that at no time, in more than seven years, did I ever feel truly welcomed or appreciated in mainland China. I was forever, quite literally, the lǎowài (Chinese word meaning "old outsider” that is used to refer to foreigners). If I had to come up with just one reason why I finally decided to leave China, this would be it. (For those who are wondering, my most favorable impression of China centered entirely around the genuine friendships that I made with several of my students and colleagues.)
My second reason for leaving China centers around a history of chronic upper-respiratory infections in the context of a very poor and corrupt healthcare system. Basically, owing to the presence of terribly unhygienic conditions in mainland China, I was sick the entire time I lived in-country. Far worse is that due to the proliferation of adulterated antibiotics, I can no longer take amoxicillin or azithromycin ever again. I am very angry about this and, for this reason alone, I am very sorry that I ever moved to China. Next month I will have to undergo two to three hours of endoscopic nasal surgery so that the otolaryngologist can remove more than seven years of built-up infection and scar tissue as antibiotics are no longer an effective treatment for me.
My wife also came away from China with a very unpleasant souvenir: the bacterium Helicobacter Pylori. Just two months before we left Guangzhou, my wife was diagnosed with a 2cm long peptic ulcer, courtesy of the contaminated streetside food stalls she used to eat at. She is still taking antibiotics and an antacid for this disease and will have to go back to the hospital for a third follow-up gastric endoscopy next month. It seems to me that if the communist regime invested as much time and money in protecting its people as it does in controlling them, China might not be a bad place to live and work (for Chinese anyway). Right now, between the ubiquitous air pollution, public spitting, coughing, urination, and crotchless panties (in lieu of diapers) on babies in restaurants and other public places—especially in the absence of any real enforcement of public health and safety regulations—China is a terribly unhealthy and unsanitary place to live. Living out the remainder of your life in China, will—on the average—shorten it by five years as compared to living in the United States.
Finally—and while this is last, it is certainly not least on my list of reasons for leaving China—I grew unimaginably homesick over the years. Even after one thinks he has successfully adjusted to China’s major cross-cultural challenges—for a Westerner who isn’t fluent in Chinese (or married to a Chinese national)—day-to-day life in mainland China is emotionally and physically exhausting. Virtually no one speaks English, most food items in their grocery stores are unrecognizable (and labels unreadable), and one has to pay four to six times the fair U.S. retail price for a taste of home (due to punitive import duties). Sometimes, just to alleviate the homesickness, I would actually find myself fantasizing about walking around Publix Supermarket (a major U.S. grocery store chain) and I hated grocery shopping.
Western entertainment is limited to downloading movies and music from the Internet, buying poor quality pirated DVDs (which Customs will confiscate when you leave the country), or dealing with unscrupulous satellite pirates (Communist Regime doesn’t allow foreign cable and satellite companies to sell real subscriptions in China—the Chinese might start thinking for themselves).
Related, tasks that are logistically simple and that we take for granted back home are remarkably complicated in China. Whether it is cashing a check (China has, arguably, the most primitive and unreliable banking system in the world), paying a bill, buying a train ticket, ordering a container of drinking water—it doesn’t matter—the Chinese have figured out a way to complicate the logistics of the most mundane matters beyond recognition and belief.
In great part this can be explained by the fact that most Chinese operate from a mindset of mistrust (i.e., if I can be cheated, I will be cheated) so many “steps” are added to protect themselves against being cheated and deceived. But it’s more than that I think. There are too many unnecessary layers of bureaucracy in China. Low-level administrators unnecessarily complicate matters so as to justify their existence and also because they have been given a modicum of power and control in a society where most people have none. (I believe this also explains why China has the highest rate of motor vehicle related deaths per capita in the world: out of sheer frustration over the powerlessness in their lives, everyone drives like he is the emperor.)
I’ve been teaching in the United Arab Emirates now for about three months and it is difficult for me to describe how wonderful it is to be living in a rich Westernized country again after having endured life in a developing communist country for so long.
All signage is written in English first and Arabic second, and English is the country's official language of commerce. Consequently, everyone here can communicate functionally in the English language and in a country where 89 percent of the residents are foreigners (mostly from Asia, Europe, and the U.S.), English language proficiency is an absolute necessity. I can walk into any grocery store and recognize virtually everything on the shelves (or I can freely read the labels of those items I don’t recognize). I had almost forgotten what a deli department looks like and how wonderful it is to be able to (once again) order a pound of Swiss cheese "sliced extra thin."
