Guest Post: Gaining a “Chinese Family” While Teaching English in China

Sometimes the family you discover in China isn’t the family you married into. It’s the family you create through meaningful connections. That’s the story Josh and Liz of Career China have to share in this guest post.

Do you have a story about your Chinese family or other guest post you’d like to share on Speaking of China? Visit the submit a post page to learn how to have your words featured here.
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Swirling my chopsticks around in the giant pot of boiling oil and spices, I make a feeble attempt to snag a piece of thinly sliced beef floating about. Finally I catch one, but that’s the easy part. Now I must have confidence in my shaky chopstick skills to get it out of the pot and into my bowl of sauce, then into my mouth without dropping it on the table…or my shirt. After my success in this seemingly minor act, my husband and our Chinese hosts, CJ and Gigi, cheer and hold up their glasses of wine for a toast. “To good friends from around the world, China and the USA!” our new friend CJ proclaims. But for us, the relationship is more than just friends, it feels more like we have a Chinese family.

How Did We End Up In China?

My husband and I arrived in Guangzhou, China back in 2014. The previous year we had decided that we weren’t satisfied with our old lives in the United States, even though we had good jobs and a comfortable middle-class lifestyle. The two of us always had a passion for exploring the world, not just traveling and seeing the sights, but interacting with the local people and learning about the culture.

We realized that we weren’t fulfilling this passion with only a few weeks of vacation each year, so we made a plan to save up some money and then sell everything to hit the road for a while. Setting off in August 2014, we spent time in South East Asia as well as New Zealand before ending up back in Thailand for TEFL training (teaching English as a foreign language). Our plan was to be able to stay longer in a country by working as English teachers, that way we could really experience the culture more closely and for a longer period of time.

Shortly after finishing our month-long program, we began searching for teaching opportunities. Knowing that China has such a massive market for English learning, and such an interesting ancient culture, we set our sights on finding a job in China. And we were surprised how quickly it all happened — within a matter of weeks, we were flying to China!

Our “Chinese Family”

When we decided to move to China, we had absolutely no idea what to expect. And now as we look back on our time here, we can’t imagine not having our “Chinese family” in our lives. We were really fortunate to make good friends during our time in China, including Gigi and CJ, who are a Chinese couple that run an English school and have a little daughter. We also became great friends with another expat, Stephen, who is from England and had been living and working in China for many years; he has a Chinese wife, Wendy.

One of our fears about living in China was that we would feel isolated or lonely without close friends and family. But we’ve discovered that it has been the opposite. Our social calendars seem to always be full. And while we also had some other expat friends who were teaching in China also, we spent a significant part of our time with CJ, Gigi, Stephen and Wendy.

But it wasn’t only for fun. Our “Chinese Family” was there for us when we needed them. Whether it was helping to solve problems with our bank account, getting our internet upgraded in our apartment, or talking to the landlord to fix a wall. They would help translate and take us through the process. If we were sick, they brought us medicine and even food. And when I broke my foot, they were there to take me to the hospital for check-ups. They have been like family to us in just about every way!

Alike, But So Different…

Whenever we travel and meet people from around the world, it’s interesting to note the similarities and differences. In many ways, our “Chinese family” was just like us. Young couples who talked a lot about their futures and their dreams. They discussed their apartments and what they loved about them, and what they wished they could remodel. We all spoke fondly of our childhood and families, but also vented about frustrations with our parents.

But at the same time, we also came from very different backgrounds and had quite different family situations. With my husband and I both being from the States, we discovered just how fortunate we were to have fun-loving childhoods with minimal pressure. We also began to appreciate how we were able to choose on our own who we wanted to marry, without much input from our parents. But in Chinese culture, the parents are quite involved in match-making. And for our Chinese friends growing up, there was a lot more pressure on the children to do well in school and get good jobs.

Another area that we discovered a difference was in our desire to travel freely and not worry about having children. In fact, whenever people in China found out I was married, they would immediately ask about children. Not that they were intending to be rude, they were just curious how I could travel if I had kids. And when they found out I didn’t, they wanted to know why.

In China, children are expected almost immediately after marriage — and in the States, many people are happy to enjoy themselves with their new spouse for some time before they consider having kids. It’s also perfectly acceptable if people choose not to have children in the States, while that’s not really the case in China. If a couple is married for some time and don’t have kids, people will start to think something is wrong.

It was definitely eye-opening to chat with our Chinese friends about the subject of family structure and children. We could see that they wanted to make their parents happy, and that there were expectations of them when it came to having kids. While we didn’t feel like they were unhappy with these expectations, we could feel that there was maybe some pressure on them. Gigi and CJ were happy to have their daughter, but they were also planning to have a second child — and Gigi kept saying how she really was praying for a son, so she could make her husband happy. Personally, we know CJ would be happy with either a son or a daughter – he is a great father. But but deep down, we knew that there was a cultural aspect to this pressure to have a son too.

