Just over ten years ago, on the eve of my 20th birthday, I arrived in Beijing without a return ticket back to the United States. All I knew, vaguely, was that I wanted to go somewhere far away and do something personally challenging for a year or so. So I applied for a leave of absence from college and embarked upon what would become one of the biggest adventures of my life.
I wasn’t completely alone in China; an old high-school acquaintance had opened an English teaching company in order to capitalize on a high demand for language education in the lead-up to the 2008 Olympics. I offered my friend, John, to help get the company off the ground in whatever ways I could. Robyn rounded out the third member of our little team, and we set to work building up the company.
Soon I found myself in the midst of interviewing English-speaking teachers to come to China, negotiating contracts with schools in mandarin Chinese, and trying to create a life in a world so far from my own. At that time, Chinese natives who spoke English were a true rarity. My partners and I had never felt so isolated. We quickly learned that we had to socially distance ourselves from our twenty-odd employees for the sake of professionalism, despite the fact that many of them were older than us.
I lived with John, and we fell into a ritual of Japanese food from the local restaurant and cheap pirated DVD movies / TV shows from America each night. It was the only time we were able to hear and speak English; the only time we could speak freely with a friend.
It was a trial, to be sure. Beijing is bitterly cold in the winter, insufferably hot in the summer, but absolutely gorgeous for a few weeks in spring. There were moments of true magic during my stay in China. Connecting with a student and sharing stories from our respective home towns. Seeing the trees bloom. Finally understanding what the cabbies were saying.
The hardest part of the job was the complete lack of predictability. There are all the normal stresses that go along with running a small, scrappy startup. But then there are the cultural stresses of operating in an environment that treats a “contract” more like a “suggestion,” and places greater value on “face” and “connections” than “skill” and “execution.”
One day, just a couple months in, one of our employee teachers was hit by a car. John and I sprinted out of the apartment to the scene, knowing that a cab would take longer and our employee did not speak much Mandarin. We arrived to a confused gaggle of police and a growing crowd of onlookers, curious to see how a white woman was involved with the whole thing. Somehow, between our broken Mandarin and wild gesticulating, we managed to untangle the situation and get everyone home safely.
By far, though, the strangest encounter I ever had in China happened few days after I landed. It was the time we thought we had been kid napped. We were attempting to secure a deal with a new business parter, who owned a series of schools and educational TV programs throughout China. This particular businessman had something of a reputation of being a fast talker and rather shady dealer. When he invited us to come with him for an evening fishing trip one Friday, we didn’t know what to do but accept — despite the fact that none of us had ever really fished.
It turned out that wasn’t much of a problem, because the fishing trip wasn’t much of a fishing trip. Our earnest guide picked us up in his new black Audi and took off towards the mountains like a demon, screeching around tight mountain turns while passing other cars in a way that can only be described as taunting death. Several hours into the drive, the evening fishing trip was starting to become a little suspicious.
When our cell phones lost service we didn’t think too much of it, but four hours into the drive we we starting to wonder what was going on. Finally, the businessman pulled over at a tiny little shack in the side of the mountain.
At this point, I honestly cannot remember what was going through our minds. There was nobody around for miles, no fishing holes to be found, and no way to contact the outside world. If anything, the conversation in the car had only made us more suspicious of our host. Cultural and linguistic barriers turned the relatively benign (albeit unexpected) “you will be sleeping here tonight” into something far more sinister.
It didn’t help that the first activity we embarked upon when reaching the mountain cabin was to be sent “exploring” into a dark cave. To this day, I’ve never seen such total, utter darkness. The mind has trouble processing such a state. We’d try to take a step and have nothing to go on but the feel of the ground. Reaching out with our hands, we’d bump into each other and walls. Our phones had long since died, leaving us with no makeshift flashlights.
But when we came out the other side, we found a beautiful view. I think that’s the moment the three of us decided to give in and just go with whatever happened. Employees of our host began to show up, and soon we engaged in the serious art of getting totally and completely drunk with business colleagues.
For those who have never experienced drinking in a Chinese business context, it is something of a strategic art. There are rules to toasting (placing your cup lower shows respect, which you always wish to do) and being toasted (you must always drink, otherwise it is disrespectful). However, the seasoned businessmen know to go on the offensive: once having toasted another, the toaster is no longer subject to further toasts from the recipient. The objective of it all? To stay sober enough to make a decent business deal. There are also covert strategies, like backwashing a mouthful of liquor into the “chaser” of water, or beer into tea.
Of course, I knew none of this at the time. Having just turned twenty, the extent of my drinking experience was at American fraternity parties. Thankfully, I am big, and Americans drink a lot. So I had that going for me.
Still, I woke up the next day with quite the hangover. “Bai Jiu” (literally: white alcohol) is a high-proof favorite in China which generally tastes awful, but gets the job done. Unfortunately, whatever negotiations we arrived at never came to fruition. Fortunately, we did make it back to society again in one piece (reckless driving notwithstanding).
And that’s just one of the many crazy experiences I had in China. Many months later, when I took a group of our employee-teachers on a trip to southern China, my Mandarin had finally improved enough that I could act as something of a translator and partial guide (with the assistance of others). But by that point…. it all just felt, well, normal.
Somewhat later during my year in China, I walked into the bathroom, haggard from too little sleep and stressing over whatever the crisis of the day was. I looked into mine own sunken eyes in the mirror and… smiled. The face I saw looking back at me was not the one which had I had worn from America.
When I finally returned to the United States in August of 2008, I still had not turned 21 years old. I returned to the University of Southern California as a Junior to finish my education. Suddenly, everything that had once felt so normal felt… strange. It was hard to tell which reality was the fiction.
I spent hours just talking to sales clerks because they spoke English. I remember that the incoming freshmen that year had been born in 1990, and suddenly, for perhaps the first time in my life, felt old. I could no longer relate to many of the trivialities of college life, while at the same time, the distance I had gained gave me all the more appreciation for them.
In the following year, I would go on to meet my first serious girlfriend, start my first truly successful company, and travel to a dozen other countries. China had changed me in ways I’m still coming to grips with today. It instilled in me a resilience and confidence, tempered by the humility of knowing that I was always the outsider and the “slow one” in the room.
When asked then what I thought of it all, my response was “it was the most interesting year of my life that’d I’d never want to do again.” In fact, though, I’ve since found that I’m not happy unless I’m pushing myself. Maybe I’d never want to repeat that exact year in China, but I would take a million other challenging experiences like it if they offered something new to learn.