I am relieved to be living in a part of the world where the physicians are highly qualified and the medical technology is cutting-edge (a pressing concern for people at my age). Every morning, when I open my front door, I have a copy of the International Herald Tribune (the international edition of the New York Times) waiting for me with my cup of coffee. I feel I am back in civilization again (the Herald Tribune is not available for delivery in mainland China, only Hong Kong).
I can’t describe how great it is to be able to buy personal electronics and Western goods again with confidence (at 75 to 80 percent of the cost in China), knowing that what I am buying is real and not some fake knockoff that will fall apart or burn up in six months (I went through eight “Grade A fake” computer motherboards in China over a seven year period). I can watch real television again, with real legitimate and legal equipment (including a cable receiver with a built-in digital recorder), without having to deal with dishonest satellite pirates and—owing to the fact that the entire capital emirate of Abu Dhabi is hardwired with fiber optic capability—my Internet connection is much better here than what I had back home before I left the States. My current Internet capability is a blazing 30mbps/3mbps. This means I can download the latest episode of my favorite drama or sitcom in just a few minutes.
Many have asked me if I miss China. The sad but true answer is that there is absolutely nothing at all that I miss about China outside of a few personal and professional relationships. From a Westerner’s perspective, the only thing that China has going for it is the widespread availability of low-cost personal and domestic services. Body and foot massages, haircuts (for men), and household maid, cooking, and cleaning services are dirt cheap in mainland China, even relative to salaries paid to foreign teachers. I truly suspect this is a major reason many Western men stay on, year after year, living in what are otherwise extremely adverse conditions (that and also because, as I can personally attest to, it’s not so easy to move back home after living in China for years, especially if you have a foreign wife. It took several thousand U.S. dollars and months of planning and legwork to move from mainland China just to the UAE. After I arrived and received my residency permit, I still needed a "letter of no objection" from the U.S. embassy in order to apply for my wife's visa, which wasn't approved until two weeks later).
Aside from being surrounded by real Western amenities and the creature comforts of home again, it is really nice to be living in a country where I am not only appreciated but treated like a VIP (as are all American and European senior managers and professionally-degreed people). I respect the fact that the Emiratis go through a great deal of trouble to authenticate a Westerner’s credentials. All supporting documents must be legalized by a government body and contain an Apostille (official authentication) from the UAE embassy. In all the years that I worked in China, not once did any government or private employer check my credentials. For all they knew, that digital copy of my degree that was sent by e-mail could have been Photoshop’d. Not once in more than seven years did anyone even ask if they could see the original diploma or transcripts.
It’s not that the Chinese don’t have the resources or technology to verify credentials or conduct criminal background checks: The truth is, they just don't care. It's an ethnocentrically contemptuous stance: Any White face who looks the part and can reasonably complete the work will suffice. (Much to my wife's chagrin, this is how I buy clothes, i.e., if it looks okay and fits reasonably well, it will do. After all, one pair of pants is as good as any other and they all look the same to me anyway.) Owing to the UAE's painstaking, time-consuming, and costly procedures for verifying the credentials of their foreign faculty, it’s truly wonderful to have a real peer group of professional colleagues again.
For me, having lived and worked in mainland China was not a total loss. I acquired a degree and quality of patience I wouldn't have previously thought was humanly possible. I now smile and even laugh at situations that would have provoked anger in the past (especially in regard to incompetent and unknowledgeable service and wait staff, which are common daily occurrences in mainland China). I also developed a deep appreciation for how truly blessed I am to have been born in a developed Western country. Never again will I take the simplest of pleasures in life for granted and I have mainland China to thank for that. If you had told me eight years ago how grateful I would later be to once again have a real kitchen with a real oven and stove, I would have politely smiled and thought to myself that you were crazy. What an indescribable relief and pleasure it is to live in a country again where labels actually mean something and can be trusted.
It’s true what they say: You don’t know what you have until you lose it... and I'm not just referring here to ovens and cable TV. I am referring to a way of life and, in particular, an ethical and moral mindset about how people should regard and treat each other.