Oh the Memories!

Because of our “Chinese family” we were able to experience so many things that many other expats may not have been able to experience. For example, during Chinese holidays we felt like we got an inside scoop about the holiday from our friends, and were even be able to participate in special family activities. In fact, one of our best memories of our time China was during the Spring Festival holiday (Chinese New Year). We were invited over to Gigi & CJ’s apartment to cook homemade dumplings, which is an important tradition during the festival.

We made everything from scratch together, even mincing the meat with big cleavers! While the men chopped the meat with lighting speed, Gigi, Wendy and I were out on the large patio rolling the dough and chopping vegetables. Then we all handmade what seemed like hundreds of pork stuffed dumplings!

I discovered quickly that making dumplings is not as easy as it looks…in fact, mine were downright ugly! Our friends also told us how we needed to put little “surprises” in some of the dumplings for good luck, such as a big garlic clove or a pepper. Then if a person bites into it, they should have good luck in the next year!

It sounds like a fun little game, until later when you are eating them and somehow manage to be the only person not to find a “surprise” until you’ve eating about 15 dumplings and your stomach is about to explode! “Come on Lizzie,” Gigi told me “you have to eat another until you find one so you can have good luck next year!”

In addition to spending time with our friends over other holidays like the Dragon Boat Festival or Mid-Autumn festival, we also enjoyed having fun with them at sporting events. CJ was a huge football (soccer in the States) fan, and the local professional team, the Guangzhou Dragons, was actually one of the best in the country. So they purchased us tickets to go to a couple local games, where we all wore our jerseys and cheered loudly for the local team. We also enjoyed sporting our jerseys and playing football together in the park on pleasant evenings, or going to a local bar to watch the team play while having a few drinks.

Being a huge sports fan, my husband was really excited to have a local friend here in China who enjoyed sports just as much as him. And he was really excited to learn more about football and have a team to cheer for. Growing up in the US, he was more into American football, so he has definitely developed a new appreciation for the international football game that is so popular everywhere else in the world.

Bringing the World Together, With Open Hearts

We really couldn’t imagine our experience in China without our lovely local friends. From sharing their special holidays with us and letting us experience it with them, to making us feel at home, and even taking care of us when we needed them. It has been the ultimate cultural exchange, and something we never could have experienced if we didn’t take a risk to move to China to live for a while.

China has been great to us, and it’s not just our “Chinese family” — we’ve made so many other friends and met many other people who have touched our hearts. Never again will we see this country the same way. And that’s the point. To bring the world together by opening our hearts to each other and learning about one another.

Liz and her husband Josh have been living and traveling around Asia since 2014. Currently they split their time between the USA and China, working on their travel blog and assisting those who are interested in living and working in China through their project Career China.
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Speaking of China is always on the lookout for outstanding guest posts! If you have something you’d like us to feature, visit the submit a post page for details — and then submit yours today.

“Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside” by Quincy Carroll – An Interview

Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside

Ask foreigners in China what they do for a living, and chances are you’ll hear a common answer – teaching English.

I’ve done it before. Most of my friends here have too. In fact, it’s such a prevalent gig for foreigners in China that you might even call it a rite of passage.

But anyone who has taught English in China also knows there’s a dark side to the profession.

During my first year teaching in China, this one white American guy who had signed on to work for our program never showed up and placed us all in jeopardy. (I later discovered he was a hard-core alcoholic.)

Later in Hangzhou, I bumped into a white American guy on a Hangzhou bus who confessed his secret for getting English teaching jobs – lying about his credentials. He smirked about how he had hoodwinked schools in China into believing he actually had a college degree, even though he was only a high school graduate.

Egads.

It’s hard to believe that I could actually inhabit the same profession as those two guys. But it happens, more than we’d like to talk about.

For writer Quincy Carroll, this is the stuff of a great novel. In this case, his new novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside.

Up to the Mountains and Down to the CountrysideSet in the rural town of Ningyuan, Hunan Province (where Carroll himself actually taught English as a volunteer), the story centers on the clash between two white Americans — deadbeat Thomas Guillard and the idealistic Daniel – and the young Chinese student who gets caught between them. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is a thoughtful look into the experience of being a foreigner in China, as well as the good, bad and the ugly of teaching English.

It’s my great pleasure to introduce you to Quincy Carroll and his new novel Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside through this interview.

Quincy CarrollHere’s Quincy’s bio from Goodreads:

Quincy Carroll is a writer from Boston, Massachusetts. After graduating from Yale in 2007, he lived in China for three years, where he taught English and worked as a copywriter. He currently teaches Mandarin in Oakland, California. His debut novel, Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside, was published in November 2015 by Inkshares.

You can learn more about Quincy and his new novel at his website. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is available on Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this site.

As a bonus, Quincy has an original song from the novel that you can hear at Soundcloud. (It’s the song Daniel performs in Chapter 12 for his students at the English competition in the school gymnasium.)
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What drove you to write this novel?

I arrived in China with quite a bit of uncertainty; I’d just quit my job in finance, and I was looking for direction. I didn’t know how to define myself. One of the first things I noticed was that there were a lot of other expats in the same boat—people of all backgrounds and ages, looking for some type of purpose. What I found most interesting, however, were the different ways in which people handled said uncertainty. For the most part, the volunteers in my cohort (I served through a program named WorldTeach) were gracious and curious when it came to interacting with people from another culture, but there was another group of foreigners (Westerners, especially) that seemed to view everything in China as beneath them.

That was really what spurred me to begin brainstorming a plot for the novel. I understand that Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is far from the first story to examine the questionable influence of Westerners in Asia, but given the massive influx of foreigners in China over the past several decades, I believe it’s a timely, important tale worth retelling.

How did you conceive of Guillard?

Again, I was astounded by the number of “arrogant, lewd and racist” people I met when I touched down in China. Similarly to other characters in the book, Guillard is an amalgam of numerous expats I had encounters with over the course of my time abroad. I have been surprised since the novel’s release by how many readers have written to ask if I based the character on so-and-so from such-and-such a province, most of whom I’ve never met and most of which places I’ve never even been to before. Just goes to show how prevalent the archetype is.

I’ve also had many people ask me whether all Westerners in China are “that bad.” I’d like to state that I met some of the most thoughtful, kind people while abroad. I hope the story avoids coming off as an indictment—it’s more of a critique.

How did you conceive of Daniel?

I’ll just say it to get it out of the way: Daniel is the most autobiographical character in the book, although I’m sure that surprises no one. His struggles with questions of identity and purpose were written as a form of catharsis, but I took inspiration from additional sources as well (both literary and personal). I like to think that there is a bit of John Grady Cole in him, but that’s probably an overestimation of my writing. Fellow volunteers from the WT China program will probably be able to pick out aspects of Daniel’s personality that were drawn from their own or those of others we knew. In the end, a writer’s primary source of inspiration is almost always direct experience—what’s fun is that you get to play with the details you’re given and turn disorder into art.

One example of this in Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is Daniel’s appearance: long, dyed hair, sleeve tattoos and gauged ears. Now, as far as I can remember, I didn’t meet anyone who looked like that in China, but just like Guillard’s deformities, I chose to give him these characteristics to add an external layer to his personality: in this case, a young man who has gone off the beaten path and is desperately trying to stand out. Another reason I think this worked is that, as a foreigner in China, you’re constantly under the attention of others. I was trying to capture some of this in Daniel’s outlandish physical appearance, but maybe it was just hyperbole, more than anything else.

What are some of the greatest challenges of teaching English in China?

I held two very different positions when I was in China that I believe are common among expats. Both are touched upon in Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside. As I’ve already mentioned, I volunteered in the Chinese countryside for two years via a Western NGO. Resources were scant, enthusiasm among our students was mixed, and aside from a modest stipend we received each month, payment was non-existent. For me, one of the biggest challenges was maintaining a sense of commitment throughout the year when it felt like we were there more because we were foreigners than because we were dedicated teachers. I certainly took the job seriously, but at times I wondered if anybody—my students, the administration, fellow teachers—cared about what I was doing. I collected grades my first semester in town, for example, only to find out that they were never included on my students’ report cards.

When I lived in Changsha, the provincial capital, several years later, I tutored high-school students from affluent families who were willing to pay through the roof for an American teacher. Since I had graduated from Yale, rates were even higher than expected, and even though I came prepared to each lesson, it was hard not feeling at least a little extortionary. Once again, my status as a foreigner made me uncomfortable, but I was in need of money and trying to support myself as a writer, so I didn’t say anything.

During the second half of that year, I started working for a local consumer tech company, and in addition to my copywriting duties, I ran a class in Business English every Monday. That was undoubtedly the most satisfying teaching experience I had in the country, as my colleagues genuinely wanted to learn. Most of them were in customer service, so they had to use the language every day.

What do you want people to come away with after reading the book?

More than anything, I hope that readers come away from the novel with a greater sense of humility and the ability to see themselves as part of a larger, globalized world. In addition to that, I hope the story makes them feel somewhat uncertain of who they are. I know that probably sounds a bit strange, but I’m a staunch believer that many of the greatest evils in our world result from one thing: an overinflated sense of self-importance. As the U.S. and China continue to challenge each other on the world stage, I hope that stories like Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside continue to remind us that we’re all lost in this together.

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Thanks so much to Quincy Carroll for this interview! You can learn more about Quincy and his new novel at his website. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside is available on Amazon.com, where your purchase helps support this site.

As a bonus, Quincy has an original song from the novel that you can hear at Soundcloud. (It’s the song Daniel performs in Chapter 12 for his students at the English competition in the school gymnasium.)